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European Forum Alpbach High-level Panel on Corruption and Sustainable Development
Keynote address by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


1 September 2020

Mr Stelzer,
Distinguished Panellists,

This Forum is convening at a crucial moment for our societies and planet.  Today’s discussion on corruption, can help us to forge new, and urgently needed, policy directions.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the many flaws and inequalities in our societies. Their growth is nourished and fuelled by those preventable, pre-existing vulnerabilities. And many of them are created by corruption.

As the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime told the 8th meeting of the Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption in Abu Dhabi last year, "Through corrupt practices, trillions of dollars are diverted every year from schools, hospitals and other essential services and infrastructure".

As he noted, preventing and combatting corruption is "a key to unlock progress towards ending poverty and inequalities, protecting health and planet, and strengthening justice and the rule of law" – including by preventing conflict, and boosting sustainable development.

Using that key to unlock healthy, more equal societies is now a matter of urgency.

We must pull back from the path of accelerating inequalities, and deepening anger and frustration. Hunger is increasing; opportunities for employment, education and training are lagging; and with the burdens of the pandemic falling most heavily on the poor, discriminated minorities, women and others, grievances are rising.

How can we reverse these trends?

With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, States universally set themselves an achievable plan of action for people's rights, development and well-being.

And for the first time, the Agenda includes a shared understanding of the accountable and inclusive institutions vital to driving a much more effective model of prosperity.

Sustainable Development Goal 16 outlines the basis of “good governance”: ensuring impartial rule of law; controlling corruption; promoting participation; and enabling effective, accountable and transparent institutions that protect fundamental freedoms.

The importance of SDG 16 cannot be overemphasized. These are the enablers and accelerators for the entire 2030 Agenda. And they are the drivers of work to build back better from the pandemic crisis.


Good governance, anti-corruption and human rights share common principles. And together, they result in greater wellbeing; systems in which the fruits of development are better managed and more effectively shared.

Like the UN Convention Against Corruption, international human rights law requires States to take effective action against corruption. Failure to do so, and to provide remedies to the victims of human rights abuses that result from corruption, is in itself a violation of human rights.

As my predecessor, Navi Pillay, pointed out several years ago, “Corruption kills. The money stolen through corruption every year is enough to feed the world’s hungry 80 times over. Nearly 870 million people go to bed hungry every night, many of them children; corruption denies them their right to food, and, in some cases, their right to life.”

In the context of the COVID pandemic, corruption siphons away lifesaving resources, and weakens the effectiveness of measures designed to mitigate the suffering of those worst affected by the loss of livelihoods, training opportunities and other harms.

Our pledge to achieve sustainable development, and our obligation to fulfil human rights, compel us to at last take tough action against corruption – both in terms of its confiscation of what should be common goods, and also its facilitation of abuse of power for private gain.

The pandemic's impact on people and economies heightens the need for a much sharper focus on good governance and effective, principled oversight. Yes, to advance structural changes during a crisis of these dimensions will be challenging. But we urgently need to ensure that funds reach the people who need them most. Further delays can only mean more lost public resources, sub-standard medical equipment, and a range of other essential services weakened by corruption.

For the planet, for our peoples and for prosperity, we must rebuild our societies with policies and institutions that more effectively uphold human rights.