Leading the Fight against Corruption: UNGASS and Beyond


In June 2021, the United Nations General Assembly will hold its first ever Special Session (UNGASS) against corruption. UN Member States are currently working on a Political Declaration in advance of the meeting which is intended to renew the commitment of all countries to fight corruption and to accelerate the agenda first set out in the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) of 2005.

The Special Session is one of multiple opportunities in 2021 to build momentum in the battle against corruption. This week, the OECD held its annual Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum , followed by the G7 Meetings until June, and a High-Level Political Forum on sustainable development in July. September and October see the United Nations General Assembly session and a G20 summit hosted by Italy, while in December the Open Government Partnership (OGP) will hold a Global Summit in Seoul, South Korea and virtually.

Ahead of these events, the Pathfinders and OGP hosted ‘Leading the Fight against Corruption: UNGASS and Beyond’ from March 2nd — 3rd, a virtual meeting of representatives of governments, civil society and academia. Participants discussed successes and challenges in anti-corruption efforts and explored ways to raise the level of ambition at UNGASS and the other 2021 meetings, and in the years to come.

The world faces an uphill task in eradicating corruption. Corruption — the manifestations of which are listed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as including bribery, embezzlement, trading in influence, abuse of functions, illicit enrichment, money-laundering, and concealment — is a blight on individuals, societies, and economies. It diverts public funds from critical investments in healthcare, education, and infrastructure. It exacerbates inequality. And it destabilizes democracy by weakening trust in governments, and public and private sector institutions, as well as within communities and societies.

Since the adoption of UNCAC, corruption has evolved rapidly. International corruption and crime networks have expanded and deepened. Digital technology has increased in its level of sophistication. But international frameworks have failed to adapt. The COVID-19 pandemic — which has given rise to numerous corruption scandals related to medical equipment, vaccines, and economic support packages that have been siphoned off by the well-connected or criminal — has shown that the goalposts are constantly moving, and that even those governments with the will to tackle corruption lack the means or the international support that they need.

In a pandemic, corruption can be fatal, as patients miss out on lifesaving medical interventions and health workers are forced to work without protective equipment. After briefly falling down the global public’s list of long-term priorities during the early months of the crisis, corruption has now risen back to near the top of people’s preoccupations. In IPSOS’ ‘What Worries the World?’ survey in January 2021, financial and political corruption was of greater concern to people than healthcare and crime, while a UN survey in 2020 found that 41% of people in developing countries thought the problem of corruption would be worse by 2045, with only 18% thinking it would be better. The need for action is perhaps more urgent than ever.

Strengthening collective action against corruption

Corruption costs countries trillions of dollars every year, and powerful international networks’ involvement in it means, as Alicia Bárcena of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean argued at the meeting, that no government can address the problem alone.

The UN is the most inclusive body for creating international frameworks against corruption. Its meetings in 2021 provide an opportunity for stakeholders from government, civil society, and the private sector to update and expand the ambition of UNCAC in light of how illicit financial flows and other forms of graft have evolved in the past fifteen years, and of intensifying public concern over corruption.

Translating international frameworks into country-level action is critical. OGP is an important platform for such action. As Sanjay Pradhan, the organization’s CEO, reported, for example — more than 70 countries have so far committed to reforms related to transparency of public contracting, for example, which is a key source of financial leakages. These measures seek to enhance transparency over contracting procedures, including those related to COVID-19 emergency packages, and to increase oversight by the public and civil society of the awarding and delivery of such contracts. He also highlighted the importance of independent monitoring by media and civil society, and strengthening policy safeguards to protect the space they can function in. As an example, Tunisia has pledged public funding for independent media so that it can continue to operate and monitor instances of corruption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meeting participants from a range of countries described their innovations in this and related areas:

  • Alhajji Abubakar of the government of Nigeria’s Corporate Affairs Commission discussed how Nigeria has worked to strengthen corporate transparency by launching a publicly available register of beneficial company ownership, whereby companies must disclose the identity of anyone who owns at least 5% of shares or who has significant control over company management. Thom Townsend of OpenOwnership reported that 110 countries now commit to full or partial disclosure of beneficial ownership, compared with zero a decade ago.
  • As Ambassador Hyoung Koo Moon of South Korea reported, his country has strengthened protection of public interest whistle blowers via a new mechanism that allows them to make anonymous reports of corruption through lawyers. The country has also established an independent corruption investigation office for high-ranking officials.
  • Colombia has launched an online portal to make information on contracting by the public sector available for public scrutiny. As Beatriz Londoño, Secretary General of Transparency of Colombia, reported, a new law passed in 2020 obliges all public sector entities to use a standard set of documents when putting projects out for tender, to eliminate the risk that contractual demands will be made that only favored companies can comply with.
  • Volodymyr Pavlenko discussed the work of Ukraine’s Asset Recovery and Management Agency. Mr. Pavlenko also discussed the resistance to his unit, some of which has been of a violent nature, and highlighted the need to protect those who are working to tackle corruption.
  • Ukraine has also made contract details available online and empowered citizens to report violations in their implementation. Leveling the playing field in this way has both reduced corruption and led to a 50% increase in the number of new companies bidding for contracts. The government estimates that it has saved $1 billion as result of the initiative. As Gavin Hayman of the Open Contracting Partnership noted, 60% of bribes worldwide are paid to win public contracts, and addressing this problem can be highly cost-effective.
  • Afghanistan, as Mohammad Wali Naeemi, its Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN reported, has mainstreamed anti-corruption efforts across government, including by developing a biometric database of civil servants and setting up a new commission to fight graft.

Drawing on these and other examples, Sanjay Pradhan listed three priorities for collective action on corruption:

  1. Open disclosure of budgetary spending that empowers citizens to “follow the money”;
  2. Fighting grand corruption via transparency in contracts and company ownership;
  3. Protecting citizens’ ability to speak, assemble, and associate freely so that they can safely monitor and report on corruption.

By sharing experiences in this way, countries can build momentum for collective action to tackle transnational corruption. Sarah Cliffe of the Pathfinders and CIC NYU recommended that an informal, cross-regional “coalition of the willing” could work to increase the ambition of the 2021 calendar of events, building from the achievements at one event to encourage a stronger focus on action at subsequent meetings. Building a productive relationship between civil society and governments, she added, can instigate a “push and pull” process to drive the levels of ambition ever higher.

UNGASS and beyond

Luis Ugarelli of the Permanent Mission of Peru to the UN reported on the process of developing the Political Declaration that will be delivered at UNGASS. Led by Peru and the United Arab Emirates, the discussions involve almost all UN member states. They are intended to produce clear and concrete policy proposals that will modernize and address gaps in UNCAC and renew international commitment to the fight against corruption.

The declaration, Mr. Ugarelli reported, follows the structure of UNCAC, with sections on prevention of corruption, asset recovery, technical assistance, criminalization, and international cooperation. It will also contain a section on promoting compliance with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Participants at the Leading the Fight against Corruption meeting called for the declaration to reflect evolving forms of corruption including the links with organized crime, tax evasion and money-laundering, and to identify the policies needed to address these challenges.

Meeting participants also called for anti-corruption efforts to go beyond renewing verbal commitments and to tackle implementation challenges, both at UNGASS and beyond. In order to tell a positive story of achievement that will be taken up by the media around the world, practical instruments and standards should be announced that allow urgent action to be taken during the immediate COVID-19 crisis, as well as in the longer term. These might cover, for example, legal frameworks for asset recovery, policies to improve the transparency of public procurement, or measures to close legal and illegal loopholes that allow funds to be siphoned out of countries.

These policies, it was argued, should be supported by clear follow-up mechanisms that both create pressure for implementation and help stakeholders identify gaps in policies in what is a rapidly changing field. Gillian Dell of Transparency International proposed that intergovernmental expert groups or task forces could play an important part in follow-up, given the technical nature of likely multilateral agreements. Helen Darbishire of Access Info Europe suggested that governments should more deeply engage civil society in UNCAC processes, in order to ratchet up constructive pressure for effective implementation.

Finally, there were calls for collective anti-corruption action to endure well beyond UNGASS. Through its presidency of the G20, Italy is looking to develop a shared roadmap for such action. If the opportunities presented by the 2021 calendar of anti-corruption-related events are to be realized, participants agreed, countries will have to both assist and push each other to ensure the UNCAC agenda responds to the global public’s concerns.

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