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CPI 2021: Corruption, human rights and democracy

Young activists in Nigeria protesting against the 2019 anti-social media bill; signs read: "what is democracy without freedom of expression" and "corruption is hate action, prosecute hate action"

Lagos, Nigeria – Activists protest against the controversial anti-social media bill introduced in the parliament, November 2019. Photo: Oluwafemi Dawodu/Shutterstock

Research analysis by Jon Vrushi and Roberto Martínez B. Kukutschka

More than 60 years ago, states approved, almost unanimously, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document outlines 30 rights and freedoms that every human should enjoy, including the right to be free from torture, the right to freedom of expression and other civil and political rights. Many of these inalienable rights and freedoms continue to be under threat today, as democracy retreats and authoritarian regimes take their place.

From the arrests of activists and journalists in Belarus, to the closing of media outlets and civil society organisations in Nicaragua, the deadly violence against protesters in Sudan and the killing of human rights defenders in the Philippines – human rights and democracy are in retreat around the world.

Last year, Freedom House highlighted that 86 per cent of countries stagnated or registered a decline in human rights and democracy. Further, analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that 90 per cent of countries have stagnated or declined in their civil liberties score since 2012; while Amnesty International highlights repression of dissent as one of the key global trends in human rights abuses in 2021 and emphasises the attacks on journalists and activists, many of whom were exposing or protesting against corruption.

Corruption enables both human rights abuses and democratic decline. In turn, these factors lead to higher levels of corruption, setting off a vicious cycle.

While all states have a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all people, the presence of corruption can weaken a government’s ability to do so by undermining the overall functioning of the state – from the delivery of public services, to the dispensation of justice and the provision of safety for everyone.

More specifically, the duty to respect means that the state must not act in violation of human rights, for example, by using violence against peaceful demonstrators. Corruption can undermine this obligation when, for example, the government instrumentalises the police or judiciary to unfairly detain, arrest or intimidate opponents or dissidents. Corruption in law enforcement can jeopardise people’s safety and victims' access to justice. On the one hand, corruption in law enforcement can drive human right violations such as ill-treatment or torture in the hands of officers including in detention settings or through police practices. In other cases, corruption might permeate the administration of justice including by slowing investigations into human rights violations and affecting due process.

What is more, corruption and impunity contribute to an unsafe climate for human rights defenders to operate in. Having examined the data collected by Frontline Defenders, we found that out of the 331 cases of murdered human rights defenders in 25 countries in 2020, 98 per cent of those deaths occurred in 23 countries with high levels of public sector corruption, or a CPI score below 45. Moreover, at least 20 of all cases were registered as killings of human rights defenders dealing with anti-corruption issues.

Corruption and murdered human rights defenders

Source: Frontline Defenders, Global Analysis 2020

The second state obligation, to protect, means that governments should ensure that no one infringes the rights of its people. Corruption can also undermine this obligation. Organised criminal groups routinely murder journalists and human rights defenders and the state often fails to protect their safety. Similarly, private actors can rely on bribery and/or personal connections to ensure that the state turns a blind eye to human rights abuses. If the state fails to prevent a company, which has made a large campaign donation, from polluting a water source on which people depend on and puts their health at risk, the state is effectively failing in its obligation to protect.

Finally, corruption can directly undermine a government’s ability to fulfil its human rights obligations to take positive actions to guarantee the enjoyment of basic human rights. When states allow the embezzlement of public funds meant to be spent on providing healthcare or when rigged public procurement processes fail to deliver the necessary goods and services for education, states fail in their responsibility to fulfil the rights to health and education.

While all three obligations are equally important, state failure to respect human rights can lead to catastrophic consequences for democracy and the rule of law, as it can subvert fundamental rights which are critical for government accountability, such as freedom of expression, assembly and association. This, in turn, makes it harder to keep corruption in check and can lead to a vicious cycle of corruption, human rights abuses and democratic decline.

The graph below shows how corruption and abuse of civil liberties go hand-in-hand. The civil liberties score, a dimension of the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, contains indicators on freedom of expression, association, assembly, personal safety and access to justice, among others. What we observe is that there is a strong and positive correlation between good governance and the respect of human rights and that very few countries have managed to establish effective control of corruption without also respecting human rights. This relationship holds even when controlling for the level of development (see Annex).

Corruption and breaches of civil liberties

Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index 2020

Corruption, civil liberties and rule of law

Keeping corruption out of the public eye is essential to ensure that those who participate in it face no consequences. Restricting freedoms of expression, association and assembly is thus a popular tactic to weaken societal checks on corruption, reducing the chances of being denounced for engaging in corruption and facing consequences. Simultaneously, this helps to perpetuate corrupt networks and practices. To ensure they face no legal consequences, in some cases corrupt officials also capture the judiciary and independent oversight institutions. To prevent loss of their privileges, corrupt and their cronies often resort to oppressive measures, curtailing civil liberties.

Take Nicaragua, for example, where President Daniel Ortega has ruled since 2007 and the country has experienced democratic decline, along with restrictions to fundamental freedoms and rampant corruption. Nicaragua is one of the significant decliners on the 2021 CPI, having dropped from a score of 29 in 2012 to 20 in 2021.

Nicaragua now ranks in the bottom 20 countries on the Index. At the same time, Nicaragua’s scores on V-Dem’s “Freedom of Expression”, “Freedom of Association” and “Access to Justice” indicators have dropped to record low levels. Corruption in the justice system and total capture of the courts by the executive means that human rights abuses go unchecked, providing no access to justice or remedy for victims in the country. At the same time, politically motivated corruption charges against opposition figures further impinge on political rights and liberties while government officials face virtually no accountability for acts of corruption. This climate of total impunity allows the government to further restrict fundamental rights, like freedom of expression, association and assembly. In some cases, they become direct attacks.

In 2019, one of the oldest newspapers in Nicaragua, El Nuevo Diario, reported that it was forced to close after authorities prevented it from obtaining newsprint and ink. Furthermore, between March and July 2020, Nicaragua’s Observatory of Aggressions on the Independent Press reported 351 attacks including unjust prosecutions, arbitrary detentions and harassment of media workers and their families. Human rights abuses continue, including bans on protests, attacks on freedom of expression, and the stigmatisation and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders.

Attacks on checks and balances as well as on civil liberties do not only occur in countries with systemic corruption and weak democratic institutions, but also in consolidated democracies. Hungary serves as a cautionary tale where following corruption and full capture of the state, the country has fallen to the lowest score in the Freedom in the World Index since the end of the communist regime in 1989. The abuse of media, civic space and the judiciary by democratic governments alleged to be involved in corruption has also been prevalent in Czechia, Slovenia and Brazil, among others.

What is more, not everyone is equally able to challenge corruption. Repressive officials or those seeking to silence anti-corruption campaigners are less likely to fear being held to account when they target individuals from marginalised groups. People from discriminated groups are therefore more exposed to potential backlashes and human rights abuses when they try to make their voices heard. The enhanced level of danger also applies to anti-corruption campaigners who champion the cause of discriminated groups, such as Transparency International’s chapter in Guatemala who seeks to uncover and challenge acts of collusive corruption between state officials and mining companies that harm Indigenous Peoples.

Transnational corruption as enabler of human rights abuses

Various actors in the top-scoring countries are all too eager to help authoritarian and kleptocratic regimes clean their reputations – not just their money.

The case of Kazakhstan and the United Kingdom shows this corrupt backscratching at work. The heavy-handed response to protests in the country in early January made international headlines, echoing events of the Zhanaozen massacre from 10 years ago. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s president at that time turned to the UK’s former prime minister Tony Blair to help him with his image. In a leaked letter Blair reportedly advised and provided Nazarbayev with talking points on how to handle critical questions about Zhanaozen. Months later, the government jailed an opposition leader for allegedly orchestrating the events. Blair continued to defend Kazakhstan’s regime on various occasions.

More international coordination is needed to ensure that foreign dictators and western enablers do not circumvent anti-money laundering and sanctions regimes.

Transnational corruption enables human rights abuses and exacerbates repression by allowing autocrats to:

  1. Enjoy looted funds and reward cronies. Without the help of professional enablers like complicit bankers, lawyers, accountants, real-estate brokers etc, kleptocrats would not be able to enjoy their funds and pay off those who support them. In turn this means that they can stay in power by buying support and dispensing patronage to cronies.
  2. Launder their reputation abroad. By employing western public relations firms, lobby professionals and even funding universities kleptocrats and autocrats ensure that little pressure will come to bear from the international community on their human rights abuses record.
  3. Evade accountability. By hiding their financial transactions, autocrats make it almost impossible for law enforcement or judicial bodies, at home or abroad, to find traces of their malfeasance, ensuring they stay in power and unscathed. They can also bypass sanctions regimes, such as those aimed directly at human rights abusers through the Global Magnitsky Act or similar legislation.

In 2017, the Azerbaijani Laundromat investigations found how a network of slush funds financed Azerbaijan’s bribe-induced foreign policy and reputation. Three Spanish delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) are suspected of benefiting from the Laundromat. In return, they allegedly watered down the human rights body’s criticism of events in Azerbaijan under the country’s repressive authoritarian regime. In 2021, authorities in Germany expanded their previous investigations into the Azerbaijani Laundromat. Another (now former) German parliamentarian is under investigation for similar reasons. Transnational corruption schemes allowed the Azerbaijani government to conduct a type of caviar diplomacy, bribing abroad and shoring up support from cronies at home.

Effects on democracy and corruption

Civil and political rights including freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, as well as access to justice are integral to healthy democracies. They guarantee the participation of citizens and groups in democratic and policy processes and can help keep corruption in check. The current wave of autocratisation is not primarily driven by coups and violence, but rather by efforts to undermine democracy gradually. The descent into authoritarianism usually begins with violations to people’s civil and political rights, attacks on civil and political rights, efforts to undermine the autonomy of oversight institutions and attempts to control or direct attacks on the media to help disseminate the regime’s ideology while supressing criticism.

The case of Belarus, which this year fell 6 points in the CPI score this year, perfectly illustrates the limits of this top-down model and how the apparent successes in controlling corruption can quickly prove illusory where they are subject to the whims of a dictator or a regime that does not allow criticism, opposition or political competition. The country also serves as a cautionary tale for similar regimes.

While examples of successful top-down anti-corruption reforms exist in countries like China, Cuba and Singapore, these efforts are few and far apart. Furthermore, some of the most successful anti-corruption reforms that started with top-down interventions, eventually had to incorporate more bottom-up approaches to ensure their sustainability. Hence, sustainable anti-corruption strategies go hand in hand with the protection of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms.

For these reasons, in its Strategy 2030, Transparency International recognises that corruption cannot be countered without fundamental human freedoms to organise, associate, access information and speak up as well as a free and independent media.

To end the vicious cycle of corruption, human rights violations and democratic decline, people should demand that their governments:

  1. Uphold the rights needed to hold power to account. Governments should roll back any disproportionate restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly introduced since the onset of the pandemic. Ensuring justice for crimes against human rights defenders must also be an urgent priority.
  2. Restore and strengthen institutional checks on power. Public oversight bodies such as anti-corruption agencies and supreme audit institutions need to be independent, well- resourced and empowered to detect and sanction wrongdoing. Parliaments and the courts should also be vigilant in preventing executive overreach.
  3. Combat transnational forms of corruption. Governments in advanced economies need to fix the systemic weaknesses that allow cross-border corruption to go undetected or unsanctioned. They must close legal loopholes, regulate professional enablers of financial crime, and ensure that the corrupt and their accomplices cannot escape justice.
  4. Uphold the right to information in government spending. As part of their COVID-19 recovery efforts, governments must make good on their pledge contained in the June 2021 UNGASS political declaration to include anti-corruption safeguards in public procurement. Maximum transparency in public spending protects lives and livelihoods.

How do 180 countries & territories perform on the 2021 CPI?

Explore the results





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