The Importance of Public Relations in the Fight against Corruption

It’s long been recognized that public relations (PR) is a crucial tool in the fight against corruption. (For a recent exposition of that argument on this blog, see here.) This recognition is codified in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), Article 13 of which requires state parties to “[u]ndertak[e] public information activities that contribute to non-tolerance of corruption, as well as public education programs,” and Article 6 of which calls on state parties to “increase[e] and disseminat[e] knowledge about the prevention of corruption.” Governments fulfill their UNCAC obligations in a variety of ways, and examples of anticorruption public awareness campaigns are as diverse as they are numerous. A famous example of how PR can be used effectively comes from Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, which spends millions of dollars annually on thousands of workshops to educate public employees and private citizens about the effects of corruption and how to combat it. New York City has likewise deployed large-scale educational programming with similar success. In addition to government-run campaigns such as these, multilateral organizations such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and NGOs like Transparency International also regularly engage in efforts to raise public awareness around corruption issues (see here, here, here, and here). These campaigns deploy tools as varied as video, music, and drawing to convey their anticorruption messages.

Critics sometimes contend that these PR campaigns consume scarce anticorruption resources that would be better devoted to investigation or enforcement efforts. This criticism is misguided and shortsighted. Of course a badly-designed PR effort can waste resources. Yet effective anticorruption PR helps accomplish several goals that other, “harder” anticorruption measures are incapable or ineffective at achieving on their own:

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Who Owns a Bribe? And Why It Matters

A public servant who accepts a bribe can do with it as he or she pleases. Put it in a bank, sell it, give it away, or even bet it at the roulette table.  What if the bribe-taker is caught, though, and government wants to recover the bribe?  Does it matter what the bribe-taker did with it? It does, and greatly, especially for large bribes stashed in another country — precisely the cases the U.N. Convention Against Corruption addresses.

Article 57(3) of the convention requires the state where the proceeds of a bribe are discovered to return them to the state seeking them if the requesting state “reasonably establishes its prior ownership” of the bribe. If the recipient stashed the bribe in Singapore, the United Kingdom, or another common law country, the requesting state is in luck. If, on the other hand, it was squirreled away in a civil country, the requesting state is likely not so lucky.  It all depends upon the quirky national laws governing who owns the proceeds of a bribe. Continue reading

Corruption Damages: Options UNCAC Offers Mozambique to Recover “Hidden Debt” Losses

Mozambique continues to suffer from the “hidden debt” scandal, loans a U.S. indictment alleges employees of Credit Suisse, Lebanese shipbuilder Privinvest, and others foisted off on it for dodgy projects through bribery.  Damages include not only the several billion dollars that, thanks to accrued interest and penalties, the government now owes on the original loans of $2.2 billion, but the enormous harm caused by a halt in donors’ disbursements and the resulting slowdown in growth when the scandal was revealed. The whole sorry affair could cost the people of Mozambique upwards of $10 billion, a staggering sum for a country with a total GDP in 2017 of little more than $12 billion. 

Fortunately, Mozambique does not have to absorb the loss. As party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the government can directly recover much if not all of it through article 53.  Article 53(a) requires the other 185 Convention parties to grant it the right to file a civil action to recover property acquired through the offences defined in the Convention.  Article 53(b) directs the other 185 to establish procedures permitting their courts “to order those who have committed offences [established in accordance with the Convention] to pay compensation or damage” to another party injured by the offence.  

Based on the allegations in the U.S. indictment, Mozambique could likely initiate or prompt proceedings to recover assets or recover damages in at least six nations, all parties to UNCAC: France, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Indeed, thanks to a precedent setting decision by its highest court, Mozambique civil society might itself be able to recover damages in a French case independent of any action by the Mozambican government.  

These options were discussed at a May 14 conference sponsored by the Centro de Integridade Pública.  They are elaborated on in this follow up paper I prepared for CIP after the conference.   

Why the WTO Should Tackle Border Corruption

When a state systematically fails to suppress bribery in its customs service, should that be an actionable violation of international trade law? More broadly, to what extent do anticorruption provisions have a place in the law of the World Trade Organization? In a 2014 post on this blog, Colette van der Ven squarely addressed these questions and concluded that the answer is no: the WTO, in her view, is not well suited to handling complaints of corruption.

I disagree with Colette’s well-reasoned analysis. While she is right to point out substantial challenges to grappling with anticorruption through the WTO, these challenges are surmountable—and the importance of a WTO remedy counsels in favor of surmounting them. Continue reading

In Memoriam: Dimitri Vlassis (1959 – 2019)

The international fight against corruption lost one of its most steadfast and determined warriors with the passing in early April of Dimitri Vlassis, Chief of the Corruption and Economic Crime Branch of UNODC’s Division of Treaty Affairs.  Many in governments, international organizations, and civil society who, over the last two decades, enlisted in the fight against corruption will immediately recognize the loss. They will have fought in the trenches with Dimitri at some point during these years in the long-struggle to draft, ratify, and implement the UN Convention Against Corruption.  For recent recruits, who had yet to meet or hear of him, it is sufficient to say that he served as Secretary of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Negotiation of a Convention Against Corruption during the last, critical phase of the negotiations and was, at his passing, Secretary of the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention.

UNCAC represents the collective efforts of many of the world’s citizens, and a monument to their efforts would credit hundreds if not thousands.  But surely at or near the top Dimitri’s name would feature prominently. The true measure of his contribution to global welfare, however, is the continuing difference UNCAC is making to the lives of people everywhere.  For this we can all say, as UNODC Yuri Fedotov did in his note of condolence, “Thank you, Dimitri.”

I know all those in the global anticorruption community will join in expressing their condolences to Dimitri’s widow and two children.  With permission, Director Fedotov’s condolence note is below. Continue reading

Presidential Power Grab: Corruption and Democratic Backsliding in Mongolia

Mongolian democracy is in trouble. On March 26, President Khaltmaa Battulga proposed emergency legislation that would grant the presidency unprecedented powers to dismiss members of the judiciary, the prosecutor general, and the head of the state anticorruption agency (the Independent Authority Against Corruption, or IAAC). One day later, parliament approved this legislation by a vote of 34-6 (with 36 members of parliament either absent or abstaining), despite the fact that President Battulga hails from the Democratic Party (DP) while the rival Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) controls parliament. Technically the law doesn’t grant the dismissal powers directly to the president, but rather to a three-member National Security Council (NSC) composed of the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, and an oversight body called the Judicial General Council. But President Battulga dominates the NSC and personally appoints the members of the Judicial General Council, giving him effective authority to remove Mongolia’s judges and chief law enforcement officials at will. Sure enough, promptly after the law was passed, Battulga dismissed the head of the IAAC, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general.

This new legislation, a crippling blow to Mongolian democracy, has its origins in corruption, and corruption is likely to be its effect. President Battulga induced parliament to grant him such extraordinary powers by claiming that he alone can really take on Mongolia’s severe corruption problem. In his statement to parliament introducing the new legislation, Battulga alleged that the country’s law enforcement leaders were “part of a conspiracy system” that “fabricat[ed] criminal cases with a political agenda” while covering up others. The president pointed to Mongolia’s numerous unresolved corruption scandals to argue that the institutions of justice were “serving the officials who nominated and appointed them” rather than the public, and he argued that reducing the independence of the judiciary, the prosecutorial apparatus, and the IAAC would make those institutions more responsive to the popular will to fight corruption.

President Battulga is correct when he asserts that Mongolia has a corruption problem of serious, perhaps epidemic, proportions. Mongolians regularly list corruption as one of the country’s biggest issues (second only to unemployment in a 2018 survey) and political institutions such as parliament and political parties as among the most corrupt entities. The past few years have been especially scandal-plagued. During the 2017 presidential campaign, all three candidates faced accusations of corruption; most egregiously, the MPP candidate—who, until January 2019, served as speaker of the Mongolian parliament—was caught on video discussing a plan to sell government offices in a $25 million bribery scheme. Further, late in 2018, journalists discovered that numerous politically-connected Mongolians, including somewhere from 23 to 49 of the 75 sitting members of parliament, had been treating a government program designed to provide funding for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a personal piggy bank, taking out over a million dollars in low-cost loans. Beyond these scandals, Mongolia’s poor enforcement record compounds its corruption problem. For example, in 2015, only 7% of cases investigated by the IAAC resulted in convictions, and in 2018 public approval of the IAAC reached an all-time low.

But is there any reason to believe that President Battulga is right that giving him greater personal control over law enforcement and the judiciary will lead to less corruption? All the evidence points to no:

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At Last: An UNCAC Handbook

Thanks to Oxford University Press that gaping hole in every anticorruption practitioner’s library has now been filled. With the publication of The United Nations Convention Against Corruption: A Commentary, those looking for authoritative guidance on UNCAC no longer need to sort through the voluminous literature the convention has spawned: UNODC guides, StAR publications, academic commentary, and international and municipal court decisions.  Editors Cecily Rose, Michael Kubiciel, and Oliver Landwehr have, with help from 35 other experts on international law and corruption, done the work for them.  In one volume they summarize the law and learning on each of the convention’s 71 articles.

The Commentary is much more than a digest of UNCAC’s voluminous source materials, however. Continue reading