Tag Archives: corruption

State Fair:  The UN Tries to Take another Bite out of Corruption, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 May

Srebrenica

The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children. Marian Wright Edelman

He did not care for the lying at first. He hated it. Then later he had come to like it. It was part of being an insider but it was a very corrupting business.   Ernest Hemingway

When honor and the Law no longer stand on the same side of the line, how do we choose? Anne Bishop

Global betterment is a mental process, not one that requires huge sums of money or a high level of authority. Change has to be psychological.  Suzy Kassem

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.   Mahatma Gandhi

This past Wednesday, the UN General Assembly payed tribute to the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, a seminal moment in the multi-faceted history of UN efforts to provide pragmatic and regulatory  coherence in global efforts to address crimes from state bribery to terror financing.  This Convention has many facets, some of the most important of which have clear implications for peace and security as well as for our sustainable development priorities, including the recovery of diverted assets, enhancing the fairness and transparency of national judiciaries, and eliminating economic crimes such as identity theft.

Wednesday’s high-level event brought together senior UN officials and minister-level representatives from several  states who shared insights on their own anti-corruption efforts which (they hoped) would inspire other states to both learn from successful national practices elsewhere but also to commit more deeply to coordinated efforts within the broader UN system to stay one step ahead of (or at least better than one step behind) the evolution of contemporary criminal activity — what has become an evil cousin of our otherwise extraordinary ability to manipulate the external world.

If nothing else, our species continues to demonstrate the maxim that if not always wise, we are most certainly clever, an attribute that seems to be in our DNA and that allows the more malevolent among us to run one step (and sometimes many) ahead of our global regulatory capacity. As with weapons development and climate impacts, we often seem often to be running breathlessly in an effort to “catch up” to the latest iteration of criminality:  cyber-crime and off-shore financial shelters; “dark web” trafficking networks and clandestine markets for cultural artifacts pilfered by terrorists.   This race is made more challenging — and perhaps even more urgent — by the fact that enforcement agencies have an important obligation to “play by the rules,” to respect the human rights of persons some of whom have turned the exploitation of human greed and our other physical and character vulnerabilities into an art form.

Many of these challenges (and successes) were on display during the main Wednesday event as well as in a couple of excellent side events including one on “wildlife trafficking” sponsored by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and states including Germany and Gabon.  For instance, a judge from Italy took the floor to cite what he feels are “profound” and positive changes within and beyond his country  due to its participation in the Convention, including transparency in public procurement, protection of “whistle-blowers” and what he deemed “better asset recovery measures.”  On the other side of the ledger, Uganda lamented that the power of money to motivate law enforcement and other officials “to turn a blind eye” to bribery, trafficking and other corrupt practices seems to be holding its own.  And yet there was virtual unanimity regarding claims by UNODC of the degree to which eliminating corruption positively impacts virtually all development and peace and security responsibilities. These include our ability to create and enforce fair and transparent tax codes as well as to regulate access to natural resources and other public goods in ways that preserve and enhance the ability of states to preserve domestic revenue for domestic needs.

As a representative from the Mexican government claimed this week, if we truly wish to honor these responsibilities, our “only option” as an international community is to cultivate more engaged citizens and more transparent and honest governance.  In implementing this “option” it is important to examine a few assumptions.   When many of us think about corruption, we have images from popular media in our heads:  secret payoffs to law enforcement, blatant manipulations of our court systems, corporate bribes to heads of state, the “laundering” of formerly public assets and the creation of safe havens for those ill-begotten gains.  It is about the power of money and might to divert us from any semblance of fairness, a principle which has largely fallen on hard times, but one which still has currency in our modern culture, especially by those who face discrimination or whose well-being has been undermined by select “dirty dealing” from corporate interests, from officials of governments large and small, even from schools and cultural institutions.

Beyond our video screens, it is apparent that corruption is not only a problem for states and the financial vultures that circle around them, but also for our local cultures and communities.  The damage to our societies – and now perhaps even to our planet – though the diversion of public assets to private interests, but also through our inability to rigorously apply principles of fairness in our public policies, is of course most dangerous when the offending party is a state agency or multinational corporate interest.

But there is also a fear, and not unfounded, that too many state officials are both enabling and benefiting from societies full of persons and institutions that also don’t or won’t commit to “play it straight.”  We have collectively become too comfortable with the smaller and seemingly  less consequential ways in which we cheat others, manipulate the truth, and even elevate the competitive advantages associated with our narrow self-interests.  We rightly lament those who use money and power to “cut the line” with impunity, but such lament is often two parts jealousy to one part indignation as we are less concerned about ending the practice of “line cutting”  and more about the strategies we must pursue to ensure our own place at the front of the queue. We must not deceive ourselves here: corruption at local levels is an equal opportunity corroder of our collaborative potential.  And much like Smokey Bear urges about forest fires in the US, “only we” can prevent our further collective slide into an abyss where we expect too little of our leadership and much too little of ourselves as well.

During the wildlife trafficking event on Wednesday, UNODC noted somberly that “we won’t get a second chance” to eliminate wildlife crimes, a warning made more poignant by recent stories of human-exacerbated extinctions that reach far beyond the species targeted by poachers.   But in some sense we might not get a second chance on any corruption-related matters.  If we are to make the best of the chance we still have, we will all need to play our part – as attentive critics of state practices, but also of our own local cultures of corruption. The “engagement” of citizens on corruption to which Mexico rightly pointed this week is partially about the ways we insist that officials in national capitals and multilateral institutions like the UN “play it straight,” and partially about how “straight” the rest of us are willing to play as well.

This weekend in the US is a time to reflect on those who lost their lives in wars of greater and lesser legitimacy.  However one assesses such conflicts and the damage they caused (or prevented), and despite the diverse motivates that drove people to “don the uniform,” we can presume that my relatives and the many others whose often obscure graves mark their sacrifices did not perish so that honor and law could go their separate ways, so that corrupt officials could line their own pockets, so that others could “cut the line” of their surviving family members, or so that the best of our minds and characters could be trampled on by the “dirty feet” of others.