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Time to pick up the pace in the fight against corruption to safeguard democracy

With the gathering of world leaders in Atlanta, Georgia for the 10th UNCAC Conference of States Parties, there’s no better time to take decisive action to stop corruption in its tracks

Illustration: Transparency International

International Anti-Corruption Day is an opportunity for the global community to reflect on the progress and challenges in the fight against corruption and consider the necessary steps to effectively hold power to account for the common good.

This year, it falls ahead of the 10th Conference of the States Parties (CoSP) to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), where leaders from across the globe gather to make policy decisions and pave the way forward in our collective effort to counter corruption. In celebration of UNCAC’s 20th anniversary, it is also a pivotal moment to reflect on the advances promoted by the convention and reconsider measures to strengthen its implementation and follow-up mechanismswhich are urgently needed.

For two decades, the convention and its review mechanism have catalysed anti-corruption laws and reforms on a global scale. However, critical gaps remain as national measures and implementation continue to fall short.

The failure to address existing limitations and respond to new trends has serious consequences. When agreeing on the convention, the international community recognised that corruption undermines democracy and the rule of law, jeopardising sustainable development. And yet, corrupt practices in countries around the world continue to damage democracy, igniting a new rise in authoritarianism. This requires new, ambitious commitments to succeed in the fight against corruption.

In countries with high levels of corruption, extensive networks of corrupt figures can infiltrate all levels of state institutions. Taking advantage of the opacity within the global financial system, these networks connect public officials with unscrupulous private sector actors and crime syndicates to execute corrupt schemes with dire consequences for affected populations. Meanwhile, electoral and judicial systems do not provide accountability and independent voices are stifled. Some leaders even invoke anti-corruption language and sham policies to further their own private interests and undermine democracy.

When gathered in Atlanta, UNCAC States Parties should make new, meaningful commitments to effectively address corruption while protecting democracy and promoting sustainable development. They should agree on measures to put an end to beneficial ownership secrecy, political financing opacity and shrinking civic space. Only through effective coordination, enforcement and follow-up measures on these and other issues will states parties close the existing gaps for more effective anti-corruption efforts that will bolster democratic institutions.

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1. Transparency of political financing

The existing opacity surrounding how much and whose money political parties and candidates receive and spend entices illicit funds to enter politics, posing a direct threat to the foundations of democracy. Guaranteeing transparency of political financing protects political systems from conflicts of interest, influence peddling and state capture while reducing corruption within public office. This, in turn, strengthens the integrity of elections and democratic institutions.

Today, significant challenges remain in ensuring transparent political financing due to persistent loopholes, inadequate public disclosure of financial information and ineffective oversight mechanisms. Common loopholes include the use of anonymous companies for donations, lack of reasonable donation limits and unregulated third-party campaigns. These open the door to foreign donationseven in countries where they are legally bannedexposing countries to undue domestic and foreign influence.

According to the Global Data Barometer on Political Integrity, only 37 out of 109 countries surveyed include the identity of donors providing political funding. This means most countries do not meet the most basic disclosure requirements, hindering public accountability. Additionally, International IDEA's database shows that less than half of the bodies overseeing campaign and political finance can request further information from potential violators. Without adequate oversight, political finance rules can be circumvented with impunity.

As we celebrate 20 years of UNCAC and over 60 resolutions tabled since 2006, the absence of political finance from the agenda is troubling. As people in over 70 countries head to the polls in 2024, Transparency International and our allies will keep pushing for new global standards on political finance transparency.

States Parties to UNCAC must urgently uphold commitments to enhance transparency in funding political parties, candidates and campaigns. We urge them to empower oversight institutions, providing mandates and resources for verification and sanctions in cases of non-compliance. Additionally, international cooperation mechanisms for cross-border information exchange are essential, and states parties must prioritise closing loopholes in political financing, especially in digital reporting, to ensure that only those who disclose their beneficial owners can donate.

Our written submission to the 10th UNCAC CoSP on transparency of political financing

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2. Beneficial ownership transparency

Shady figures often use anonymous companies to disguise the source of political finance. They are key vehicles that allow the corrupt to hide, move and launder their ill-gotten gains through the global financial system. This makes the transparency of beneficial ownership informationi.e., information on who owns or controls legal entities and arrangementscritical for combatting corruption and promoting the recovery of stolen assets.

There is now a consensus that beneficial ownership registers are the only effective way to ensure transparency in company ownership. This is reflected in the new global anti-money laundering standards, which were revised last year following Transparency International’s campaigning.

This year’s UNCAC CoSP is an opportunity to build on recent progress. As more and more countries prepare to set up beneficial ownership registers or reform current frameworks, their effectiveness hinges on critical issues of accessibility and use of data by all actors who have a role to play in anti-corruption.

Transparency in company ownership is critical to prevent corruption in public procurement, uncover conflicts of interest, scrutinise political finance and mitigate undue influence. But because these registers have primarily been set up under anti-money laundering legislation, government agencies tasked with fighting such crimes are often their only users.

Beneficial ownership transparency is also essential in combatting cross-border corruption and recovering stolen assets. Worryingly, States Parties to UNCAC report significant barriers in obtaining ownership information on companies registered outside their borders, even when formally requesting these records for their investigations.

It is time for UNCAC signatories to make new, ambitious commitments to face these enormous challenges head-on while upholding the spirit of the convention. Transparency International urges CoSP delegates to pledge to promote direct and unfiltered access to beneficial ownership registers for a wide range of domestic authorities. States parties should also agree to explore new ways to ensure that foreign authorities can access information efficiently and in a timely manner. Additionally, they must recognise the need to facilitate access to this critical data by civil society, media and other non-governmental stakeholders.

Ultimately, the most effective way to ensure beneficial ownership transparency is by granting data access to as many stakeholders as possible. This can best be achieved by establishing public registerswhich is a good practice already in place in some countries.

Our written submission to the 10th UNCAC CoSP on beneficial ownership transparency

Learn more

3. Protecting civic space

Independent journalists, activists, whistleblowers and civil society organisations are a key defence against corruption and drivers of change and ensuring accountabilityespecially in countries facing democratic decline or authoritarianism. Whistleblowing is one of the most effective ways to detect and prevent corruption. Whistleblowers in a wide range of countries and sectors have exposed various forms of corruption and fraud, helped recover millions in public funds, and even prevented climate and health disasters. One thing is clear: strong civic participation is crucial to maintain or lay the foundation of a healthy democracy.

While reviews on the implementation of UNCAC do not appear to point to significant challenges, other UN bodiesincluding the Human Rights Council and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defendersand civil society organisations express serious concerns. Journalists, whistleblowers and civic groups reporting alleged cases of corruption continue to face numerous risks, such as intimidation, threats, digital attacks and state-sanctioned violence. Anti-corruption organisations that criticise governments are often targeted for strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and other forms of judicial harassment. It is evident that more is needed to protect civic space in all parts of the world and enable civil society’s participation in anti-corruption efforts.

States Parties to UNCAC must use this opportunity to guarantee that laws regulating the establishment and operations of civil society organisations do not impose undue restrictions and respect the right to freedom of association in accordance with international standards. The convention’s intended role for civil society can only be fulfilled if they have the freedom to organise, form groups and associations, and operate safely, independently and free from undue restrictions.

We are also concerned about the limitations on the participation of civil society groups in international-level UNCAC discussions. In order to generate meaningful change that reflects the needs of those most affected by corruption, civil society must be able to actively participate in all meetings of UNCAC subsidiary bodies and informal negotiations.

States parties should take decisive action to protect civil society actors facing threats and retaliation due to their anti-corruption work while strengthening civic participation during UNCAC meetings and beyond.

Our written submission to the 10th UNCAC CoSP on protecting civic space

Learn more

Real action now

Corruption undermines even the strongest democracies. This year’s UNCAC CoSP presents an opportunity for decisive, multilateral action to drive real change. We cannot afford more grand statements without full commitment and follow-through from world leaders.

Powerful entities abuse the gaps in existing international anti-corruption frameworks, eroding democratic principles like transparency and accountability. Inaction in the face of corruption contributes to the rise of authoritarian regimes, state capture and human rights abuses globally. Governments must take corruption seriously in order to defend democracy, peace and security.

This International Anti-Corruption Day, we urge leaders to take clear, impactful steps against the global corruption crisis, prioritising the return of stolen money, free and fair elections and the protection of civic space. After two decades, UNCAC States Parties must adapt the convention to address today’s complex challenges and ensure effective implementation with strong follow-up mechanisms. Corruption is one of the greatest threats to democracy, and our hope is that world leaders will rise to the occasion.

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