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Tackle instability and terrorism by fighting corruption

This week world leaders and security experts are meeting in Munich to discuss global security. At the top of the agenda will be the impact of terrorism and radicalisation on instability. Transparency International will also be there to discuss the impact of corruption on security and how it fuels terrorism.

The link between corruption and instability has never been clearer. In countries where corruption is rife, problems with security and terrorism are rife. We see this in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Nigeria, four of the world’s conflict hot-spots. They and other unstable states score badly on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and the Transparency International UK’s Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index.

For example:

  • Reports that segments of the Iraqi army are riddled with corruption have been cited as one reason why the army crumbled in the face of ISIS.
  • Widespread corruption in the Nigerian army is considered a factor in the army’s inability to halt Boko Haram, particularly in regions where soldiers are not paid in full and morale is low.
  • In Ukraine reports say it’s cheaper for new recruits to bribe their way out of military service than buy the gear they need for combat, as the Ministry of Defence has inadequate supplies.

Corruption and terrorism

So how does corruption fuel terrorism and what can be done?

Recruitment and radicalisation: When disenfranchised populations see leaders amassing wealth unfairly through corruption while their governments fail to deliver services, people get angry. This frustration may make them turn to other bodies for protection, swelling the ranks of insurgent or organised crime groups. Corruption breeds inequality, which has been shown to increase violence.

Funding: Patrons may use secret companies and transfer funds illegally in order to support organised crime and terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have allegedly been found to have set up two charities as fronts for their finances in South Africa, which is just one example. Nevertheless, the ability of terrorist organisations to use charities as a disguise should not be seen by banks as a pretext to impose barriers on the work of humanitarian and remittances organisations in general. Banks should always conduct an appropriate and proportionate risk assessment on an individual customer basis.

Arms: When controls on the export of arms are weak, weapons can end up in dangerous hands and fuel violence. According to Louise Shelley, executive director of Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre and author of a new book on terrorism, the US provided weapons to Iraqi security forces but didn’t monitor where they went, and they often ended up on the black market. Some of these weapons were trafficked to Turkey and used for terrorist attacks.

In 2006, a priest was killed in Turkey with a weapon taken from Iraq. German arms firm Heckler & Koch is accused of illegally exporting arms to Mexican regions where they were allegedly used to commit human rights abuses.

Access: Bribes can allow terrorists or criminals to cross borders, acquire visas and other official documents, and gain access to buildings.

The impact of international involvement

International involvement in defence operations that doesn’t take corruption into account can exacerbate the problem, and security assistance can make a country less secure if it isn’t accountable.

Acknowledging the impact of corruption comes first followed up by the realisation that transparency and accountability – not more secrecy – are a big part of the solution. More must be done to involve the private sector in compliance

Compliance and due diligence are especially important when defence capacity-building involves arms transfers aimed at increasing the receiving armed forces’ capacity and enhancing interoperability.”

– Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International

In Mali, security assistance was focused on tactical training and equipping troops, but didn’t address structural and institutional weaknesses like corruption.

Corruption also undermined success in Afghanistan. In February, Transparency International UK's Defence and Security Programme will publish a new report, Corruption: lessons from the international mission in Afghanistan, written by Mark Pyman, director of the programme. It documents how corruption undermines security initiatives and offers constructive recommendations on how to identify and mitigate corruption risks.

Our research indicates that in Afghanistan, international forces ignored the issue of corruption for too long; their willingness to work with corrupt leaders for the sake of immediate security interests, and the focus on short-term military results over building institutions with integrity, hurt the success of the mission.”

– Mark Pyman, director of Transparency International UK's Defence and Security Programme.

Our message for Munich

When policy-makers gather in Munich to try to address instability and violence, corruption must be on their agenda. There are several policy changes that we’d like to see, particularly for governments involved in international operations. But there are two things that donor states could commit to, which would be a first start to reducing corruption in unstable and fragile states.

  • Donor states should be transparent about their security assistance. They should publish – clearly and regularly – how much they’re spending on security assistance to foreign states, and what that assistance is intended for.
  • Donors should regularly report on progress and effects of security assistance.

This would enable civil society to monitor the amount of security assistance coming to their security forces and government, and assess whether it’s being used as it should be – to create a safer and more stable country for them.

Editor’s note: On 5 February 2015, the above feature was amended to include the following sentence: Nevertheless, the ability of terrorist organisations to use charities as a disguise should not be seen by banks as a pretext to impose barriers on the work of humanitarian and remittances organisations in general. Banks should always conduct an appropriate and proportionate risk assessment on an individual customer basis.

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