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CORRUPTION: Treaty Could Be Working – Or Not

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 30 2008 (IPS) - Ongoing international talks on the question of how to strengthen a U.N. treaty against corruption are doomed to failure unless governments agree to take practical actions to demonstrate compliance, according to observers who are attending a major anti-corruption summit in Indonesia this week.

“Without a concrete plan to assess country progress in implementing the U.N. treaty, the convention will be nothing more than a dead letter,” said Huguette Labelle, chairperson of Transparency International (TI), an independent corruption watchdog based in Germany.

Adopted in 2003, the treaty requires that official delegates must submit their country reports on corruption at the meeting, which represents the need for collective action to stem unfair practices worldwide.

But according to TI and other groups, such obligations are not being taken seriously, despite the fact that 83 of the 140 signatory countries have also ratified the treaty. Most of those who have taken some steps show “lacklustre” progress, according to TI.

“Our work has shown us that only through a transparent programme of mutual evaluation will countries take such an instrument seriously, and get serious about implementing it,” said TI’s researcher Gillian Dell, who released a position paper for the group ahead of the conference.

“That’s why,” Dell continued, “we’re pushing for dates and concrete plans about how the states parties to the convention want to assess the success of their implementation. This meeting here in Indonesia is the moment.”

TI is calling for swift action not just on a review mechanism, but on the return of assets stolen by corrupt leaders and stashed abroad.

The U.N. meeting opened in the resort town of Bali Monday as preparations were still underway for the burial of Suharto, the former military dictator and president who ruled Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, with an iron fist for 32 years.

Suharto, who died Sunday in a hospital bed, was accused of massive corruption and human rights abuses. He agreed to step down in 1998 only after democracy activists posed a serious challenge to his U.S.-backed regime through street power. Critics charge that during Suharto’s rule, he and his family extorted billions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes. In 1999, a Time magazine story claimed that during his rule, Suharto amassed about 73 billion dollars.

In response to the Time story, Suharto sued the magazine and was awarded more than 100 million dollars in damages. The magazine, which still stands by its claim, was preparing for an appeal against the defamation ruling when Suharto died.

In 2004, TI, which monitors worldwide cases of corrupt governance and business practices, placed Suharto at the top of its corruption list. The group’s investigations showed his illegal income ranged between 15 billion and 35 billion dollars.

Suharto evaded trial for criminal charges on medical grounds. In 2006, his doctors testified that he was brain damaged and unfit to face prosecution, which angered many rights activists who held him responsible for the killing of half a million Communist sympathisers in Indonesia.

TI has not commented on the impact of Suharto’s death on the pending corruption cases against him. However, many Indonesians seemed disappointed with the fact that he died without having been brought to justice.

Reports from Indonesia suggest that a civil case was still pending against Suharto at the time of his death, with the Indonesian government seeking 1.4 billion dollars allegedly siphoned from student scholarship programmes during his rule.

Prosecutors are likely to name at least one of Suharto’s heirs to stand trial in his place, as Indonesian law allows, but the case is now on hold until Feb. 12 to respect the national period of mourning.

On the opening day of the conference, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was scheduled to address the delegates. But instead of heading to Bali, he chose to participate in the funeral of the dictator, which TI named the world’s most corrupt political figure “of all time”.

“In Indonesia, corruption is public enemy number one,” acknowledged the political affairs minister at the conference being attended by more than 1,000 delegates from 140 countries. Speaking on behalf of the Indonesian president, however, he said that his country had managed to create enough of a “fear factor to deter corruptors”.

Though mindful that corruption is more pervasive in developing countries, such as Indonesia and others, civil society activists are also critical of the behavior of rich industrialised countries, especially those within the fold of the Group of 8 (G8) nations.

They point out that G8 members Germany, Italy, and Japan have yet to ratify the U.N. convention, even though they signed it about four years ago.

Other key global financial centres such as Singapore, Switzerland and Liechtenstein have also failed to ratify the treaty, which is not a good sign for the treaty’s implementation, according to critics who also noted that delegates from a number of signatory countries were missing at Bali.

So far, only 107 countries have ratified the treaty.

In a statement, TI and other groups urged the private sector and civil society organisations to increase their participation in the fight against corruption, even though some governments remained hostile to that approach.

Opening the conference in Bali Monday, Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, made a similar call.

“Everyone has a role to play, not only governments, but also parliamentarians, business, civil society, the media, and the average citizens,” he said. “Corruption hurts us all, therefore fighting it is a shared responsibility.”

Costa warned that despite political will and good intentions, efforts to recover assets are running into resistance from “middle-level bureaucrats with connections, knowledge and entrenched interests who have a lot to lose.”

“Neutralise these black holes in your administrations,” he told delegates.

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