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Fighting corruption: why civil society needs a place at the table

The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the milestone international agreement ratified by 165 countries that establishes a legal framework for governments to introduce regulations to combat corruption, will be 10 years old in October. The Convention emphasises the importance of civil society being part of anti-corruption efforts.

Since 2009 the UNCAC has had a monitoring and evaluation mechanism to assess whether governments are living up to their commitments and what kind of assistance they need to do this. Civil society, however, has been barred from taking part in intergovernmental meetings to discuss issues surrounding the results of the review process.

On 29 April 2013 the UNCAC Coalition, a global group of more than 350 civil society organisations wrote a letter to the UNCAC Implementation Review Group (IRG), which oversees the review process, making its case (again) for why that should be changed. The IRG meets again during the week of 27 May in Vienna to discuss the latest findings about country implementation; in parallel, civil society has prepared an assessment of the review process, including recommendations for improvements. It is common sense, and not without precedent at the United Nations, that both parties should discuss their efforts at the same table. Civil society organisations, for example, participate in the review process of the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to name just two.

Last week, at a meeting of the UN Crime Commission, the Norwegian government delivered an oral statement to delegates, asking for civil society participation in the discussions in Vienna on how to move UNCAC implementation forward. The statement endorsed what we believe is a fundamental principle: allowing citizens to see and hear what their governments are doing, to contribute their know-how to the discussions and to engage in dialogue to support progress.

Civil society can make a difference

For more than 10 years, Transparency International and a large cross-section of civil society organisations have been promoting the UN Convention against Corruption, participating in the negotiations for the Convention, advocating for ratification and mobilising support for a review process. In that time the number of States Parties to the Convention went from 95 in 2003 to 165 this year.

Civil society organisations have, over the past 20 years, gained significant experience on what works and what does not in fighting corruption, and have worked with governments to advance the anti-corruption agenda. For the past three years, civil society groups have contributed to the UNCAC review process in the form of independent evaluations of how countries are implementing the Convention. So far the UNCAC Coalition has produced 17 country reports, aimed at supporting and promoting government implementation efforts.

At a time when trust in governments’ commitment to fight corruption is declining, it is imperative to allow civil society to participate in a process that it helped create. This would signal the kind of transparency that is at the heart of the Convention and would help achieve the goals of the Convention. It would also signal that the United Nations is setting an exemplary standard for civil society participation.

If civil society is not at the table, it will make it harder to hold countries to account and easier for corruption to flourish. Transparency is always the best policy.

The letter of the law

As the UNCAC Coalition letter to the Implementation Review Group points out, the Rules of Procedure for the UNCAC Conference of States Parties provides for civil society participation in the meetings of UNCAC-related bodies that take place in Vienna. In addition, the requirement for civil society participation in anti-corruption efforts is supported by UNCAC’s Article 13, which specifically states:

Each State Party shall take appropriate measures, within its means and in accordance with fundamental principles of its domestic law, to promote the active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector, such as civil society, non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations, in the prevention of and the fight against corruption and to raise public awareness regarding the existence, causes and gravity of and the threat posed by corruption

Civil society has an important contribution to make to the UNCAC process and should be informed about government efforts. That is why the UNCAC includes requirements for transparency and civil society participation. This should be respected by governments, not only at national level but also in international deliberations. We are not asking for a concession, rather we are simply asking governments to act on the convention they signed.

We hope more governments will join Norway and ask the IRG and UNCAC Working Groups to welcome civil society organisations to become part of their discussions. This is a win-win situation if the ultimate goal is combating corruption. Transparency, inclusiveness and dialogue between stakeholders can only help.

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