The right to political asylum is a key element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It aims to protect those who are in danger of being persecuted for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
This year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration. Yet while we celebrate the universality of human rights, at times powerful individuals try to abuse the principles that underpin the international human rights framework. Two recent cases of two ex-presidents who have applied for political asylum to evade justice, and two countries who handled these requests in very different ways, highlight some of these abuses.
“No politician should be allowed to get away with corruption charges, particularly after the courts have clearly ruled in favour of conviction.”
Cooperation to hold the corrupt accountable: The García Case
Last month, former Peruvian president Alan García entered the Uruguayan embassy in Lima and filed a request for political asylum. He did so only hours after being banned from leaving the country while under investigation for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht, the company at the centre of the Operation Car Wash corruption scandal.
García alleged he was being persecuted on political grounds, but a court in Uruguay decided this was not the case and he has been denied asylum by the Uruguayan authorities. By rejecting his application, the government has recognized that there are no signs of political persecution in this case, and agreed with the many Civil Society organisations in Peru who, like Proética, Transparency International’s Peruvian chapter, had argued that asylum was not appropriate.
Uruguay is thus acting according to UN principles and other international agreements it has signed, like the Lima Commitment focusing on "Democratic Governance against Corruption". Not giving García asylum gives Peruvian authorities the chance to properly conduct their corruption investigation, in which all former Peruvian presidents since 2001 are implicated.
Giving shelter to the corrupt: The Gruevski Case
Unfortunately, countries don’t always fulfil their international obligations. Around the same time as the García case was happening in Latin America, Nicola Gruevski, the former Prime Minister of Macedonia, applied for asylum in Hungary after fleeing his home country in what seems to be an attempt to avoid a two-year prison sentence imposed after he was found guilty of corruption. He has since been granted asylum by the government of Viktor Orbán, to whom Gruevski has personal ties.
Gruevski was convicted after he unduly influenced public officials in the purchase of a luxury car during his tenure as Prime Minister. In 2016, he stepped down from the position following his implication in a wiretapping scandal, leading to one of four trials against him.
However, Gruevski’s supporters believe that he is the victim of a political ‘witch-hunt’ and would be at risk of political persecution if he returned to Macedonia.
Escaping justice with some friendly help
The Hungarian government seems to support this notion. Despite officially considering Macedonia a safe country of origin, authorities are not pursuing their usual anti-asylum stance in this case. In fact, it took them less than a week to review and decide Gruevski’s case.
Hungary has demonstrated before that its immigration policies do not equally apply to everybody. The country’s Golden Visa scheme, which was operational between 2013 and 2017, granted permanent residency to thousands of non-EU nationals – in exchange for certain investments and without proper background checks.
“Once a politician is convicted by an independent court, none of the governments should provide them escape route and impunity.”
By granting Gruevski asylum, the Hungarian government is continuing the worrying trend of giving shelter to people being charged or investigated abroad. What’s more, it is ignoring international judiciary standards and agreements such as the European Convention on Extradition, which applies to both Hungary and Macedonia.
International cooperation and strong judiciaries needed
To effectively fight corruption on a global scale, it is vital that states all around the world fulfil their international agreements and obligations. Hungary is currently setting a worrying example of what can happen when they don’t.
The possibility of powerful people abusing political asylum to obstruct corruption investigations seriously undermines any efforts taken against cross border corruption, be it in Latin America, Europe or anywhere else.
International cooperation and strong, impartial judiciary systems on the national level are the only way to end impunity and ensure that the corrupt be held accountable.
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