Corruption in Kurdistan: Implications for U.S. Security Interests

Since the rise of ISIS, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been a vital U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS. The KRG is in many ways a unique sub-state, created through U.S. intervention following Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, and preserved in the new Iraqi constitution through Article 137, which grants the KRG a degree of autonomy.  Yet Kurdistan is plagued by corruption common to governments that, like the KRG, are heavily reliant on oil and gas revenue. Of the hundreds of millions dollars produced by the oil and gas industry in Kurdistan each month, only a portion reaches the actual Kurdish economy. Kurdish officials have tried to combat this problem to some degree, but oil revenues continue to “leak” from official channels to foreign advisors and government ministers. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that the KRG government, while nominally a democracy, is dominated by two tribal-familial groups, the Barzani and the Talabani, and the government actually resembles a hereditary dictatorship more than a parliamentary democracy, with the Barzani family in particular controlling the presidency, prime minister, and head of the region’s security forces through direct familial ties. In fact, current president Massoud Barzani has been serving without a democratic mandate since 2013.

KRG corruption is not just a concern for the Kurdish people, but a real security threat for the United States, for two main reasons: Continue reading

Some Encouraging Signs from the Recent White House Statement on Global Anticorruption

A couple of weeks ago, the White House published a “Fact Sheet” on the U.S. Global Anticorruption Agenda. Though I don’t normally ascribe all that much importance to documents like this — they’re mostly for PR, after all — there were a few things about this particular release that caught my eye, and that I found fairly encouraging.

Perhaps most notably, although the release includes some obligatory–and deservedly self-congratulatory–discussion of the U.S. leadership role in enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and pushing for stronger enforcement of anti-bribery laws through the OECD Convention, most of the Fact Sheet focuses on what many in the anticorruption community have emphasized as important, cutting-edge issues that go beyond traditional anti-bribery law, including:

  • Asset recovery and anti-money laundering as a top priority (including the recognition of the need to close loopholes in U.S. law and strengthen international cooperation in this area);
  • Closely related to this, the Fact Sheet emphasizes the importance of preventing the abuse of anonymous shell companies–including a discussion of recent regulatory initiatives on this front that we’ve noted elsewhere on this blog.
  • A special focus on the extractive sector
  • Emphasizing the importance of engagement and cooperation with the private sector, in particular the announcement of an intention to develop a “National Action Plan to promote and incentivize responsible business conduct, including with respect to transparency and anticorruption, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.”

Of course, concrete action matters more than high-minded general statements, and I know many in the anticorruption activist community have reasonable concerns about whether the U.S. is prepared to do what it takes to make good on these pledges. Still, one must give credit where credit is due–not only to the U.S. government, but to the civil society activists and others that have succeeded in changing the conversation about global anticorruption in ways that are reflected by the White House document.

One other quick thing to note about the Fact Sheet: At one point it declares that the U.S. government “will hold responsible governments that tolerate or commit corrupt practices in contravention of international norms, including by adjusting our bilateral relations and advising our businesses and investors accordingly.” It’s not clear what, exactly, this means. Maybe it means nothing significant. But if the U.S. is serious about “adjusting [its] bilateral relations” with countries that tolerate or contravene international anticorruption norms, that might actually represent a significant departure from past practice. After all, though the U.S. routinely condemns corruption, I’m not aware of any cases in which another country’s failure to adhere to anticorruption norms has had broader collateral consequences for U.S. foreign policy toward that country. Again, maybe this doesn’t really mean much–what does “adjusting” relations mean, anyway?–but it would be interesting to see whether the U.S. (or perhaps some in the U.S. who had a hand in drafting the Fact Sheet’s language) want corruption concerns to start to play a role perhaps more similar to concerns related to human rights abuses.