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UNGASS 2021: Business as usual will mean failure

Photo: Basil D Soufi, Wikimedia Commons

Gillian Dell

Global Advocacy Lead, Transparency International

The UN General Assembly’s decision to hold a special session against corruption this year – UNGASS 2021 – was made long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, it is the shocking levels of corruption we have seen during the pandemic that have shown how critical is this gathering in New York to the future fight against corruption. It is an opportunity we must seize to upend the status quo in anti-corruption efforts.

There is a crisis of corruption worldwide and the current international and national responses are inadequate. The consequences are disastrous: injustice, inequality, social divisions, human rights violations, environmental destruction, barriers to development, failing institutions and conflict. They are even graver during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is no time for business as usual.

The UN's common position for UNGASS 2021 highlights the international reach of modern corruption networks and their facilitators, the looting of staggering amounts of assets and the conditions favouring the grand scale of corruption. Current arrangements are failing.

What should the UNGASS against Corruption do?

It is well known that anonymous companies are widely used for illicit activities and that they stymie detection and enforcement against corruption, contributing to impunity. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has identified the problem; the Panama Papers and other scandals have exposed the grotesque extent of it.

Transparency International has submitted to the UNGASS 2021 a multi-stakeholder petition with over 700 signatories from 120 countries urging UN member states to commit to a new global standard on beneficial ownership transparency that calls for setting up central, public registers of company beneficial ownership.

Illustration showing a public official looking out from a generic company building window. There is a black bar in front of their eyes, to illustrate an unknown owner.

On 24 February, Transparency International submitted a petition to the UN General Assembly from more than 700 signatories calling for a new global standard for transparency in company ownership. It asks that UNGASS 2021 commits all countries to set up national, public registers of companies, disclosing the real individuals who own, control or benefit from them.

Our statement

Our signatories are not the only ones proposing this. In 2019, a UNODC-organised meeting of 140 experts from 50 countries recommended public registers of legal entities in the Oslo Statement on Corruption Involving Vast Quantities of Assets. Recent revelations like OpenLux have shown that public registers are a powerful tool in exposing corruption and other crimes. UNGASS progress in this area would send a signal of serious intent to tackle a key part of the corruption equation.

A fundamental review by States parties of key weaknesses and gaps in the international anti-corruption framework is needed 15 years after the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) entered into force. In the period since then, our understanding has increased and corruption has not diminished. New and innovative responses are needed.

Illustration depicting four integrity heroes protesting for justice and shielding against COVID-19 corruption with integrity.

A strong recovery from COVID-19 only be possible if we address the corruption committed by high-level politicians and enabled by advanced economies. Transparency International is calling on government leaders to do their part in tackling the global crisis of corruption, so that that our communities can recover not just from 2020, but from decades of impunity for grand corruption.

UNGASS 2021 offers a key opportunity to tackle the global crisis of corruption

With that in mind, Transparency International has made two submissions to the UNGASS 2021. One makes proposals to address grand corruption impunity and the other – jointly with the UNCAC Coalition – is a proposal for a multilateral agreement on asset recovery.

The two submissions propose paths to addressing two of the thorniest problem areas facing the international anti-corruption community, areas inadequately addressed under current frameworks. Both submissions reflect a concern for the victims of corruption, who should be at the centre of anti-corruption efforts.

There are many other proposals on the table too, from the innovative ideas cited in the UN common position on addressing corruption challenges, to the wealth of recommendations in the Oslo Statement. They include proposals for tackling the pernicious role of enablers and facilitators – such as bankers, lawyers, accountants and real estate agents. There are also ideas for improving enforcement against foreign bribery, including recognition of the harm to victims and compensation for social damage. The FACTI Panel’s report also includes valuable recommendations to shape the future anti-corruption agenda.

The political declaration issued by the UNGASS against Corruption must match these ambitions. At the very least, it should include a mandate for a new working group to review options for improving on the status quo and propose a path forward, with detailed recommendations on possible supplementary frameworks and processes. Sessions of the UNCAC Conference of States Parties and its subsidiary bodies do not offer the right forum for in-depth discussions of forward-looking proposals. That calls for a special working group and it should include civil society representatives.

The status quo is not good enough. We need to aim higher and be more ambitious in our collective efforts to end the scourge of corruption. The UNGASS against Corruption has a unique opportunity to escalate international anti-corruption efforts through new and innovative responses.

This is a revised version of the remarks Gillian Dell, Head of Conventions Unit at Transparency International, delivered during the third intersessional meeting of the Conference of the States Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) on preparations for the special session of the General Assembly against Corruption (UNGASS 2021), held on 22-23 February 2020.