On Democratic Values and Corruption

This post first appeared on the World Bank’s Governance for Development blog, December 10, 2022

This is the time of year to reflect on both anticorruption and human rights as their international days of recognition come in succession. The links are especially salient this year as the International Anti-Corruption Conference has the theme of defending democratic values. The need to reinvigorate efforts to control corruption is widely acknowledged, as is the concern about shrinking civic space in many countries. These two agendas are increasingly connected.

While there may not exist a consensus list of “democratic values”, I think many would agree that certain values would be on the list: the ability to shape government policies that affect you; the opportunity to speak out and hold government officials accountable; the principle that everyone should be treated equally.

In 2018, the Pew Charitable Trust asked respondents in America about 16 democratic values and how important they are for the country. Top responses highlighted the importance of respect for rights and freedoms and of serious consequences for elected officials who engage in misconduct. Core governance themes received strong support, including independence of the judiciaries, open and transparent government, independence of the media. Many of these fundamental values are also essential for controlling corruption.  Reinforcing these democratic values can help control corruption.

Conversely, corruption fundamentally undermines the principle of equal treatment. From the micro level of bribes for services to sextortion to grand schemes to siphon off public assets, corruption affords selective benefits to those who circumvent the rules rather than those who follow them.

With support from the Human Rights, Inclusion and Empowerment Trust Fund, we are exploring the links between corruption and human rights and the various channels through which they move together or in opposition. While free and independent media, access to information, and rights of participation may align with both human rights and control of corruption, the relationship can also be complex as with the recent European Court of Justice decision that beneficial ownership registers violate the right to privacy. And in some places, anticorruption campaigns have been seen as tools for repression, used selectively to stifle opponents. 

While the relationships may be complex, there is no doubt that controlling corruption is increasingly seen as essential for supporting human rights.  Our preliminary research suggests that around 60 percent of national reports in response to the Universal Periodic Review of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cite efforts to control corruption among their accomplishments, and more than 40 percent of the linked UN reports similarly cite corruption. 

The importance of the connection between these rights-based values and controlling corruption is not just symbolic.  The confluence of the two agendas—and their motivating power—were clear when the indignity of bribes sparked the Arab Spring. A decade of disappointment followed as the story became one of authoritarianism, violence, and civil war rather than hope and reform.

The fact that some institutions of good governance, such as the right to information and right to public participation are both fundamental human rights (Articles 19 and 21, respectively, of the Universal Declaration) and important tools for accountability suggests that messaging and advocacy can effectively draw on both motivations. 

The human and societal costs of corruption are corruption are enormous, and although it can’t be eliminated it can be controlled.  Strengthening delivery on democratic values and human rights can help and be helped by greater attention to control of corruption.  These mutually reinforcing agendas can become vicious circles or virtuous circles—it is up to all of us to make it virtuous.

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