The United Nations and Curbing Corruption Today

Julia Vogl  "Happy Valley"  from the Jungle-of-Concrete/Moongate series, Hong Kong, 2015.

Julia Vogl "Happy Valley" from the Jungle-of-Concrete/Moongate series, Hong Kong, 2015.

At the core of the global anti-corruption movement is the goal to secure the basic rights of all of all people and ensure a world where everyone can live in dignity. This is also a core driver of the United Nations. But, for 50 years the U.N. was silent on corruption. Today, the U.N. is an increasingly active advocate for anti-corruption.

Presentation by Frank Vogl, April 26, 2016.


It is a great pleasure and honor to be with you today. I am delighted that some of my colleagues from The Partnership for Transparency Fund are with us today – they have long been involved with the very dynamic and effective U.N. Association of the National Capital Area here in Washington DC.

In 2014, a 7 year-old girl was raped in Zimbabwe. Her parents went to the police to call for the arrest of the rapist, but nothing happened. He had paid-off the police. The parents went to the Advocacy & Legal Advice Center (ALAC) of Transparency International where their case was pursued and, after senior officials were called in, the rapist was finally arrested. He was jailed and he died soon afterwards of HIV/Aids. Yes, there was justice, but that girl today has HIV/Aids.

I believe that at the very core of the United Nations is the challenge of human security. This applies to cross-border wars, to civil wars, as well as the security of the individual. No individual is secure when languishing in terrible poverty. And when the police are easily bribed and indeed extort bribes every day from the poor. At its core, the anti-corruption civil society movement across the globe strives to create a world where every individual can live a life of dignity. Corruption is an assault on humanity.

The most basic consideration that I want you to recognize at the outset this afternoon is that in countries where violence is great and where the security of the vast majority of the population is under constant attack, then you will always find that corruption abounds. In nations where there are no protections for human rights, where basic freedoms – of speech and assembly – are constrained – then too you will find widespread corruption.

Corruption is a cause and contributing factor to wars and human insecurity. Given this fact, there can be no question that concern with corruption should feature prominently and consistently on the agendas of the United Nations and its affiliate organizations.

The Core Issues This afternoon I want to talk about corruption in the context of the abuse of public office for personal gain. This, fundamentally, takes three forms:

  1. Abuse of office for self-enrichment.
  2. Abuse of office to accumulate and to keep political power.
  3. Abuse of office to pursue extortion, including the demands for sexual favors from women and girls for the most part over whom the office holder wields power.

I want to talk briefly about each of these aspects of corruption. To start with, however, I want to provide some background and then, at the conclusion of my remarks, I want you to consider a request.

For more than 50 years the United Nations was silent about corruption.

In the late 1990s, then Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed an informal initiative to bring business, government and civil society together to debate 9 key issues, from the environment to human rights to poverty. He proposed a Global Compact as the forum for such dialogue. No sooner has he made the proposal, but some of us approached him and argued that the 10th issue on the agenda should be curbing corruption. He agreed, but noted that this posed a difficulty because he had no mandate of any kind on the topic from the UN General Assembly.

The topic, however, was to shoot like a canon blast into the core of the U.N. building in New York when, at about this time, reports spread of massive bribery and kick-backs associated with the management of the U.N. food-for-oil program with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that was started in 1995. The U.N. established an independent commission of inquiry under Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal reserve Board, which eventually released a devastating report.

Meanwhile, by 1996 and 1997, the World Bank and the IMF, as well as many other aid and multilateral institutions, had all publicly announced that for the first time they would make anti-corruption a core priority in their development work. At the same time, in late 1997 to be accurate, the OECD agreed upon an international Anti-Bribery Convention that made it a criminal offense for a multinational corporation to bribe a foreign government official – the Convention’s terms mirrored those of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that came into existence in the US in 1978. That Act stood alone, while German companies and others could deduct their foreign bribes from their taxes. The OECD agreement ended that and set the stage to create a level playing field for big international corporations.

Against this background and under Annan’s leadership the painstaking work was pursued to forge a United Nations Convention Against Corruption – UNCAC. The General Assembly approved a resolution in support of UNCAC in October 2003 – it entered into force in late 2005 and today 140 countries have ratified it.

Goal 16 & Civil Society

A further important step was taken a few months ago with the adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals by the U.N., which came into effect this January and includes Goal 16 that covers justice and corruption. I believe that the U.N. can and should provide leadership to ensure that Goal 16 becomes a meaningful guidepost for action by all governments and a stimulus to all international development aid agencies to be far more effective in their work to promote justice and anti-corruption.  i am encouraged that today's U.N., leadership recognizes this and I am hopeful that this will be a priority for the next Secretary-General.

I do not believe that the progress made at the U.N. and the World Bank and at many other organizations to raise awareness of corruption and to focus programs to reduce corruption would have happened without consistent and effective international civil society pressure.

Frustrated with the failure of aid agencies to do anything about corruption, a few of us in 1991 and 1992 got together to plan the first international anti-corruption non-governmental organization. We launched in 1993 and called ourselves Transparency International. I had the honor of serving as Vice Chairman for TI’s first nine years and I remain deeply involved with the organization. Today, we have national chapters in over 100 countries. We have citizen advice centers in more than 50 countries. We have a global secretariat based in Berlin, Germany, with about 160 staff. We continue to be leading advocates for justice, for accountability and transparency.

Moreover, in the late 1990s, we recognized that there was great need for civil-society directed specific anti-corruption projects and for this purpose we established the Partnership for Transparency Fund. It is registered in the U.S., it is quite independent from TI, and in its 15 years it has been involved in promoting and developing projects across the developing world. It is an almost totally voluntary organization, attracting more than 80 retired World Bank experts as project advisors.

Three Core Aspects of Corruption

This takes me to the three aspects of public sector corruption that I noted earlier.

First, the abuse of public office to get very rich. For the last 20 years TI has published an annual Corruption Perceptions Index and every year we find that some two-thirds of the world’s nations receive high scores suggesting extensive abuse of public office. Corruption is indeed very widespread, from the office of former governors in Chicago to the Kremlin today, from the oil ministries in Nigeria and Angola, to the Communist Party leadership in China, from the helm of governments in Brazil, Ukraine, South Africa and Mexico, to almost every aspect of political life in India.

The “Panama Papers” contain vast amounts of information to highlight the issue. Illicit financial flows may amount to over $1 trillion a year. The scale of corruption and money laundering that goes with it results all too often from collusion between political leaders and organized crime.

But, as I have noted, another aspect of corruption relates to efforts by those in power to extend and expand their power. We see this most vividly in authoritarian countries, but also in serious wars. Under dictatorships a key means by which leaders hold power is to find many ways to steal vast sums from the national treasury and to disperse those funds through the ranks of public officials and the military to buy loyalty. Putin does this in Russia, Mugabe does it in Zimbabwe and Chavez did it in Venezuela.

In cross-border wars the demand for control, for political power goes with the urgent needs for funds to buy arms and strengthen military forces. The U.S. Government has poured staggering amounts of cash over the last 13 years into Afghanistan and into Iraq – the tens of billions of dollars simply disappeared. The more we used funds to try and buy security and establish political support, the more we inadvertently undermined old systems, undermined public trust and increased corruption. The reports by the US special inspector generals for Iraq and for Afghanistan are harrowing reading.

Moreover, as we see clearly in Afghanistan, the linkages between political power, corruption and a vast opium trade involving criminal networks is illustrative of the problems that need to be forcefully addressed. Criminal networks and corrupt public officials work together in many countries to create what amounts to a more a violent and unstable world. Nowhere does this find more explicit expression than in the context of financing terrorism – the terrorist organizations need to work with criminal groups to secure their logistics and arms, while they bribe officials to cross borders and smuggle bombs.

My third point relates to the abuse of public office to extort, especially from women and girls. Imagine, the plight of Rose, a girl from the poorest background who managed to get into university in Nigeria and whose professor demanded cash in return for giving her a passing grade – as she had no cash, he demanded sexual favors. Rose left the university and her hopes of a better life for herself and her family vanished.

What happened to Rose happens to millions of young women. Consider Hoda, a mid-level office worker in a municipal government in Lebanon whose contract needed to be extended and where the head of the municipality demanded sex in return for signing a new contract. Hoda secretly filmed the episode and was brave enough to expose the official. But in most countries, women dare not speak about such abuse, their cultures may not accept their complaints and turn upon them – moreover, in many countries the laws only cover corruption that relates to the exchange of cash, not sex.

Courage and Intimidation Our fight against corruption is complicated and it is long. Civil society will continue to lead. Across the world in TI we have people of staggering conviction and courage - from Russia to Venezuela to Honduras and Zimbabwe our colleagues risk their lives and their freedom to build support for accountable government.

So in conclusion my request to you. The more civil society is effective in fighting corruption and in promoting human rights, liberty and democracy, so the more corrupt leaders strive to fight back – they intimidate, they curb freedom of the press, they jail journalists and activists and sometimes they kill them. The scale of repression of this kind is increasing today.

We must find ways – and there is no better place than under the U.N. umbrella – to demand far greater action by all sensible governments and official institutions to ensure that the space for civil society is not further constrained and that far more is done, from Turkey to Mexico, to demand basic freedoms. I encourage you to mobilize young people to campaign for actions at the national U.S. level and at the broader U.N. level to oppose the increasing moves seen in many countries to censor the press, to jail journalists and to intimidate all those in civil society working to build a world where every individual can live a life of dignity.

Thank you.