A salute to the world's anti-corruption "top-guns"

International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities

First General Meeting, Beijing 22 October 2006

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa

Mr. Chairman,

Your Excellencies

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to take part in this first Annual Meeting of the International Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities.  My compliments go to Dr. Ye Fen:  the very concept of this Association belongs to him.  My thanks especially go to our Chinese hosts, on two accounts.  First, for the impressive and generous organization of this internationally significant event.  Second, for what this event means -- the commitment by the Chinese authorities to join and lead the common fight against corruption.

Taxpayers, who are the stakeholders of our states, as well as investors, who are the shareholders of our companies, have grown tired of seeing their assets stolen for personal benefit.  The founding of this Association is the latest demonstration of the world's eagerness to put kleptocratic government officials and greedy business leaders behind bars.  I also pay tribute to you all attending this conference:  you are in charge of doing just that.

A crime as old as humanity

As you may expect, in meetings with government officials I often raise the question of corruption.  Well, you will not be surprised to hear that Ministers are mostly on the defensive - why single us out?, they ask resentfully, reminding me that the problem is universal.

I accept, not that unapologetic Ministers should be left alone, but that corruption  is universal. It is so pervasive and has been around for so long that you could truly say that is as old as humanity, and it is to be found everywhere there is humanity:  in rich and poor countries -- in the North, the South, the West and the East of the planet.

Think of this.  The three main monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) believe that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were bribed by a snake into disobeying the Lord.  On that occasion, as in so many real-life cases ever since, the individual gain was modest (an apple), while the damage to others was colossal (namely, the whole of humanity was driven out of Eden). 

Similar narrations of wrongdoing by a sly few, causing great damage to the honest majority, are also found in ancient Oriental religions and Far Eastern mythologies.  Even today, in Beijing, Tokyo and Bangkok, the historic battle between good and evil is celebrated in numerous operas and theatrical shows, in pageants of rich costumes and expressive masks. The greedy villain usually perishes, killed by a dagger wielded by the virtuous.

Irrespective of race, culture and history; irrespective of religious values and philosophical beliefs, the collision between the hard-working populace and the greedy few has been a permanent feature of human life, constantly repeated over time. The outcome has varied. Societies have not always learned from their own sufferings.

Today my message is threefold:

·                    First, I suggest to you that things should, and may, be changing.  I sense that, in the past few years, attitudes have improved and the world's view of corruption appears to have taken an unexpected turn for the better. There is a greater wish to do something to stop it.

·                    Second, we should all take advantage of this apparent mass change of heart and make use of a powerful new instrument to turn improved attitudes into concrete results.  I am of course talking about the United Nations Convention against Corruption (the CAC) which came into force last December and has already been ratified by 68 States.

·                    My third argument is actually a promotional campaign.  It is an invitation to you all, the world's "top-guns" in the fight against corruption, to join forces and push governments to support implementation of Convention at the Conference of the State Parties in December.

The Convention is the first and only global instrument to deal with the problem of corruption. It represents a warning to the corruptors and to the corrupted that betrayal of public trust will be prosecuted and punished, and that their stolen assets will be seized and returned.  It is not just a manifesto or a moral stand:  it is a blueprint for greater integrity in government and business.  It is the compass you need to map your moves and the gauge you can use to measure your success.

It would be naive to think that we can rid the world of corruption, just because the United Nations has agreed to a Convention.  But we can certainly reduce the impact of dishonest behaviour on governments, economies and ordinary citizens, counting on the Convention's robust legal and operational measures.  My Office, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), plays a special role in this process. Not only did we broker the negotiations in 2002-03:  we are the Convention's custodian, and we help  States with its implementation, through technical and legal assistance.  Even more ambitiously, we aspire to be the world's conscience in the common fight against this scourge.  It will be up to you to judge in the next few years whether UNODC has lived up to this aspiration. 

Where do we stand now, and what's next?  The success of the UN anti-corruption Convention cannot be measured by the number of signatories, high as it is already now.  Rather, it is to be measured by the improved ability of States to implement its far-reaching measures, and by the outcome of such measures. You, the anti-corruption authorities, have the leading role to play.  To do your job, you ultimately need an international instrument with real teeth, not just an internationally agreed upon text.  This is what the forthcoming Conference of the State Parties is about:  it is about giving teeth to the execution of the Convention.  Help us convince governments to develop strong implementation criteria, and we will help you apply these criteria.

You are all deeply familiar with the Convention:  you wouldn't be here otherwise.  So today I will merely recall its four main headings - prevention, criminalization, legal assistance and assets recovery - in terms of their operational dimensions and discuss what they mean for us at the United Nations, for you in your daily struggle, and for your colleagues elsewhere in public service.

Let me begin with the Convention's first pillar: prevention.

Fire proofing - preventive measures

Corruption prevention can reduce the likelihood of its occurrence, and can contain its corrosive effects.  But, let us be clear:  prevention does not mean printing posters or running television advertisements about the merit of integrity and the cost of dishonesty.   Prevention means putting in place concrete anti-corruption measures and public sector management practices based on the rule of law, transparency and accountability.  In other words, corruption prevention equals (i) a culture of integrity, (ii) waste avoidance, (iii) respect for everybody's rights - the rights of the rich and the poor alike.

As I said earlier, you are the Convention's top guns:  your job is to ensure the safe handling of public funds and the integrity of government systems.  First and foremost, I urge you to use your arsenal as a dissuasive force. This means raising the standards for effective protection and securing compliance with such standards.  Transparency, integrity and accountability in the public domain depend on integrity-promoting measures such as:

·        Suitable selection and routine screening of public officials, starting from the disclosure of their annual earnings and assets.  I invite governments to investigate obvious discrepancies between reported income and life styles.  You do not need to use expensive undercover sleuthing operations. When you get back home, just check how many senior officials in your government administration drive expensive Mercedes Benz limousines, while officially declaring $300 monthly incomes - check and then act, of course with due judicial diligence.

·        Prevention means introducing effective accounting and auditing standards in the private sector, as much as in public budgeting.  I ask all governments to impose transparency in public procurements.  You must have heard the joke about two corrupt officials talking to one another:

What is your cut?, one asks.

30%! what's yours? the other replies.

Oh, mine varies.  You see the bridge over there? 

No?! 

Well, that's why I do not use a fixed percentage

·        Prevention requires a domestic regulatory and supervisory regime for financial institutions. Tax-payers' and shareholders' assets, once stolen, are moved out of public sight, mostly through the banking system.  Our societies need to jam these cash washing-machines and drain off the cash.

·        Prevention also means rules of behaviour and controls on funding to political parties and electoral campaigns.  Political contributions are IOUs, signed by candidates and paid out by taxpayers.  Although estimates are hard to make, it is all too often the case that every dollar, euro, pound or yen paid out as campaign donations is returned to the contributing business multiplied by a large factor - behind the backs of conscientious voters and honest taxpayers.

·        Prevention above all means integrity of the judiciary.  A clean judicial system can help clean up everything else.  The reverse is also true.  Therefore, since your money is scarce, use it well:  experience shows that money spent cleaning up the judiciary is very well invested.     

To do your job effectively you need independence, resources and skilled staff. These are not just nice to have:  they are an obligation of States parties to the UN Convention against Corruption.  Your independence should make you untouchables, in the healthy sense depicted by the Hollywood movie of that name - with clean hands, recognized for a professionalism which strikes fear into the hearts of corrupt officials.  This untouchability is not a licence to do what you want, without control:  it is a commitment to deliver a more honest government administration.  Free as you are from political controls, you are still part of the system of checks and balances that governs democratic societies.  In other words, you are all accountable to the people whose interest you are required to defend.  

Where assistance is needed, UNODC can help build capacity as we are already doing in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Albania, Brazil, Cambodia and Nigeria.  Other countries can count on us as well.

Criminalization and law enforcement

Preventive measures are necessary, but on their own they are insufficient. The Convention requires contracting countries to make corruption a crime and to combat it with effective law enforcement.  This means adopting legislation to criminalize bribery, embezzlement, abuse of power and misappropriation of public property.  It also means making trading in influence a criminal offence, along with abuse of functions and illicit enrichment.

Integrity enforcement officers, like you, should be empowered to investigate the misconduct of public officials in the handling of public resources, while Attorneys General are better positioned to prosecute them and bring about their conviction. You should also have the tools, working with the judiciary, to ensure that cases are prepared  well enough to succeed in the courts of justice.

Laundering the proceeds of crime must be criminalized, as should interfering in the course of justice.  In each case, we need to hit criminals where they will feel it the most - by confiscating their assets. There should also be adequate protection of witnesses, experts and victims, and compensation for damage.

Furthermore, there should be no safe havens for dirty money.  What is most tragic about corruption is that it is not - as often believed - the stealing of people's property for individual gain.  It is in fact a theft (by corrupt officials) that seldom turns into any gain for the perpetrators:  in most cases assets are in turn stolen by intermediaries, often unscrupulous bankers familiar with the money's illegal origin and voraciously ready to take their cut.

That's why an effective anti-corruption regime means taking a hard look at bank secrecy and asking:  is it protecting ordinary people, or is it in fact protecting criminals and their intermediaries?  At times, the sense of impunity created by banking secrecy has allowed people to escape prosecution - thus spreading corrupt practices. Hence the importance of exposing banks, even entire countries, that are not taking adequate measures to prevent money laundering. The impunity they offer to corrupt officials becomes immunity and an incentive to steal more.  Conversely, diligent prosecution of dishonest banks acts as a restraint and reduces corruption.   

International Cooperation

By definition, trans-national crime does not respect borders.  Efforts by one country to clamp down on corruption are undercut if another country allows stolen assets to flow unimpeded into safe offshore havens.

An effective anti-corruption regime therefore requires international cooperation. Borders and safe havens should not be an impediment to investigations or to bringing guilty parties to justice.  For this reason, my Office (UNODC) invokes -- and helps realize -- greater co-operation on extradition and mutual legal assistance, trans-national law enforcement co-operation and joint investigations.

Such multilateral cooperation is especially important when stolen assets need to be identified and recovered. This is an area that can bring tangible results and therefore deserves special attention and support.

The International Association of Anti-Corruption Agencies is well placed, working closely with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, to play a key role in building such cooperation. You have a strong vested interest in effective trans-border networking.   

Asset recovery

When assets have been stolen, it is hard to get them back, but not impossible. Asset recovery is a fundamental principle of the anti-corruption regime foreseen in the UN Convention.  Corrupt officials can no longer be free to spend their twilight years living in luxury in foreign lands, drawing on their ill-gotten gains from secret bank accounts. Thanks to the Convention the stolen money, desperately needed for development in poor countries, should be returned to where it belongs.  This is an important part of your work:  actual results will depend on your technical competence and on your bosses' political determination -- as well as on the integrity of governments in countries where the money is hidden. 

I was born in Italy, as you may know, a country that has had its problems with corruption.  I still remember a joke told a few years ago, at the peak of one of the corruption scandals that rocked the country.  According to the anecdote, an announcement at Rome railway station said: The Minister who took the train for Milan is kindly requested to return it. It sounds funny, right?!  But the underlying reality it reflects is anything but funny. And it has been a reality in too many countries.

Innovative tools for asset recovery are badly needed - for example prevention guidelines, tracking systems and assessment tools.  My Office is working on these and helping countries to build capacity.

A Strong International Network

World-wide anti-corruption efforts are becoming stronger, also thanks to the efforts of the World Bank, OECD, UNDP and UNODC, to name a few. The UN Convention against Corruption has given backbone to this process - a template, to ensure consistency and coherence at the international level.  It has also added a stable platform for integrity drives at the national level. However, ultimately, it is up to you - the Heads of anti-corruption administrations - to give voice, muscle and teeth to these efforts.  Democracy depends on citizens and investors having confidence in their public institutions and the private sector:  the daily work of ensuring good behaviour is up to you. 

The various levels of anti-corruption work are not independent.  They actually should interact closely, for example at the forthcoming meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Amman.  There, the voices of practitioners will be listened to, with great interest:  the success of the meeting depends on your presence in the national delegations traveling to Jordan.

We must also start thinking about ways in which corruption can be measured.  At the moment, there is a reliance on perception-based surveys. We need a more rigorous methodology. A structured global appraisal mechanism is essential to ensure that international anti-corruption commitments are being implemented, so as to reassure our people that the scourge is being reduced. This will encourage healthy competition among governments, and enable effective implementation of the Convention.  I urge you to hold your Governments accountable for the promises they have made and, in Amman, to help us build a robust global anti-corruption regime.

To conclude, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Association born at this crucial Beijing meeting has to become a strong international network of anti-corruption top-guns, as I like to nick-name you all.  The Association will enable peers to come together to compare experiences and exchange good practices. Your work is highly honourable and will be crucial in implementing the UN Convention against Corruption.

My best wishes for a successful inaugural meeting.  I look forward to future partnership between your Association and my Office - between IAACA and UNODC.