Blogged by TrustLaw Editor Tim Large at the 14th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok
Like shoplifting and benefit fraud, corruption was once seen as a largely victimless crime. Pay a few bribes, grease a feel wheels, abuse a little power. No one really suffers.
Those days have gone. One of the most evocative definitions of corruption to be aired at this week’s International Anti-Corruption Conference in Bangkok came from Ashok Khosla, president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“It is a crime against the law, a crime against humanity, a crime against nature, a crime against the future,” he said, speaking of his experience working with those facing the cutting edge of corruption, from farmers to fishermen in the developing world.
“It is a special kind of crime, one in which there is complicity. You get away with the crime because you have the ability to influence the guardians of public good.”
Graft watchdog Transparency International estimates that some $20-40 billion are paid in bribes each year to bent politicians and government officials in developing countries. Much of that comes from companies trying to secure lucrative public contracts.
Some countries now have tough laws to make sure they don’t get away with it. In the United States, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act looms menacingly, as corporate giants from Baker Hughes to Siemens have found to their cost. Britain’s new Bribery Act will have even sharper teeth when it comes into force in April.
But many countries lack such laws. And even when legislation exists, the onus is on the state, not the farmer or fisherman, to pursue justice.
That’s a problem when the guardians of public good are themselves corrupt. In a kleptocracy, you don’t expect the pillagers to recover the public’s stolen assets.
International conventions such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption encourage countries to make laws to allow the victims of corruption - the citizens, that is - to hold violators accountable.
If they exist at all, most of these laws are untested or ambiguous. But at least the principle is clear: civil society should have a role in corruption-related litigation.
Recent events show civil society’s hand may be getting stronger. On Tuesday, France’s Supreme Court authorised an investigation into tens of millions of euros of assets held in the country by three African presidents or their families.
The ground-breaking point about the probe into allegations against the presidential families of Gabon, Congo-Republic and Equatorial Guinea is that the charges were brought by two NGOs - Transparency International and rights group Sherpa.
“The NGO community really does have a voice, not just in common law jurisdictions but also in civil jurisdictions,” said Alan Bacarese, Britain’s former senior crown prosecutor who now works for Swiss-based International Centre for Asset Recovery, itself an NGO.
Time will tell, but many activists at the Bangkok conference are licking their lips at the thought of more class action-type anti-corruption cases brought by civil players.
“What we’re seeing is that corrupt officials want to spend their money somewhere,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights for Human Rights Watch.
“So let’s make it more difficult for them to do that. One way of doing it is by letting civil society file private suits that force the government to investigate.”