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Human Rights and anti-corruption

In recent years, a number of international documents signed under the auspices of both the United Nations and regional organizations have acknowledged the negative effects of corruption on the protection of human rights and on development. Moreover, the treaty bodies and special procedures of the United Nations human rights system in their examination of states’ compliance with international law have commented on the inability of states to comply with their obligations as a result of corruption.

Human rights are indivisible and interdependent, and the consequences of corrupt governance are multiple and touch on all human rights — civil, political, economic, social and cultural, as well as the right to development. Corruption leads to violation of the government’s human rights obligation “to take steps… to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the [International] Covenant [on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights]”. The corrupt management of public resources compromises the government’s ability to deliver an array of services, including health, educational and welfare services, which are essential for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. Also, the prevalence of corruption creates discrimination in access to public services in favour of those able to influence the authorities to act in their personal interest, including by offering bribes. The economically and politically disadvantaged suffer disproportionately from the consequences of corruption, because they are particularly dependent on public goods.

Corruption may also affect the enjoyment of civil and political rights. Corruption may weaken democratic institutions both in new and in long-established democracies. When corruption is prevalent, those in public positions fail to take decisions with the interests of society in mind. As a result, corruption damages the legitimacy of a democratic regime in the eyes of the public and leads to a loss of public support for democratic institutions. People become discouraged from exercising their civil and political rights and from demanding that these rights be respected. Electoral fraud and corruption in the funding of political parties are other, more direct corrupt practices related to the enjoyment of civil and political rights.

In countries where corruption is pervasive in the rule-of-law system, both the implementation of existing legal frameworks and efforts to reform them are impeded by corrupt judges, lawyers, prosecutors, police officers, investigators and auditors. Such practices compromise the right to equality before the law and the right to a fair trial, and especially undermine the access of the disadvantaged groups to justice, as they cannot afford to offer bribes. Importantly, corruption in the rule-of-law system weakens the very accountability structures which are responsible for protecting human rights and contributes to a culture of impunity, since illegal actions are not punished and laws are not consistently upheld.

How human rights principles can help in fighting corruption?

Human rights principles and institutions are essential components of successful and sustainable anti-corruption strategies. First, anti-corruption efforts are likely to be successful when they approach corruption as a systemic problem rather than a problem of individuals. A comprehensive response to corruption includes effective institutions, appropriate laws, good governance reforms as well as the involvement of all concerned stakeholders in and outside the government. Thus, the adoption of legal frameworks or anti-corruption commissions may not be effective if there is no strong and engaged civil society or a culture of integrity in State institutions. Likewise, civil activism against corruption needs the assistance of a strong legal framework and an open political system to achieve its goals.

Second, and given the above, the battle against corruption, similar to human rights projects, is often a long-term process requiring profound societal changes, which include a country’s institutions, laws and culture. Consequently, an efficient anti-corruption strategy can benefit from and be informed by key human rights principles. Elements like an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, transparency in the political system and accountability are essential for a successful anti-corruption strategy.

The role and characteristics of institutions that have contributed effectively to anti-corruption efforts need to be identified. Furthermore, the role of the judiciary, ombudsmen and national human rights institutions in addressing corruption and the potential for their cooperation with national and international anti-corruption agencies merit examination as well. The efforts of the judiciary and the rule-of-law system in general both in advocating the adoption of relevant laws and in implementing the existing legal framework are also relevant to this discussion.

Transparency and accountability are key principles of a human rights-based approach to development that are also integral to successful anti-corruption strategies. Some of the measures that can enhance transparency and accountability and contribute to sustainable anti-corruption measures are the adoption of laws ensuring the public’s access to information on governmental processes, decisions and policies as well as institutional reforms which strengthen transparency and accountability, for example through reform in the operating procedures and decision-making processes of institutions, including elected institutions and the institutions responsible for the delivery of services.

An engaged civil society and media that value and demand accountability and transparency are vital in addressing corruption. Lessons can be learned from the experience of the human rights movements in raising civil society’s awareness of the adverse consequences of corruption and in building alliances with state institutions and the private sector in support of anti-corruption efforts. Both civil society and the private sector can play a determining role in affecting institutional reform to strengthen transparency and accountability.

UN human rights mechanisms and anti-corruption

United Nations human rights mechanisms are increasingly mindful of the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights and consequently of the importance of effective anti-corruption measures. The Human Rights Council and its Special Rapporteurs and Universal Periodic Review Mechanism, as well as Human Rights Treaty-monitoring bodies (notably the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Rights of the Child) addressed issues of corruption and human rights on numerous occasions.

In 2003, the former Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur with the task of preparing a comprehensive study on corruption and its impact on the full enjoyment of human rights, in particular economic, social and cultural rights. The mandate ended in 2006 when the Sub-Commission was replaced by the Advisory Committee. As requested by the then Commission on Human Rights, in 2004 OHCHR organized jointly with UNDP a seminar on good governance practices for the promotion of human rights, including anti-corruption, in Seoul, the Republic of Korea (the report is contained in document E/CN.4/2005/97). Subsequently OHCHR published in 2007 a booklet on Good Governance Practices for the Protection of Human Rights (HR/PUB/07/4). In 2006, OHCHR organized a conference on anti-corruption measures, good governance and human rights in Warsaw, Poland (the report is contained in document A/HRC/4/71). In follow-up to this conference OHCHR is developing, jointly with UNODC and UNDP a guide book on human rights and anti-corruption for practitioners.

The Human Rights Council has continued to promote work on human rights and anti-corruption. In 2011, the Council stressed that States should promote supportive and enabling environments for the prevention of human rights violations, inter alia, by fighting corruption (resolution 18/13) Furthermore, the Council considered the issue of the negative impact of the non-repatriation of funds of illicit origin to the countries of origin on the enjoyment of human rights (resolutions 17/23, 19/38 and 22/12), including a study by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the subject matter (report A/HRC/19/42). The issue is now considered by the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.

In 2012, a cross-regional statement on corruption and human rights was delivered by Morocco to the 20th session of the Human Rights Council on behalf of 134 States. The statement called for deepening reflection on the close connection between human rights and anti-corruption measures and urged the anti-corruption and human rights movements to work together. Subsequently, the Human Rights Council convened a panel discussion on the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights in March 2013 (report A/HRC/23/26).

In 2013, the Human Rights Council requested its expert Advisory Committee to submit a research-based report to the Council at its twenty-sixth session in June 2014 on the issue of the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights, and to make recommendations on how the Council and its subsidiary bodies should consider this issue (resolution 23/9). This on-going commitment by United Nations to address the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights reflects a common understanding of the importance and interconnectedness of these issues and informs OHCHR’s work in this area.

Three key messages of OHCHR:

  1. Corruption is an enormous obstacle to the realization of all human rights — civil, political, economic, social and cultural, as well as the right to development.
  2. The core human rights principles of transparency, accountability, non-discrimination and meaningful participation, when upheld and implemented, are the most effective means to fight corruption.
  3. There is an urgent need to increase synergy between inter-governmental efforts to implement the United Nations Convention against Corruption and international human rights conventions. This requires strengthened policy coherence and collaboration between the intergovernmental processes in Vienna, Geneva and New York, UNODC, UNDP, OHCHR and civil society.