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International Anti-Corruption Day: UNGASS 2021 offers a key opportunity to tackle the global crisis of corruption

A strong recovery from COVID-19 only be possible if we address the corruption committed by high-level politicians and enabled by advanced economies

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

Illustration: Sheyda Sabetian

Today, 9 December 2020, is International Anti-Corruption Day. It is a day for governments, businesses, civil society and the whole of society to renew our commitment to working together to end the devastating impact of corruption on people’s lives around the world.

At the end of a year like 2020, this could not be more important.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed gaping weaknesses in the ways many countries spend public resources and make decisions during crises.

Independent of COVID-19, investigative journalists’ exposés have again this year laid bare the weaknesses in the global financial system that allow public wealth stolen from poor countries to be laundered and spent in rich ones.

The crisis has demonstrated that protecting public resources and putting an end to illicit financial flows is a matter of life and death, in the most literal sense.

Recovering with integrity

With multiple COVID-19 vaccines showing positive results under rigorous scientific testing, and some countries beginning to distribute such vaccines this week, many are thinking ahead to how we recover with integrity – the theme of this year’s International Anti-Corruption Day.

In its first ever virtual edition last week, the 19th International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC), welcomed a record number of participants, showing there is a resolute determination among all parts of our societies to achieve a strong recovery which, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, “must include measures to prevent and combat corruption and bribery.”

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UN Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the Opening Plenary of the 19th IACC.

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One key opportunity to tackle major corruption challenges head-on is the first-ever United Nations General Assembly Special Session against Corruption, also known as UNGASS 2021.

UNGASS 2021 needs to hit, not miss grand corruption

In far too many parts of the world, high-level public officials are robbing entire populations of the chance of a sustainable future. The uncomfortable truth is that advanced economies are enabling or even fuelling this kind of corruption.

We cannot afford for UNGASS 2021 to be another event where government leaders take turns to condemn corruption with grandiose metaphors but fail to recognise what must change.

The UNGASS 2021 political declaration – currently being negotiated by country representatives – is at risk of becoming little more than a watered-down list of promises.

That is why we need all parts of our societies to come together and call on the international community to use next year’s high-level meeting as a key milestone in fighting grand corruption.

On this International Anti-Corruption Day, we are highlighting three key reforms that need to be agreed in the coming months, so that 2021 can be the year when we finally break through the barriers against progress in the global crisis of corruption.

1. Transparency in company ownership

Ever since the Panama Papers in 2016, it has been painfully clear that large-scale theft of public resources is possible because the corrupt can hide behind opaque corporate structures.

Abuse of shell companies is among the reasons why many countries are facing greater challenges today in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, companies with anonymous owners have enabled grand corruption and other crimes. This has meant that public resources that could have served to improve healthcare systems, were embezzled from public coffers.

UNGASS 2021 offers an opportunity to turn the tide.

That is exactly what a diverse group comprised of trade unions, leading academics and civil society has said in an appeal to UNGASS 2021, published today. The joint letter – open to other signatories until 5 January 2020 – asks government leaders to endorse central, public registers of beneficial ownership as a global standard.

"A central, public register of companies and their ultimate beneficial owners – in addition to information on legal ownership and directors – is the most effective and practical way to record such information and facilitate timely access for all stakeholders,” reads the letter signed by 22 organisations as well as the economists Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman.

UNGASS 2021: Commit to transparency in company ownership for the common good

2. Justice instead of impunity

After the veil of secrecy is stripped, and we know who’s robbing our communities, will there be justice?

Unfortunately, national justice systems are often unable or unwilling to hold the powerful to account. At the same time, corrupt high-level officials have the upper hand and can act with impunity under the current international framework.

The former dictator of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year reign is a textbook case. After being ousted from power in 2017, he has lived in comfortable exile in Equatorial Guinea.

How can he and others be brought to account? There are no simple solutions, but there are multiple proposals on the table.

We urge UNGASS 2021 to mandate the creation of an expert working group or a task force to study available options and suggest the way forward. This group should be asked to propose a legal definition of grand corruption – referred to as “corruption involving vast quantities of assets” in UN documents – as well as new agreements and mechanisms to ensure accountability.

But during UN gatherings, impunity for grand corruption is often the elephant in the room. We need the governments to step up during UNGASS 2021, once and for all.

3. Recovery of stolen assets

Justice is not only about prosecuting corrupt officials, but also about compensating the communities and individuals that have been robbed – a legal process called asset recovery.

Stolen money is often hidden in richer countries, in real estate, company shares or bank accounts. Consider Isabel dos Santos, whose assets were seized earlier this year in Portugal at the request of Angolan authorities. But there are numerous barriers to returning assets to their rightful owners, even when they are located and confiscated.

Over the last ten years, only one third of international asset recovery cases have resulted in returns.

To fix the problem in the long-term, Transparency International and UNCAC Coalition are asking the UNGASS 2021 to set in motion a new multilateral agreement on asset recovery.

In 2020, it is abundantly clear that corruption does not recognise national borders. Those in political power abuse the gaps in the international anti-corruption framework to steal and launder the profits.

A strong recovery from COVID-19 will only be possible if we address the corruption committed by high-level politicians and enabled by advanced economies.

On this International Anti-Corruption Day, we are 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.

The title of this article was updated on 11 February 2021.

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