United Nations Security Council Holds First-Ever Sessions on Corruption and Conflict

On September 10, the United Nations Security Council held two sessions dedicated to discussing the relationship between corruption and conflict.  These sessions were convened by the United States, in connection with its assumption of the revolving Presidency of the Security Council.

The morning session, which was the first ever for the Security Council on the topic, featured speeches by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Founding Director at the Enough Project and co-founder of The Sentry John Prendergast.  Secretary-General Guterres expressed concern about “the startling scope of the challenge,” citing World Economic Forum estimates that the cost of corruption is at least $2.6 trillion (5 percent of global Gross Domestic Product).  He commended the Security Council and the General Assembly for “repeatedly recogniz[ing]” the connections among corruption, terrorism and violent extremism, and cited the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s large-scale corruption surveys, which “found that bribery of public officials was particularly high in areas affected by conflict.”

Secretary-General Guterres called on Member States to “be on the frontlines in the fight against corruption.” On this point, he emphasized the importance of capacity-building for national anti-corruption commissions and prosecutorial efforts, and recommended that government enhance anti-corruption efforts “by ensuring independent judiciaries, a vibrant civil society, freedom of the media and effective whistleblower protections.”  Finally, he encouraged all Member States “to bring greater resolve to [the] implementation [of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC)].”

Prendergast’s remarks concentrated on the linkages between corruption and “[t]oday’s deadliest conflicts in Africa — such as those in South Sudan, Somalia, northern Nigeria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”  “Until the Security Council and other interested parties with potential influence can create leverage to change these dynamics,” he stated, “the bottom line is that war is more beneficial than peace for those at the center of conflict and corruption.”  He proposed that, as part of a coordinated strategy to break the link between conflict and corruption in those countries, the Security Council ”and other interested parties” undertake three sets of actions: “a network-focused approach to sanctions that focus on grand corruption; anti-money laundering measures that focus on illicit movement of money through the international financial system; and prosecutions that focus on financial crimes associated with atrocities.”

In followup remarks, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was more openly critical of the Security Council’s inattention to corruption and conflict.  “[W]e hardly ever talk,” she declared, “about how corruption fuels the instability, violence, and criminal activity that put countries on our agenda.”  She said that “the United Nations is too often willing to ignore corruption,” whether out of fear “that addressing it will put off governments and shut off cooperation” or acceptance that corruption is “just the ‘cost of doing business’ in some countries.”  Ambassador Haley also highlighted U.S. Government efforts to take action against corruption and corruption-related money laundering.  She singled out the Congo, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, “where corruption has fueled conflict or prevented its resolution,” as instances in which the United States Treasury Department “leveled significant sanctions.”

In the afternoon meeting, as Ambassador Haley promised beforehand, U.S. representatives squarely charged Venezuela’s leaders with “profit[ing] at the expense of their people.”   The Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea reportedly asked Security Council members “to investigate Venezuelan leaders for money laundering in their countries and block Venezuelan officials from using their financial systems and report suspicious flows of currency.”  Ambassador Haley urged other Security Council representatives “to take concreate action” against the regime of President Nicolas Maduro, and indicated that continued support for the regime could have unspecified adverse consequences.

Note: It would be comforting to think that these Security Council sessions may represent “the start of a new era for the fight against corruption.”  It is more likely that they will come to be seen as small milestones on the tortuous path to comprehensive global anti-corruption action.  Secretary-General Guterres’s diplomatically worded request that nations “bring greater resolve” to implementing the UNCAC is one indicator of how long that path is.  A September 12 report by Transparency International on the state of implementation of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention found that “only 11 major exporting countries – accounting for about a third of world exports – have active or moderate law enforcement against companies bribing abroad in order to gain mining rights, contracts for major construction projects, purchases of planes and other deals.”  When even countries that rank among the least corrupt, such as Denmark, fail to adopt sufficient anti-corruption measures, countries with higher levels of bribery and corruption can easily applaud the sentiments expressed in the Security Council and still conclude that there is no urgency about addressing the problem.

A video recording of the sessions is available at UN Web TV.

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