By Stella Dawson
“Don’t let them get away with it,” Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International, said this weekend in closing the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Brasilia.
Attendees at the event in Brazil pledged to ramp up their campaign to end impunity for political and business leaders who steal public money.
The messages repeated by campaigners at the conference were clear: Bankers must not be allowed to profit by accepting the deposits of kleptocrats who loot public coffers; political leaders who line their own pockets at the expense of citizens should be prosecuted; businesses should not evade taxes by choosing favorable jurisdictions to base operations; and public officials who fail to provide public services and take bribes must be held to account.
Global Financial Integrity estimates corruption robs developing and transitional countries of at least $1 trillion to $2 trillion a year.
“If impunity is not stopped, we risk the dissolution of the very fabric of society and the rule of law, our trust in our politics and our hope for social justice,” the IACC said in its Brasilia Declaration concluding its 15th conference.
Yet the event attended by over 1,900 people from 140 countries produced no clear strategy and few fresh ideas on how to tackle corruption.
Indeed, Daniel Kaufmann, president of Revenue Watch Institute which campaigns for transparency in natural resource wealth, warned that the anti-corruption agenda risks becoming too broad and its goals too vague, watering down its impact in combating illegal activities.
“We need to be much more specific and less romanticised about multi-party stakeholders working together,” Kaufmann said at the opening session.
Despite these challenges, here are some of the ideas attendees from different countries did put forward:
- To put meat on the bones of its declaration to end impunity Transparency International said it has formed a committee headed by board member Jose Ugaz, who will deliver a strategy paper in December. Ugaz was a special state attorney during the investigations into the Fujimori regime in Peru.
- There were few business representatives at the conference. But Sir Mark Moody Stuart, a former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell Group and Anglo-American who is vice chairman of a U.N. business coalition called Global Compact, offered to involve more business leaders in future debates.
- Also on the corporate front, one important way to limit the looting of money is to outlaw shell corporations and require that the true owners of a company be made public, said Raymond Baker, director of Global Financial Integrity.
This would make it far easier to track money taken illegally from a country by a corrupt politician or business person and deposited into a secret bank account under the name of front company to hide who truly is the beneficiary. The U.S. Congress since 2008 has been considering such ownership legislation.
- To ramp up prosecutions more money must be invested in training on how to track illegally obtained assets, said Richard Goldstone, a human rights lawyer.
“It would pay handsome dividends in recouping the proceeds of corrupt acts if the police and all investigative agencies invested in the training of prosecutors and investigators in the rooting out of corruption,” said Goldstone, who investigated the United Nations’ Iraqi oil-for-food programme, as well as humanitarian violations in Rwanda, Gaza, South Africa and the former Yugoslavia.
- Also at the conference, groups of young software programmers were devising ways to scan the rapidly growing trove of public documents available online – government budgets, public procurement contracts, royalty payments from the extractive industries made to countries and corporate financial statements – to discover potential abuse of public finances.
Orsolya Vincze, an Internet activist from Hungary, works on computer programmes that track how funding from the European Union to member states is used. The programmes will send up red flags when odd patterns occur, such as a government channeling a huge number of contracts to one company – information that investigative journalists then probe further.
“We can get public data from government agencies and put it into a huge platform to track where the money goes and who gets it,” she said at an online workshop.
- A Brazilian activist proposed that money recovered from stolen assets could be used to set up a global fund that would finance anti-corruption organisations around the world, an idea that has been discussed for about eight years in the United Nations.
- Another idea proposed by an attendee at the conference was for transparency and anti-corruption organisations to start publishing their own salaries as a way to model accountability.
- William Bourdon, a French lawyer and head of the Paris-based organisation Sherpa that fights economic crimes, recommended comparing the value of the homes or personal belongings of a public official with the salary they are paid. He has used that technique with citizens groups to successfully bring criminal complaints against members of three African regimes on charges of stealing public money.
- Transparency International is examining ways to set up a global network to link whistleblowers with investigative journalists who can work on exposing potential cases of corruption. It would be particularly valuable for complicated cases that require more sophisticated techniques to track down looting of money from state coffers, said Paul Radu, a Romanian journalist who has set up the web-based Investigative Dashboard to help track money across borders.