The Convention Against Corruption

A View From Inside The Negotiations

Statement by Antonio Maria Costa
Executive Director
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

on occasion of the special event to mark

The Entry Into Force Of The Convention

New York, 15 December 2005

Members of the Panel,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are meeting to discuss the United Nations Convention that has just entered into force. At the outset, let me do something unusual and start with an informal survey.

A survey of perceptions

You are all very successful colleagues. Well educated, influential, thriving human beings. No doubt you are all honest and unblemished, driven by the highest standards of integrity. Then let me ask the following question: in your personal and/or professional life, have you ever

  • assisted,
  • learned of, or
  • become familiar with a case of corruption?

Large-scale or small-scale, it doesn't matter. Since the Convention does not include a definition of this crime, let me be more explicit, and ask: have you personally known of a case of bribery, embezzlement, abuse of power or trading of influence, laundering of corrupt proceeds, illicit political financing, illegal procurement, obstruction of justice to make someone do, or abstain from doing, something?

I am not asking whether you have been directly and personally involved, on whatever side of the corruption equation. I merely ask whether you have, in one way or another, witnessed corrupt behaviour.

If your answer is NO, I have NOT assisted, learned of, or become aware of any such behaviours, please raise your hand.

Come on. Yes, here we go. I see some hands up ….. come on, please convince me that we live in an honest world - whatever the country, the culture, or the level of income.

Or perhaps, not so many raised hands. Indeed, … think of a little bribe to a cop on the road to avoid a speeding ticket; or a modest sum paid to get a certificate, … think hard. Or you may have something bigger in mind - how a business friend got a procurement contract that stinks, or how another friend was elected to office by illicit funding, or how still another one got a member of the family into a state-run company …. etc.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not surprised at this outcome.

Don't feel so bad: corruption is as old as our species and as wide as our planet. According to the Old Testament, it started in the Garden of Eden, when the snake bribed Adam and Eve with an apple. They were caught and extradited.

Innovative, balanced, strong and pragmatic

Your presence here:

  • demonstrates that probity, accountability, integrity and transparency are the recognized bedrock of development.
  • confirms that the world of the 21 st century needs appropriate rules to improve integrity in governance,
  • proves that we are all committed to use the United Nations Convention for this purpose.

Around the world, people have become increasingly frustrated at witnessing, and suffering from, the injustice and deprivation that corruption brings. On a daily basis, people have personally felt the effects of corruption in the administration of justice or the provision of medical care. They are angered at the immense fortunes amassed by corrupt leaders, while ordinary people toil to scrape a living. And that anger turned into cynicism as the fortunes looted by corrupt leaders appeared to be protected abroad by banking secrecy laws. The collateral damage from corruption can be huge: loss of confidence in institutions and de-legitimization of governments.

Today the Convention lives because of the vision, determination and commitment of Governments. It is innovative, balanced, strong and pragmatic: qualities that, together with its universality, make the Convention a unique platform for action and an essential framework for cooperation.

Four pillars

The Convention rests on a comprehensive set of rules to avert, punish, control, and remedy corruption. These four pillars are:

  • prevention, with detailed measures that cover both the public and private sectors;
  • criminalization, with a platform of offences that countries must have in their criminal legislation;
  • international cooperation, with practical ways for countries to cooperate and deny safe havens to the corrupt;
  • asset recovery, the Convention's major breakthrough, a form of prevention that offer poor countries in particular the chance to regain control of stolen assets.

My Office (the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC) brokered the Convention: it was a formidable challenge to maintain a robust text, while reflecting the concerns of 120 negotiators in it. All countries made concessions. Since the agreement was struck in Vienna in the fall of 2003, the number of signatories has risen to 140. So far, 38 countries have ratified the Convention.

As we are at the beginning of the process to establish an effective corruption control regime, let me map the road ahead.

First, we must secure a greater number of ratifications. This needs to be done quickly and we need a better geographical mix. I invite developed countries to speed up the ratification process. A Convention succeeds only if it is supported by a robust implementation mechanism.

Second, as of today the clock is ticking for the activation of Conference of the Parties' mechanism. Within one year, the Conference should be operational, empowered to monitor implementation. This first global instrument against corruption cannot simply emulate existing regional mechanisms, though we can learn from them.

Third, we need a better understanding of corruption, based on evidence and structured information. Non-governmental organizations have run useful surveys of perceptions (slightly more rigorous than the one I began with). This approach is now under scrutiny and some people doubt its reliability. The Convention calls for data collection and analysis of the impact and nature of corruption, as well as of trends at the global level.

Fourth, the Convention establishes a strong link between technical assistance and implementation: we must not renege on our commitment to assist countries in need. My Office is already working on this.

Now, about the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

What has my Office (UNODC) been doing to help, since the Convention was agreed upon two years ago?

  • UNODC has focussed on the promotion of the ratification of the Convention. We have developed a legislative guide for its ratification and have organized pre-ratification events for policy-makers and practitioners.
  • We have launched a global programme to help countries develop preventive measures (for example, setting up financial disclosure mechanisms for public officials) and the establishment of anti-corruption law enforcement agencies. (We have committed $32 million to Nigeria on this).
  • Another critical area for UNODC is the justice sector. Decades of experience have convinced us that a healthy judiciary can lead to healthy governance. So we have developed targeted programmes to promote judicial integrity.
  • Given the primary importance of asset recovery, UNODC is helping governments (we started with Nigeria and Kenya) gear up domestic and international mechanisms to bring back home looted assets. This is not easy, despite the fact that the Convention disposed of banking secrecy as an impediment to identification and retrieval of such assets.
  • Finally, fighting corruption is everybody's business because, with corruption, everybody pays. So we promote the participation of society at large, in support of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs, respect for public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

A role for the private sector

We must count on, and call upon, society at large. Governments can do a lot, but not everything. Governments must also be encouraged, supported and held accountable. The private sector can help in these efforts.

Business has generally portrayed itself as the victim of greedy public officials. Maybe. Evidence we gathered shows that business has also often been an accomplice in illegal transactions. Hopefully, more private sector leaders will realize that corruption:

  • distorts competition and "un-levels" the playing field,
  • has a negative impact on the quality of products and services,
  • weakens investment prospects and undermines business,
  • is detrimental to all corporations -- large and small, global or not.

Excellent initiatives have emanated from the private sector, like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Equator Principles, or the decision of Global Compact to make fighting corruption its 10th principle.

These efforts demonstrate an increased desire for concerted action, private and public, against corruption and hopefully they are not designed to pre-empt more rigorous regulation. We must continue to encourage the private sector to invest in honest business practices.

In conclusion, as custodians of the new Convention, we at UNODC are proud to accept the responsibility of supporting member states' efforts towards our common dream: a world based on honesty.

New York, 15 December 2005