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How the US can help Mongolia get to grips with corruption

The US Secretary of Defense is in Mongolia today, building on a trip to Washington D.C. last week by Mongolia's President, Battulga Khaltmaa, who met with President Trump at the White House.

The meetings are being touted as an effort to increase and deepen ties between the US and a strategically located ally. Among the topics being discussed are a bi-partisan bill in US Congress known as the ‘Third Neighbour Trade Act’ that aims to allow Mongolia to export cashmere to the US duty-free, bypassing neighbouring China.

In a briefing before President Battulga's Washington visit, one US official told reporters that Mongolia, a democracy bordering China to the South and Russia to the North, is like a “pearl between two oyster shells”.

That pearl, however, is beginning to show signs of wear.

In March, the Mongolian Parliament held an unprecedented one-day emergency session to pass an amendment that lets the National Security Council dismiss judges, prosecutors and the heads of the anti-corruption agency.

Almost immediately, the head of the Supreme Court and the chief prosecutor and his deputy were sacked or themselves resigned. Not long after, the director and deputy director of the anti-corruption agency were also removed from their posts. In June, a further 17 judges were sacked.

This political interference in the judiciary would be worrying at any time, but it is all the more alarming set against a backdrop of corruption allegations against parliamentarians themselves.

In 2018, a new law requiring businesses to disclose their real owners allowed investigative journalists to show that dozens of politicians had benefited from millions of dollars’ worth of low-interest government development loans.

Last winter, thousands of Mongolians took to the freezing streets of the capital Ulaanbaatar to protest what they saw as widespread corruption and impunity.

Parliament is now proposing legislation that would make it harder for civil society to operate, further weakening essential safeguards against corruption.

Two United Nations Special Rapporteurs have given specific recommendations for Mongolia to restore the independence of the judiciary and anti-corruption agency.

With President Battulga’s visit, the US had an opportunity to use its considerable influence to promote rule of law and an independent judiciary - to make sure Mongolian democracy remains a pearl, rather than an oyster gone bad.

During the visit, we voiced our concern that a business-as-usual approach would amount to tacit approval to the weakening of Mongolia’s anti-corruption mechanisms.

In Washington, the two countries signed a ‘Declaration of Strategic Partnership’ which includes a commitment to “Intensify cooperation as strong democracies based on the rule of law through safeguarding and promoting democratic values and human rights, including the freedoms of…assembly, and association; anti-corruption and fiscal transparency.”

Those are encouraging words, but we need to see action.

The same is true of President Battulga’s response to us on Twitter:

We have a few follow-up questions:

  • What is your response to UN Special Rapporteurs’ report?
  • How will the Mongolian government restore the independence of the judiciary?
  • Apart from the extradition of a single corrupt judge from the US, what else did you discuss with the Justice Department?

In the latest alarming development, the Mongolian parliament is attempting to amend the country’s constitution. Despite claims that this will improve judicial independence, it will actually bring the judiciary even closer under the control of the office of the president.

As the US continues to court Mongolia as a strategic ally in the region, it has a clear window of opportunity to go beyond words and declarations, and make a real difference to the lives of the Mongolian people by supporting their struggle against corruption. The Third Neighbour Trade Act in particular should be made contingent on concrete steps to restore the independence of Mongolia’s judiciary from political interference.

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