In October when the United States issued six denials of entry, or visa bans, to Hungarian officials for allegedly “benefiting from or engaging in corruption”, it was using what Transparency International believes is an important tool in the fight against corruption.
If you stop corrupt people from crossing borders you do two things: you shine a spotlight on individuals and you deny them an opportunity to enjoy their ill-gotten gains abroad. You also put pressure on their home countries to start investigations.
The spotlight has become a flashpoint for protest in Hungary where the rule of law has been weakened by an increasingly autocratic state. Citizens’ rights have been sidelined, most recently by a crack-down on civil society organisations that try to hold the government to account.
What caught the interest of the US State Department is the link in Hungary between corruption and the deterioration of the rule of law. The erosion of checks and balances; the appointment of people of questionable professional backgrounds to the Constitutional Court; the reduction of its jurisdiction and judicial power; the fact that laws openly restricting the right to property and free entrepreneurship are not found unconstitutional by the Court."
– Miklós Ligeti, Transparency International Hungary, Legal Director
One of the officials banned from entering the US is the head of the Hungarian Tax and Financial Control Administration (NAV in Hungarian). This government recently tried to implement a tax on internet use, which brought people out on the streets: first to protest the internet tax (which was stopped pending a national consultation) and then to protest against rampant corruption in the country.
Not only is NAV, which would have administered the internet tax, headed by one of the banned officials, the agency itself was recently criticised in a report by the European Union for its failures to detect tax fraud. The report said that in 2012 Hungary lost about 25 per cent of potential sales tax revenues because of fraud.
The acronym NAV has now become synonymous in Hungary with “No American Visa” and was used for punning slogans during the protests.
So far the Hungarian authorities have refused to investigate the six individuals subject to the US visa bans, arguing that the US authorities have not named them. Transparency International Hungary is calling for the Hungarian authorities to immediately start a judicial inquiry into what led to the allegations of corruption by the US.
Transparency International Hungary also recently published a report on lobbying in Hungary which showed how US companies and others are frequently “encouraged” to fund studies and other activities of pro-government think tanks that have nothing to do with their core business, in exchange for potential access to government officials.
Making visa bans work
Transparency International is asking the Group of 20 biggest economies, meeting this week in Brisbane, Australia, to define criteria that countries could use to ban visas for corrupt individuals. This is part of our Unmask the Corrupt campaign whereby we want to ensure the corrupt cannot profit from their illegal activities.
We are calling on:
- All governments to establish clear and publicly available criteria for denying an individual entry, including any credible evidence that an individual was involved in corruption offences.
- All governments to guarantee that anyone banned would be able to respond to allegations for corruption in due process.
- Investigations agencies to share information in a timely way about corrupt officials.
There needs to be international agreement on the criteria for issuing and publicising visa bans. For example, in the Hungarian case, both the Hungarian government and the US government should have published the list of those people who were banned and why they were banned. Common criteria for issuing bans would help to ensure that bans are based on substantiated evidence and due process, rather than arbitrary or political decisions.
Civil society can work with law enforcement and government officials to develop criteria and appropriate thresholds for denying entry to the corrupt. It should demand information about implementation of denial of entry programmes to ensure their effectiveness and prevent their abuse, and it should publicise lapses in protocol, such as when corrupt officials are issued visas.
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