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Is the UN Fighting a Losing Battle Against World’s Corrupt Leaders?

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 7 2021 (IPS) - A hilarious anecdote, recounted in the New York Times years ago, related to the widespread corruption embedded in the political culture of a Southeast Asian country where crooked politicians were willing to provide receipts every time they received a bribe—big time bribes.

And in Africa, the late Mobutu Sese Seko, president of former Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), was often described as one of “the world’s most corrupt leaders”.

Asked at a press conference whether he was the world’s second wealthiest political leader, a seemingly outraged Mobutu shouted back: “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” and then added with a straight face, “I am only the fourth richest.”

In an October 1991 report, the Washington Post quoted Mobutu as laying down one of the basic principles of corruption: “If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way. Only if you steal so much as to become rich overnight, you will be caught.”

A former UN Secretary-General, the outspoken Kofi Annan of Ghana, once said that “billions of dollars of public funds continue to be stashed away by some African leaders — even while roads are crumbling, health systems are failing, school children have neither books nor desks nor teachers, and phones do not work.”

And, when the UN General Assembly held its first-ever, three-day special session against corruption last week (June 2-4)—over 120 were listed as speakers, including multiple foreign ministers, three deputy prime ministers and 10 heads of state and government, mostly addressing via video messages to a world body locked down by the pandemic.

But one of the questions posed at the UN’s daily press briefing was subtle but right on target.

Asked what the President of the General Assembly (GA) Volkan Bozkir of Turkey hoped to achieve when “so many Heads of State who talked this morning are corrupt”, his Spokesperson, Brenden Varma, told reporters the President’s goal was always to create a forum where member states could come together –- to discuss topics that mattered to the world and share with each other ideas, best practices and lessons learned”.

The GA President’s ultimate aim, the Spokesperson said, was to move forward in the global fight against corruption and see progress in that regard.

Bozkir told delegates that corruption corrodes public trust, weakens the rule of law, seeds conflict, destabilizes peacebuilding efforts, undermines human rights, impedes progress on gender equality and hinders efforts to achieve the targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “It also hits the poor, the marginalized and the most vulnerable the hardest,” he added.

The outcome of the special session is reflected in the text of an action-oriented political declaration adopted by consensus. But history has shown that the fight against corruption is a long-drawn-out losing battle with no end in sight.

In July 2019, Transparency International compiled a list of 25 of “the biggest corruption scandals that shook the world and inspired widespread public condemnation, toppled governments and sent people to prison”—extending from Azerbaijan to Peru and from Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea.

These scandals involved “politicians across political parties and from the highest reaches of government, staggering amounts of bribes and money laundering of epic proportions,” Transparency International said.

The degree of corruption– both in the developing and the industrialized world—is so vast, particularly among politicians and heads of government, that a cynic might be right in declaring: if there is no corruption, there would be no politicians.

In the industrialized world, bribery is euphemistically called “kickbacks”, mostly on multi-million-dollar deals, largely for commercial aircraft and weapons systems.

According to one published report, some of the world’s most corrupt leaders included: Sani Abacha (Nigeria); Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire); Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines) and Suharto (Indonesia).

In a televised debate on the New York city Mayoral elections last week, one candidate publicly reminded one of his rivals of multiple corruption charges he had once faced.

“We all know that you’ve been investigated for corruption everywhere you’ve gone— in a trifecta of corruption investigations. Is that what we really want in the next Mayor?”

The UN, which says that corruption is criminal, immoral and the ultimate betrayal of public trust, welcomed the new anti-corruption network, as ‘important step’ to build trust, promote justice. Credit: UN News/Daniel Dickinson

Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, told IPS it’s great that the General Assembly organised a session on fighting corruption which is major scourge on our societies and a driver of inequality.

However, any meaningful debate on corruption would be incomplete without an interrogation of how the present emphasis on market-oriented policies is creating avenues for corruption on a grand scale by enabling the siphoning off of public resources to private companies, he argued.

As part of the dominant market discourse, he pointed out, states are being encouraged to retreat from public services and cede space to profit driven private entities.

“A lot of corruption thereby emanates from inappropriate awards of government tenders to cronies of political elites and the so-called incentivizing of certain businesses through backroom deals on tax breaks and privileged concessions to certain politically connected businesses,” he noted.

“Illicit financial flows and money laundering are all part of the mix and need to be addressed through emphasis on transparency and accountability supported by vibrant civil societies and media watchdogs”, Tiwana said.

Addressing delegates last week, Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, and current President of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), said corruption, which leads to massive outflows of illicit finance, is among the main reasons for the economic underperformance of developing countries and for rising inequalities across the world.

Stressing that corruption stifles opportunities for the poor, while condemning them to a life of misery and inequity, he said an estimated $2.6 trillion — or 5 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) — is lost annually to such behaviour.

Developing countries lose $1.26 trillion — nine times all official development assistance (ODA), he noted.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told delegates the administration of President Joe Biden is committed to taking special aim at corruption.

And that starts with building on the U.S. government’s existing anti-corruption tools, obligations, and commitments, including steps to vigorously enforce the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which strengthens business environments around the world by prohibiting U.S. persons from bribing foreign officials.

It also means strengthening the U.S. Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, she said.

Since 2019 alone, U.S. asset recovery efforts have led to the transfer of more than $1.5 billion to countries harmed by corruption, she added.

Tiwana of CIVICUS said a debate on corruption should logically include focus on creating enabling environments for civil society organisations and independent media entities to shine a spotlight on corrupt practices and collusion between political and economic elites.

“Our research at CIVICUS shows that 87 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with serious restrictions on the civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression”.

He said civil society activists and journalists are being attacked on a colossal scale across the globe.

“If governments in the Global North and South are truly serious about tackling corruption, they should take action on reversing civic space restrictions and ending persecution of activists and journalists,” he declared.

In a joint statement released last week the G7 ministers (of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, US, and the High Representative of the European Union), said they recognize that corruption is a pressing global challenge.

As the UN Convention against Corruption notes, corruption threatens the stability and security of societies, undermining the institutions and values of democracy, ethical values and justice, and jeopardizing sustainable development and the rule of law.

The ministers said corruption presents serious threats for individuals and societies and often enables other forms of crime, including organized crime and economic crime, including money laundering. These threats have been heightened by COVID-19.

“As the world continues to recover, it is critical that we do not let corruption threaten our efforts to build back better and address global challenges especially the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals”.

“We are looking forward to the G7 ministerial meeting in September this year, where there will be a discussion on our joint efforts to address corruption”, the ministers declared.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the creation of the Global Operational Network of Anti-Corruption Law Enforcement Authorities – or GlobE Network – as a step in the right direction.

He said the Network will enable law enforcement authorities to navigate legal processes through informal cooperation across borders, helping to build trust and bring those guilty of corruption to justice.

*This article contains extracts from a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That.” Authored by Thalif Deen, Senior Editor, Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, the book is peppered with scores of anecdotes– from the serious to the hilarious– and is available on Amazon worldwide and at bookshops in Sri Lanka. The links follow:


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  • Akram Saqib

    The writer of this article has not done justice to his topic. He is perhaps also restricted to speak truth about corruption. He has mentioned only politicians as corrupt which is not a fact. Corruption begins from the big powers and multi national organizations never ends there. Big powers always want to change the political scenario by bribe and threat for their own interest all over the world. They do not think morally when they are enhancing their own interests. On one side they condemns autocracies and on the other side they help the military junta to topple the legitimate governments of the politicians. Is this not corruption? A cursory glance of US and EU foreign policy clearly reveals the dichotomy of these states. They run with the rabbit and at the same time hunt with the hounds. In fact these same powers who cry for the transparency are the major source of corruption. The world famous Anti corruption and Transparency organizations are cats paw of the big guns to disseminate disinformation about the sincere politicians and achieve their vested interest.
    The multinational organizations exploit the resources of the poor sates by making cartels with the corrupt and rich mafia and persons of the developing countries.
    Each move of the word powers is to squeeze benefit ,religious, economic and political by setting up rubber stamp governments all over the world. So if UNO wants end of corruption in real terms it should restrict the big guns . As there are some world policeman states so they should be stopped by UNO and there should be more space as Tiwana has said for journalists and civil societies.

  • Brett Connor

    The UN is the pinnacle of Global Corruption and Deceit.

  • disqus_KYzELRS7E6

    The UN is itself deeply corrupt. The G7 have no grounds on which to level criticisms at others. Their unified ‘build back better’ chorus reveals clearly the depths of their absorption by the corporate machinery. Hideous.