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Impunity for grand corruption – a problem too big for international community to ignore

What should we talk about when we talk about corruption at the UNGASS 2021?

Photo by David Blackwell on Flickr

Mats Benestad

Mats Benestad is a Norwegian diplomat and currently the Deputy Head of Mission at the Norwegian Embassy in Reykjavik. Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Norwegian MFA.

In recent years, and especially since the Panama Papers in 2016, there has been growing evidence of how individuals in high-level positions around the world have been able to enrich themselves at the expense of the public they were elected to serve. This illicit enrichment takes place with the help of cross-border networks of accountants, lawyers, anonymous companies and banks. In most of these cases, the origin of the undocumented wealth cannot be explained by anything other than grand corruption.

Grand corruption is one of the biggest threats to sustainable development. It is difficult to see any other crime resulting in more victims globally. The fact that corruption involving vast quantities of assets and political leaders too often go unpunished indicates severe loopholes in the current international anti-corruption framework.

Next year, the first-ever UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) against Corruption will be held in New York. In a recent TOAEP Policy Brief, I analyse the current legal framework and argue that this high-level meeting provides an important opportunity to take the required next steps to tackle grand corruption globally.

What’s missing from the current framework?

The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) from 2003 is the only legally binding international anti-corruption treaty with a global scope, and it has contributed to establishing robust legislation and institutions to prevent and combat corruption in many countries around the world.

However, the UNCAC does not contain any specific obligations related to grand corruption.

Considering the numerous recent grand corruption scandals in countries that have implemented UNCAC, specific obligations related to grand corruption would be an important improvement of the legal framework.

These changes to the international legal anti-corruption framework must take into account the unique circumstances investigators and prosecutors face when pursuing investigations implicating political leaders. It must also acknowledge and address that kleptocrats often enjoy impunity for grand corruption because the national judicial systems are unable or unwilling to hold them accountable.

Photo by Davi Mendes on Unsplash

Proposals on the table

The Presidents of Colombia and Peru – countries with a history of internal corruption-related challenges – have emerged as high-level advocates in the global fight against grand corruption. They introduced the resolution that established the Special Session against corruption and jointly called on states to consider an international anti-corruption mechanism.

When countries that have experienced challenges in taking on grand corruption at the national level introduce an idea to establish an international body to support states, it is only reasonable that such a proposal is thoroughly analysed and studied by the UN membership.
Mats Benestad

Although there are solid arguments in favour of moving towards defining grand corruption as an international crime and establishing an international court to support prosecutions, as Colombia and Peru have been calling for, such an initiative also has its counter-arguments and opponents.

Transparency International has recently detailed a range of possible alternative solutions to address grand corruption when countries themselves are unable or unwilling to pursue them, including:

  • regional anti-corruption courts;
  • international or regional anti-corruption prosecutors or enforcement agencies;
  • international or regional investigative agencies;
  • ad hoc international anti-corruption courts;
  • ad hoc international prosecutions or investigative functions.

To tackle the problem of impunity for grand corruption, members of the international anti-corruption community are actively thinking about reforms to international justice institutions. There is currently a unique opportunity to pursue a “big idea” ahead of the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) against Corruption in 2021.

Addressing impunity for grand corruption: what are the options?

UNGASS 2021 can be a game-changer

Next year’s high-level meeting provides an opportunity for the world leaders to collectively take a stand against grand corruption.

I see three main ways the UNGASS 2021 can achieve that.

1. Adopt a strong political declaration

The UN membership should recognise grand corruption as a serious global challenge and potentially as an international crime.

The “concise and action-oriented political declaration” expected to be adopted by the UN Member States will highlight international anti-corruption priorities for years to come.

One chapter of the political declaration should be dedicated to grand corruption. It should give an honest description of the problem and spread awareness about what it actually constitutes, how it affects the people and undermines the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

It should also stress that impunity for grand corruption cannot continue and that enforcement measures are needed to support states in achieving justice.

2. Establish a working group to recommend international mechanism

Taking into account the inability or the lack of willingness of Member States to prosecute grand corruption, it is time to explore possibilities to supplement and support national efforts.

And while the topic is still considered sensitive within the UN, an extensive review of proposed solutions – with the involvement of international criminal law and anti-corruption experts – would pave the way for a feasible and effective mechanism.

UNGASS 2021 should establish a working group to study the possible solutions and make recommendations for addressing impunity for grand corruption through international anti-corruption mechanisms.

Such a working group should consider, among other proposed solutions, the establishment of an international anti-corruption court through an additional protocol to UNCAC or the extension of the International Criminal Court’s mandate through an additional protocol to the Rome Statute.

3. Endorse anti-corruption experts’ recommendations

Concrete actions to prevent and combat grand corruption should not only rely on the future efforts of a potential working group.

International experts have already analysed the various drivers and enablers of corruption that involves vast quantities of assets and have made concrete recommendations to prevent and combat the phenomenon.

UN Member States could already at the 2021 Special Session endorse the recommendations issued in the Oslo Statement or use them as the basis for operational recommendations to prevent and combat grand corruption.

No time like now

With less than ten years until the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals deadline, it is high time to scale up global anti-corruption efforts and to help ensure that funds intended for education, healthcare and other critical services are used for their intended purposes rather than to enrich those in power.

While a stronger focus on curbing corruption at the highest level of governments could meet opposition among a few UN Member States, it is difficult to see any real argument for opposing obligations that aim to prevent and counter grand corruption.

Reluctance to focus on the most serious forms of corruption has nothing to do with political ideology. It is about protecting the self-interests of those in powerful positions.
Mats Benestad

When world leaders come together to adopt a political declaration on anti-corruption, we must expect that they jointly address the type of corruption that involves the political class.

If UNGASS 2021 agrees to concrete measures to prevent and combat grand corruption, it could have a transformative impact on our societies and help us get closer to achieving our shared Sustainable Development Goals.

This blog post is based on the article Let Us Get Serious about Grand Corruption: An Indispensable Priority for the 2021 UN General Assembly Special Session published by Torkel Opsahl Academic EPublisher (TOAEP).

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