Let's Make History at the Dead Sea:

Implementing the UN Convention against Corruption

First Session

of the Conference of the States Parties
 to the United Nations Convention against Corruption

Opening Session

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Jordan has witnessed so much history over thousands of years. This country is a cross-roads of civilization, whether we talk about religion, culture, the arts or commerce.  It was with a sentiment of respect and appreciation towards those who shaped so much of humanity that the United Nations welcomed the invitation of Jordan to meet at this location by the Dead Sea.

History, so generous with the region, when looking back at this meeting will thank us. Or will it haunt us?

Imagine that a couple thousand years from now, a copy of the United Nations Convention against Corruption will be unearthed, right under these grounds.  I wonder what archaeologists and historians would say with the pages of this booklet [show it] crumbling under their fingertips. You can rest assured: these archaeological findings would not generate the same excitement as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet, historians would no doubt be interested to learn that at the beginning of the 21 st century the world seemed resolved to do something about its corruption problem.  Then, for sure they would wonder, what happened next?

What happened next is up to us, starting right here, today.  This week, either we go through the usual conference motions, have courteous exchanges, enjoy the great hospitality, visit Jordan's archaeological treasures -- and then return home satisfied, cameras loaded with photos and egos pleased to have attended the first Conference of States Parties. Or we can take some decisive steps and turn this potentially strong piece of international law - the UN Convention against Corruption -- into a platform for action.

Expectations are high.  There is considerable media interest. The spotlight is shining on us. I take this as evidence that people around the world want to do more to fight corruption.  Actually, I should say people around the world wish YOU to do more about corruption as they, the people, have already done a lot.

Let me propose a metaphor. We all know that the planet is warming because of climate change.  Well, the anti-corruption temperature is also rising worldwide.  As recently as ten, fifteen years ago, the ''C'' word was only whispered -- almost as if it were bad to talk about it.  Dishonest people were often considered clever for beating the system.  Few corruption cases were brought to trial, even fewer the convictions.  For multi-national companies, bribery was part of the cost of doing business -- even tax deductible, in some cases.  Many countries were ruled by strong men who looted the entire state treasury, hiding billions of dollars in financial sanctuaries where the stolen assets were protected by banking secrecy.  Entire financial communities prospered from dirty money while the victims of corruption were left to drink dirty water, without electricity, schools or hospitals.

Today, the anti-corruption temperature is a few degrees higher thanks to growing calls for greater integrity in the res publica. Corrupt politicians and chief executives are being tried and convicted. Corrupt governments are being voted out of office.  Money laundering is not as easy as it used to be. 

This drive towards integrity was certainly the cause that motivated adoption of the Convention.   We would have never struck the agreement we reached at the 11th hour on Friday the 3 rd of October 2003 were it not for the contagious desire to do something against corruption. 

But the people of the world now want more:  they want the Convention not just to be the consequence of these changes -- they want it to be cause for further, bolder changes.  

Monitoring progress

Ladies and Gentlemen, we need to feed public opinion hard facts about progress being made in fighting corruption.

The process of monitoring implementation of the Convention is prominent on the agenda.  I am not alone in hoping that we will have a breakthrough on this issue at this Conference. We need a political decision to set the direction for the development of an effective, mutually supportive, impartial and pragmatic implementation review mechanism.  This is not an unreasonable or unrealistic expectation.  If we conclude this meeting without an agreement, the media would not be kind to us, and the public would be frustrated.  I think we would all feel that we let the people down.

Is a general agreement, involving all States Parties and covering all details, premature?  Perhaps.  But let's try, at least by taking smaller steps. At a minimum, as an interim step, I encourage a limited number of States to take part in a pilot programme to develop and test an experimental review mechanism. Counting on the needed financial support, a geographically representative group of States could carry out a process comprising:  (i) self-assessment, (ii) implementation, and (iii) evaluation. This would be a useful and pragmatic way of learning by doing -- for the benefit of both the countries taking part, and the others who would, as a result, have seen a real-life model with potential universal application.

A number of States Parties have already manifested privately, to me, their desire to proceed and join this exercise -- a lab-test informal but structured, experimental but methodologically sound.  I call on other interested States to come forward:  a dozen volunteers are all that is needed for this controlled experiment.  Following this Conference, we will proceed as soon as possible with an interim report based on communications from participating countries. We could envisage perhaps an inter-sessional event, say, mid-year in 2007, before reporting back more formally at the next Conference of the Parties.

Technical assistance

In order to succeed in fighting corruption, we also need to strengthen our ability to deliver technical assistance when and where it is needed.

Some States have not yet ratified the Convention because they want to ensure that good domestic legislation is in place.  Others have ratified the Convention, but need help with implementation.  In some instances, the political will is there, but the capacity is lacking.  In other cases, lack of capacity has been an excuse.

Many countries require legal assistance and could learn from the good practices of those who have gone through the ratification and implementation process.  If we all are generous with our resources, today's backbenchers will be sitting at the State Parties' table next year.

The success of the Convention depends on individual as well as on collective compliance:  technical assistance will help close all gaps in the net, whether domestic or international.  I appeal to States in a position to do so, to strengthen their support, through bilateral and international institutions, including UNODC.  Such assistance is a self-serving act, not a humanitarian one:  an honest neighbour is to our advantage, whether we are a family or a country.  I appeal to the private sector to pass on to peers in other countries, good practices and corresponding money:  mentoring of, and guidance to business clients can help the bottom line.  Again, this is to your own benefit, not charity.

For example, all countries -- whether rich or poor -- need to learn how to protect witnesses and whistleblowers, how to cope with money-laundering, how to improve transparency in procurement contracts and in the management of public finances.  These techniques can be learned through hands-on experience.  UNODC has tools designed specifically for the purpose of assisting Member States in these areas. 

At the same time, transparency-promoting initiatives that prove effective under certain conditions should be more widely applied.  For example, why is the practice of Publish What You Pay only followed by companies in the extractive industries?  The experience gained by such innovative initiative could be applied across the full spectrum of business activities.  You would be surprised to discover how far public disclosure and moral suasion can go, with a bit of naming and -- if needed -- shaming.

Measuring progress

Ladies and Gentlemen, at one point in the future I would like to give you a report on the state of corruption in the world, and the advances we are making thanks to the Convention.  After all, I do such a thing once a year in relation to drug cultivation, trafficking and abuse, through the evidence submitted at the Commission of Narcotic Drugs (CND) and with the World Drug Report.  Unfortunately, at the United Nations, the ''C'' word is still not fully appreciated:  we simply do not have any way to unveil its shape, form and movements.     

There are well-known tools to cross-compare integrity levels and trends, like Transparency International's perception index.  Path-breaking and far-reaching as the index has been, and we all pay tribute to it, it represents a great beginning.  Working together, we need to go beyond measuring shadows (perceptions of corruption), and assess objects (namely the crime itself).  Shadows can be short at noon and long in the evening, though the object itself of course remains the same.

Most people agree with this, as a matter of principle;  but then they say that corruption cannot be quantified.  It is not even defined in the Convention, they add.  Others point out that measuring corruption is a side issue and that we should, instead, devote our attention to other priorities of the Convention like preventive measures, criminalization or asset recovery.

These views are not mutually exclusive:  we can and should do all of the above. After all, we do it in other fields.

UNDP produces a human development index; we, at UNODC estimate the flow of drugs through a country.  Economists across the world take stock of business expectations, over time and across countries.  They measure a nation's gross domestic product, even on a quarterly basis.  Surely humanity needs to, and can assess the severity of the corruption problem and the progress made in fighting it.  My Office is already working with experts to explore what can be done.  If there is a will, there is a way.  Let us not shy away from this responsibility just because it is a complex, politically sensitive matter -- otherwise the archaeologists, having unearthed this Convention's scrolls, will look back at us as high priests worshiping an idol, without faith. 

To begin with, and to be practical about the matter, I invite countries to collect information on the investigations and convictions on the crimes covered by the Convention -- bribery, embezzlement, trading in influence, abuse of functions, obstruction of justice, laundering of proceeds and so on. Over time, the analysis of trends and international comparisons would allow us to have a better indication about if, and how the Convention is having an impact.

Of course we want more than just crime records:  we also need a record of policy.  We want to know the progress we are individually and collectively making in adopting anti-corruption measures -- especially those that generate high public interest.  Are you, for example, freezing, seizing and confiscating assets?  Do you enforce codes of conduct for public officials, with disclosures of their annual earnings and assets?  This would answer simple, yet tough questions by the public like how certain officials in their administrations own new Mercedes cars, while earning $200 per month. 

Anti-corruption top-guns

States have yet to take full advantage of the cross-border opportunities opened up by the Convention. To deal more effectively with the transnational dimension of corruption, more needs to be done to improve practical cooperation in areas like extradition, mutual legal assistance and joint investigations. Again, this is largely an issue of capacity-building and developing experience.

One area where I see marked progress is in the creation of anti-corruption authorities.  I was impressed by the level of participation at the first meeting of the International Association of anti-corruption agencies in Beijing, this past October.  I thank the Government of the People's Republic of China for hosting the event attended by the country's President and a large number of anti-corruption top guns, as I like to call them. They tangibly demonstrated their commitment to fight corruption.  But an association is not enough, even when its annual meeting is a success. There are still too many token anti-corruption authorities, shells with insufficient resources, poorly trained staff and dependent on their political masters.  This needs to change, following the spirit and letter of the Convention.  My Office can help, as long as the political will is there.

Asset recovery

The section of the Convention that seems to get the most attention is asset recovery -- and for good reason. To make the return of assets a fundamental principle of the Convention, and to agree on bold new measures for such return, were major breakthroughs.

Implementing these measures is new to all countries, whether developed or not. I therefore applaud the proposals that have been made to strengthen technical assistance for the recovery of stolen assets.  I urge you to take a political decision at this Conference in order to increase the capacity of States to prevent the diversion of assets and to help victims get their money back.

Again, it would be helpful to have more knowledge and more information on asset recovery. For example, how effective are your financial intelligence units?  Have you been asked to return assets or asked for return of assets, and if so what made it successful or what made it fail? All of this would help us form a clearer picture on implementation of the Convention.  It would also show, next time we meet, that the Convention is a framework for action, not a museum piece.

A task for everyone

The UN Convention against Corruption was negotiated, signed and ratified by governments. But it belongs to all people.  With corruption, everybody pays. Therefore we have to fight it together.

I am encouraged by the broad spectrum of participation at this meeting --  government officials, civil society representatives, parliamentarians, corporate leaders, development bankers, anti-corruption bosses, and local administrators. 

You represent a powerful anti-corruption community, from a variety of backgrounds.  You all have a role to play and a duty to fulfil.

Parliaments exercise an oversight authority that can ensure that governments work effectively:  I appeal to lawmakers to do so thoroughly and without fear.   Voters will compensate you at the time of elections.

NGOs are not only advocates:  they are the eyes and the ears, even the conscience of the world.  When they demand transparency, openness and integrity, there is a reason -- they know where the malfeasance is and who is part of it.

Professional associations count too, and can help a lot.  Doctors, lawyers, bankers and accountants can uphold the integrity of their professions by not becoming involved in generating or recycling looted assets.  I know that the temptation is often there:  the buck is fast, the chances of being caught are low, the origin of the money not proven totally dirty (at least this is what some white-collar professions like to think).  Stay away is my answer, or you risk endangering all you have built in the profession, not least your reputation. You may even land up in jail. Sooner or later, perhaps thanks to this Convention, authorities will catch up to you.

Local governments -- which are the point of delivery for so many public services -- need more than others to ensure openness, transparency and full disclosures.  Actually, my concern is mostly about those quasi-public corporations, neither fish nor fowl, not private but not state-owned, that run so many economic activities in local administrations.  The Convention explicitly covers these hybrids:  yet, experience has shown how efficient they are at concealing their assets, often protected by a benign political blanket. 

Development banks have considerable leverage and responsibility.  I urge you to put the Convention at the core of your anti-corruption strategies.  This is not only essential for strengthening integrity.  It is an insurance policy for development assistance and the protection of assets.  I am counting on a private session with the representatives of participating development agencies to review what we can do together in the provision of development assistance:  ODA is a gigantic resource-transfer mechanism that could help a lot to promote integrity in public affairs.

I also have a message for international civil servants like myself, and my peers in and outside this hall:  let's practice what we preach. To be credible we must lead by example.  I suggest that the heads of international organizations represented here apply the UN anti-corruption Convention - on a voluntary basis, perhaps - within their institutions. This will strengthen credibility when requesting others to abide by anti-corruption measures. I am familiar with the vexed questions of privileges, immunities and jurisdiction.  Let's treat them as challenges to overcome, not as fig-leaves to hide behind.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We all have shared a common goal -- to prevent and to control corruption. Now we share a common framework to reach that goal -- the Convention against Corruption. Let's make use of it.

Corruption is a manifestation of societal ills.  Therefore all types of societal organizations can do their part, including religious and community leaders.  They can lead by example and by the spoken word.  They can make average citizens aware of the importance of taking action.  Passive victims of the corrosive effects of corruption are part of the problem;  properly motivated, these victims can become part of the solution.

As I mentioned at the beginning, a lot of history has been made in this part of the world.  This week you have a chance to make some history of your own.

As an anti-corruption coalition we have an opportunity -- indeed an obligation -- to live up to the expectations that were created when the Treaty was signed in Merida, Mexico and when it came into force last year.

In the same way that people remember the Earth Summit in Rio, or the Monterrey International Conference on Financing for Development, or the Beijing Conference on the Status of Women -- these were all turning points in humanity's development contract -- let us add our anti-corruption clause to the contract, this week, here on the shores of the Dead Sea.

I wish you a productive week and assure you that UNODC will work with you to make this Convention a real, vital force.