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International Anti-Corruption Day 2021: Tackling interlinked corruption and democracy crises

The Summit for Democracy is an opportunity to support anti-corruption fighters and advance the systemic change that we need

Illustration of protesters of all ages, holding banners: "no corruption", "protect human rights", "global problems require global solutions"

Illustration: Sheyda Sabetian

Tomorrow – 9 December – marks the second International Anti-Corruption Day since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. People around the globe are still fighting the virus and struggling to cope with its socioeconomic impacts. Many continue to worry about what the world will look like once the pandemic subsides.

We at Transparency International want a world where common good prevails and power is held to account, and that is what we’re fighting for.

A win, a loss and an opportunity

2021 should have been a landmark year for anti-corruption but, so far, it has fallen short.

There have been some significant developments. For example, thanks to our and our allies’ determination, the momentum to end the abuse of anonymous shell companies is finally catching on.

But the UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption held in June wasn’t exactly everything we hoped it would be. Governments blatantly ignored civil society’s calls to address grand corruption – so much so that they refused to even acknowledge it. Grand corruption is the kind of high-level corruption that results into large-scale theft of public funds and resources. It takes away people’s power to govern and lets political leaders get away with gross human rights violations.

Illustration showing a globe and money flows

Illustration: Sheyda Sabetian

Corruption schemes involving large amounts of money and high-level officials nearly always stretch across multiple borders. Past failures to prevent and confront such cross-border corruption have had a detrimental impact on the health of democracies. Now, there is an opportunity to change the tide.

These interlinked issues will take centre stage during this week’s Summit for Democracy, convened by US President Joe Biden. Government leaders from more than 100 countries are expected to join him in kicking off a “year of action” to collectively tackle corruption, authoritarianism and the widespread abuse of human rights.

Democracy needs decisive, multilateral action to survive this pandemic. We cannot afford for the Summit for Democracy to be yet another gathering where leaders make ambitious speeches but fail to fully commit or to follow through on their promises.

Our open letter to governments attending the 2021 Summit for Democracy

Create conditions for meaningful civic participation during the year of action

The systemic change that we need

The international community recognised that corruption undermines democracy when states adopted the UN Convention against Corruption in 2003. Over 15 years have passed, and as the latest Corruption Perceptions Index showed, most countries around the world have made little to no progress in the fight against corruption.

In the worst affected countries, the failure to combat public sector corruption has meant suffering for ordinary people, who continue to be denied basic public services, deprived of economic opportunities and are locked into poverty. In many others, it has been a decade during which policies and decisions were skewed in the interests of a powerful few, while accountability mechanisms were weakened or even captured.

At the same time, countries with strong rule of law and low levels of public sector corruption have become hubs for dirty money, allowing embezzled funds and bribe payments to be laundered through their financial systems and real estate. So, by enabling or even fuelling transnational corruption, established democratic nations have themselves contributed to the current democratic decline.

Increasingly, people in these advanced economies are facing hardship too. Corrupt cash is bursting into their property markets – contributing to the homelessness crisis. The systemic weaknesses that allow dirty money to flow across borders with such ease are also exploited by authoritarian regimes to exert influence on democracies.

Illustration showing a washing machine with dollar bills

Illustration: Sheyda Sabetian

We would not be facing a problem of such scale today if previous commitments to address serious issues such as foreign bribery and financial secrecy had been duly implemented by governments.

At the upcoming Summit for Democracy, we are expecting governments to explain what is holding up progress. If they are serious about addressing the biggest global threats of our time, leading democracies need to start by cleaning up their own act.

Both during this week’s Summit and throughout the “year of action”, Transparency International will urge governments to meaningfully address the most pressing corruption issues: purging dirty money; deterring and sanctioning cross-border corruption; and supporting anti-corruption fighters.

Our positions for the Summit for Democracy 2021

Addressing corruption as a driver of democratic decline

Reclaiming our space

Our Global Corruption Barometer public opinion polls consistently show that people want change and see themselves as part of the solution. All too often it is corrupt officials who undermine their ability to raise their voices and organise. What’s more, those who work to defend human rights and to confront corruption face increased harassment and threats.

Against all odds, it is civil society, independent journalists and whistleblowers who have been driving change and holding power to account – especially in countries where institutional checks on power are captured. Increasing support to anti-corruption fighters should be one of the top priorities for the Summit for Democracy and beyond.

Illustration and concept showing an anti-corruption activist, whistleblower and a journalist

Illustration: Sheyda Sabetian

One concrete way for democracies to express support is through the adoption of measures to protect those who speak up from strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPPs. Transparency International is also calling on leading democracies to create new frameworks for public-interest organisations to bring collective compensation claims on behalf of victims of corruption.

In the immediate run, however, we need governments to be publicly accountable about their plans for this Summit and to provide for the inclusive and participatory process during the “year of action”. Independent and expert input from civil society can result into the most meaningful Summit commitments and help keep governments in check.

On this International Anti-Corruption Day, activists may not be able to take to the streets, but our calls for change should ring loud and clear, both at the Summit for Democracy and elsewhere.

Democracy is hard work and so is anti-corruption, but they are worth it

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