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UNGASS 2021 ignores the grand corruption elephant but creates a pathway to improve the international framework

Illustration by Transparency International; images by Patrick Gruban on Flickr and Kaffeebart on Unsplash

Gillian Dell

Head of Conventions Unit, Transparency International

With a small amount of fanfare, on 2 June 2021 UN member states adopted a political declaration at the first-ever UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption, UNGASS 2021. The declaration introduced only a few new commitments for states beyond those in the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and fell far short of being a “roadmap” for global anti-corruption efforts, as some claimed. One of its greatest failings was that grand corruption impunity remained a subject too taboo even to mention. However, the declaration is not the last word on the subject.

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Grand corruption – or high-level, large-scale corruption – remained the elephant in the room when the political declaration was negotiated. The text contains no specific commitments to address it, despite the devastating damage it does to democracy, human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is not too surprising since the declaration was negotiated on a consensus basis and representatives of kleptocracies and captured states had seats at the table.

Ahead of the Special Session, there was no lack of proposals on the table for tackling grand corruption. A UN expert meeting in Oslo in 2019 made 64 recommendations to prevent and punish corruption involving “vast quantities of assets” – that’s UN-speak for large-scale corruption. In a 2020 submission to the UNGASS prep discussions, the United Nations Secretariat pointed to some possible innovative solutions. Several UN member states and civil society organisations, including Transparency International also put forward proposals. None of them were taken up.

So then in April, almost a hundred civil society organisations called for creation of a special intergovernmental expert working group to do some in-depth work on gaps in the international legal framework and infrastructure to tackle globalised corruption, including grand corruption. We argued that this working group should be tasked with making concrete, technical proposals for supplementary frameworks and mechanisms.

As it turned out, UN member states did not create the proposed expert working group, but civil society efforts in that direction were not entirely in vain; the UNGASS political declaration did create a pathway for future UN discussions of gaps in the international framework. Some commentators have expressed justified concerns that this just represents “kicking the can down the road” and that in future it will remain equally impossible to reach consensus on key new measures. However, the pathway created should not be ignored by the anti-corruption community. One end-result could be an optional UNCAC protocol or other opt-in standards.

The UNGASS political declaration invites the UNCAC Conference of States Parties (UNCAC CoSP) – the body of states that are party to the UNCAC – to identify gaps, challenges and solutions in relation to the international anti-corruption framework and its implementation. It should consider recommendations from UNCAC states parties to address the problems identified, including ways to improve the UNCAC.

We also invite the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention to identify gaps and challenges in the implementation of the Convention by taking into account the results of the Implementation Review Mechanism, as well as any gaps and corruption challenges within the international anti-corruption framework, and to consider any recommendations by States parties to address the gaps and challenges identified in such a way as to improve the Convention and the implementation thereof as may be necessary.
UNGASS 2021 political declaration

This may sound like vague prospect of future action. However, it is the first time since the UNCAC was adopted in 2003 that there has been any official recognition of the need to go beyond it, together with a plan for the UNCAC CoSP to start looking into it. It opens the door to a potentially dynamic process.

Grand corruption is a key area where new frameworks are needed, but there are others. One of those is international asset recovery and return – the process of tracing, freezing, seizing, confiscating and returning stolen assets, which are often the proceeds of grand corruption. In the UNGASS 2021 prep process, Transparency International called for a new multilateral agreement on asset recovery.

The political declaration does include a couple of advances for asset recovery, notably commitments by states to ensuring that asset return is done in a transparent and accountable manner and to strengthening confiscation and return of assets in the context of settlement proceedings. Also, in the declaration UN member states invite the UNCAC CoSP to organise a special session on all aspects of the asset recovery and return process, to consider all options available under the Convention and explore possible areas for improvement to the international asset recovery framework.

This is another important new assignment for the UNCAC CoSP, but it is unclear when it will get started since the declaration text says it should happen “in the future, after the conclusion and evaluation of the findings of the second review cycle.” Still, interested stakeholders could already start work now.

Last but not least, the declaration invites the UNCAC CoSP to follow up and build on the UNGASS 2021 declaration. This is crucial forward-looking work and UNCAC States parties should promptly adopt an effective process that maintains momentum. In addition, the UN General Assembly itself commits in the declaration to taking stock of its implementation and says it “will consider holding a follow-up special session of the General Assembly on corruption, as necessary, taking into account the outcome of the follow-up by the Conference.” It is hard to imagine that such a follow-up session would not be necessary, whether in ten years (as an earlier draft of the declaration foresaw) or sooner.

For now, it is up to the UNCAC CoSP to take the work forward, and there is a great deal to do based on the declaration. The next session of the CoSP will take place in Egypt in December 2021. Clearly, the work should begin well ahead of that date and all stakeholders should get active.

When powerful people get away with corruption, citizens lose trust in their governing institutions and democracies become weakened by cynicism and hopelessness.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Much work is still needed to stem the systematic and organised corruption that crosses borders and “betrays people and democracies”, as the UN Secretary General said in his statement to the UNGASS against Corruption.