9 December 2003

Countries Gather to Sign on to Tough New Treaty against Corrpution, Beginning 9 December in Mérida, Mexico

(Reissued as received)

MERIDA, MEXICO, 8 December -- More than 120 governments, most of them represented at the ministerial level, will meet in the southern Mexican city of Mérida for a signing conference for the first legally binding international agreement to attack corruption.

Under the terms of the UN General Assembly-approved Convention against Corruption, ratifying countries will enter into a legally binding obligation to:

  • criminalise corrupt practices;
  • develop national institutions to prevent corrupt practices and to prosecute offenders;
  • cooperate with other governments to recover stolen assets;
  • and help each other, including with technical and financial assistance, to fight corruption, reduce its occurrence and reinforce integrity.

After signing the Convention, Governments will embark on the process of bringing their practices into accord with the terms of the Convention and obtaining national ratification. A total of thirty ratifications are needed for the Convention to enter into force.

The High-Level Political Conference for the Signature of the United Nations Convention against Corruption taking place from 9 to11 December, will operate on three parallel tracks: plenary discussions, official signings of the Convention, and roundtable side events bringing together experts from the public, private and multilateral sectors.

High-level political representation

The UN Legal Counsel Hans Corell, the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, will represent Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Mérida, and deliver a message from the Secretary-General. President Fox of Mexico will deliver an opening address on 9 December, as will UN Under-Secretary-General Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. The Vienna-based ODC spearheaded the drafting of the Convention Against Corruption and organized negotiations leading up to its approval by the UN General Assembly on 31 October 2003.

Approximately 75 ministers are expected to attend the signing conference. Among those at the ministerial level or higher who have indicated they are coming are the Vice President of Colombia, the Home Minister of the United Kingdom, the United States Attorney General and the Senior Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

“Corruption is a poison that no society is free from,” UN Legal Counsel Hans Corell said at an advance press briefing, 4 December at UN Headquarters in New York. “In the developing countries, it poses a major obstacle to advancement. It destroys efforts to establish the rule of law, discourages investments and frustrates hopes of lifting the living standards of the poor.”

Coming to grips with the ‘c’ word

The UN Convention against Corruption is the most decisive step taken so far in a process that began in earnest in the 1990s. At that time, an effort was initiated to stop accepting corruption as an inevitable fact of life, and to identify it as one of the major impediments to development, one that ultimately hurts the world's poorest people the most. From being the "c" word that could not be mentioned at international gatherings, corruption is now the target of a comprehensive international agreement with teeth, one behind which the countries of the North and the South stand together.

Newly incoming World Bank President James Wolfensohn took a dramatic step forward at the Bank’s 1996 annual meeting, saying that action against “the cancer of corruption” was the institution’s highest priority. The same year, the UN General Assembly passed a landmark resolution [A/RES/51/191], calling on States to outlaw payments of bribes to public officials in the course of international financial transactions and to disallow tax deductions for such payments.

The International Monetary Fund followed suit at its 1997 board meeting, where it adopted guidelines for loans with a new emphasis on preventing and penalizing corruption.

Much of the groundwork for international recognition of the problem of corruption had already been laid, however, at UN-sponsored Crime Prevention Conferences in 1990 and 1995. At these meetings, governments agreed to place the controversial and often politically painful issue on the agenda, and jurists from both developed and developing countries spoke directly about the commingled responsibility of bribe takers and bribe givers.

Additional impetus was generated by civil society. Berlin-based Transparency International, in particular, placed a spotlight on the problem via its widely read “corruption perception index,” and emphasized the need for joint North-South and public-private action against a shared problem.

Increasingly, in the 1990s and in the new century, governments fell or Heads of State resigned in the face of public intolerance of flagrant corruption. Aid donors and international financing institutions, such as the World Bank, instituted tough anti-corruption guidelines for grant and loan programmes and procurement. In the developed countries in particular, large multinational corporations and once-powerful chief executives have been called to account for defrauding stockholders, betraying employees and manipulating public policy.

In August 2001, under the impetus of a General Assembly resolution, the United Nations convened an Intergovernmental Open-Ended Expert Group on the issue. Based on their recommendation, an ad hoc committee of the General Assembly began the task of drafting an anti-corruption treaty in 2002. The proposed convention gathered important political support at the March 2002 International Conference on Financing for Development, which included anti-corruption as one of the keystones of its Monterrey Consensus on development policy.

Mérida events

Experts and leaders from the public and private sectors will exchange views on corruption issues during the Mérida meeting.

Among the high-level governmental officials speaking at the roundtable side events are Eduardo Romero, Minister of Public Administration of Mexico, Italian Minister of Justice Roberto Castelli; Miraitu Murungi, Minister of Justice, Kenya; and Francisco Santos Calderon, the Vice-President of Colombia. From outside government will be appearing Peter Eigen, president of Transparency International, and Robert Eccles, Senior Fellow of Price Waterhouse Coopers. Also prominent at the roundtables will be journalists and members of international agencies including the World Bank, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Discussion of “Preventive measures against corruption: the role of private and public sectors” will take place Tuesday, 9 December, from 15:30 to 18:30 hours. On Wednesday, 10 December, “The role of civil society and the media in building a culture against corruption” will be discussed from 10:00 to 13:00, and “Legislative Measures to implement the UN Convention against Corruption” from 15:00 to 18:00. The roundtables will conclude on Thursday, 11 December, with dialogue on “Measures to fight corruption in national and international financial systems”, 10:00 to 13:30 hours.


For more information, contact Ellen McGuffie of the UN Department of Public Information, at 1-917-327-4179; Juan Miguel Diez of the UN Information Centre in Mexico at 044-55-5435-2460; or Vivienne Heston-Demirel at 1-212-963-2932, heston-demirel@un.org.