16 December 2005

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Holds Panel Discussion on Entry into Force of Convention against Corruption

NEW YORK, 15 December (UN Headquarters) -- Participants in today's panel discussion on the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which entered into force yesterday, hailed the instrument as a comprehensive set of rules to avert, punish, control and remedy corruption.

The event, whose theme was "Combating corruption", was hosted by the head of the agency that brokered the Convention -- the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) -- who said that the instrument had come to life because of the vision, determination and commitment of Governments.  It was innovative, balanced, strong and pragmatic.  Together with universality, those qualities made it a unique platform for action and an essential framework for cooperation.

Adopted by the General Assembly in 2003, the Convention has been signed by 140 countries and ratified by 38.  Its entry into force came 90 days after Ecuador's ratification on 15 September.  The treaty's main pillars include prevention, criminalization, international cooperation and asset recovery.

Not a single hand was raised in the room when the UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa asked how many participants in the discussion had not encountered corruption in their personal or professional lives.  Mr. Costa said he was not surprised, adding that corruption was "as old as our species and as wide as our planet".  According to the Old Testament, it had started in the Garden of Eden, "when the snake bribed Adam and Eve with an apple".

Around the world, people had become increasingly frustrated with the injustice and deprivation that corruption brought, he continued.  They were angered at the immense fortunes amassed by corrupt leaders, while ordinary people toiled to scrape a living.  And that anger turned into cynicism when the fortunes looted by corrupt leaders appeared to be protected abroad by banking secrecy laws.  The collateral damage from corruption could be huge -- loss of confidence in institutions and the de-legitimization of Governments.

The devastating effects of corruption were demonstrated by keynote speaker John Bolton, Permanent Representative of the United States, and Ibrahim Gambari, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, among others participating in the event.  Mr. Bolton described some of corruption's harmful effects, including bribery, drug trade, trafficking in people and criminal support for clandestine terrorist activities.  The World Bank had estimated that $1 trillion in bribes was paid annually, money that could have been spent on improving infrastructure and Government services.  "Bad money drives out good money", he said, pointing out that investors fled corrupt countries.

Governments, individuals and institutions should do more than just voice support for anti-corruption action, he stressed, saying the Convention was a step in the right direction.  The United States applied, and would continue to apply, a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption.  The past 10 years had witnessed a positive change in the international approach to corruption, and the treaty's entry into force showed how far the world community had come.  Good, non-corrupt Government was an essential condition for development, and one of the United States Government's projects was to educate countries on the importance of signing and ratifying the anti-corruption Convention, which it had itself signed in December 2003.  This year, the instrument had been submitted to the Senate for advice and consent.

Only through a comprehensive view of corruption could a comprehensive solution be found, he stressed, noting that it was necessary first "to put our own houses in order", including the United Nations.  The oil-for-food scandal should not be swept under the rug, and the United States was pursuing some of the companies implicated by the Volcker Commission, with the aim of bringing them to justice.  A number of individuals and companies who had allegedly participated in illegal activities had already been indicted.

When corruption by Government officials was allowed to flourish, they turned a blind eye to the scourge of drugs, he continued, noting that the United States had adopted a comprehensive strategy to fight both the supply and demand sides of drug production and trafficking.  One of the examples was the success of the anti-drug programme in Colombia.  By any measure, the efforts undertaken by the Government of that country, working together with the United States Government had achieved remarkable successes.

Noting that corruption and bad governance coexisted in a symbiotic relationship and fed off each other, Mr Gambari said corruption had an immense deleterious effect on development, poverty reduction efforts, peace and security, as well as democracy.  An analysis by the Department of Political Affairs of early warning and threats had found that corruption played a big role in the collapse of States and undermined respect for the rule of law.  In combating corrupt practices, however, not everything could be left to the UNODC and other agencies.  Action was needed by every Government, as well as by non-governmental organizations, civil society and the private sector.  Only practical measures could mitigate the effects of corruption and punish those responsible for corrupt behaviour.

Speaking as an African, Mr. Gambari, a former Foreign Minister of Nigeria, said corruption continued to wreak havoc on that region, especially in the least developed countries.  Developed countries must do more to return funds acquired through corrupt practices and funnelled out of the continent.  African States must promote adherence to higher standards of private and public governance, including by monitoring each other.  It was also necessary to address the question of immunity for people holding high offices, such as State governors in Nigeria.  From an African perspective, the Convention had two critical components:  it sought the repatriation of ill-gotten assets; and it established the rights of people who had suffered damage from corruption to initiate legal action.

Addressing the issue of integrity among international civil servants, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services, stressed the devastating effect of corruption on the organizational culture.  The fight against corruption was the responsibility of the leadership as well as every staff member of any organization, including the United Nations, whose members should measure themselves against the provisions of its Charter.  Now the Convention had become an additional instrument in that respect.  However, neither instrument would be effective without enforcement.  The management was responsible for the system of internal controls and for providing an example of ethical behaviour.  Breaches of discipline must be sanctioned.  Rules and procedures, the control environment, information and communication, as well as risk assessment and monitoring were part of the internal control system.

John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Center for International Private Enterprise, focused on the private sector's role in the fight against corruption, noting that the business community was increasingly feeling the impact of corruption.  In many cases the fight was a matter of survival.  A survey of private firms in Iraq, for example, had revealed that corruption was increasing the cost of doing business by up to 40 per cent.  In Ukraine a beginning entrepreneur could expect, until recently, up to 22 "safety" inspections, most of which sought to extract an illegal contribution.  There was a large reality gap between international best practice and reality on the ground.  In some countries, up to one third of the laws contradicted another third, which created a breeding ground for corruption.  It was necessary to create an enabling, ethical environment, review existing laws and procedures, promote institutional reform, and ensure enforcement.

In the ensuing debate, participants focused on links between corruption and underdevelopment, asset recovery, impunity, ways to increase participation in the Convention and the need for a monitoring mechanism.  One of the Convention's important clauses stipulated that bank secrecy could no longer be used as an obstacle to asset recovery.

One participant pointed out that the Convention had established a framework for dealing with corruption on a worldwide basis, which other instruments had not been able to do.  Another suggested the inclusion of the corruption question in the "Agenda for Humanitarian Action" proposed by the Secretary-General.  Yet another participant underlined the importance of implementation, saying it was only possible provided there was political will.  Another speaker emphasized the need to launch an advocacy campaign in that regard.

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