nexus between anti-corruption and human rights

Elaine Ryan: Combining Anti-Corruption and Human Rights


Ahead of the 18th International Anti-Corruption Conference held in Copenhagen on the 22-24th of October, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute sat down with Elaine Ryan, our Senior Analyst on Anti-Corruption and Human Rights, to discuss a human rights approach to anti-corruption and RWI’s recent report on the subject. Find the link to it here.

Could you quickly outline the report?

The report attempts to educate, and be educative for anti-corruption organizations, in showing which avenues to look at corruption from a human rights point of view. It’s also analytical because we are a human rights organization and we want to address the fact that a lot of the human rights mechanisms have not done enough to explain how corruption causes human rights violations. Some have done very good work, and we’ve highlighted that, but some have done very limited work which we also addressed, to show that there are positive movement but it’s not perfect yet!

What was the aim/purpose of this report?

In creating this report we wanted to highlight the practical side of anti-corruption and human rights. The idea that corruption has human rights dimensions has been covered academically, theoretically, in many ways over the past twenty years. This debate can now be closed in our opinion. The question is: how do you turn that knowledge into practice, when you’re working in a civil society organization or even an academic institution? Practical knowledge is essential to proper implementation.

What is the biggest challenge you faced when writing the report?

The most challenging aspect of writing this report was trying to make sense of little pieces of information that exist independently from each other. Usually, when working with human rights or anti-corruption, it is on a local level raising issues that are relevant to a specific state, without looking at practice from other fora/places/countries. We had to look at many different pieces of information, in many different bodies and try to make sense of it, which wasn’t easy. Another issue was the preconceived notions that we had at the beginning, for example, that human rights institutions didn’t do very much about corruption. In fact, what appeared is that some do very good work, and some do very little, simply paying lip service to the issue. Trying to highlight that there is good and bad, trying to strike the right balance, was not so easy.

Why is this report important?

The report is covering anti-corruption from a relatively unique perspective. It tries to address anti-corruption with a human rights based approach from a practical point of view. It looks at what you can do as an organization, human rights institution or an anti-corruption institution, to channel anti-corruption through the human rights protection, or to bring remedies to victims of corruption.

States have committed themselves to human rights based approach to anti-corruption, for example in resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council. What does it mean in practice? This can go two ways: it can just become a piece of agreed language that is put in resolutions, or it can become something in practice. The only way for it to become something in practice is for civil society organizations to use it and challenge states and say “you’ve agreed to this, and now we have to use it”. It’s not simple, there’s a lot of language in diplomatic agreements that just falls there and replicates year after year, it’s just reused because it has been used once, but it doesn’t mean that one knows what it covers.

Does corruption affect certain groups more than others? Who and why?

Corruption is a very big word. Some people call it the “Big C”, as in cancer, and for a long time there was a lot of discussion about corruption being a cancer to society. However, there’s a real problem behind saying that corruption is a plague, disease or cancer, because it creates a sense of helplessness. You can’t really do anything about it. So, it really distorts what you actually put behind the word. Corruption is just how people interact with each other, it’s a type of exchange in governance. So, depending on the context, there will always be people who are more vulnerable, it just really depends where you’re looking. Corruption happens everywhere, it’s just more prevalent in some forms, in some places, and more prevalent in other forms in other places. What’s for sure is that if you have less political power or less economic means, you will be more vulnerable to corruption. If you have less education, you will be more vulnerable. Especially in places where petty corruption is rife. It can take so many forms, and it doesn’t have to be a police officer taking a bribe at a road block, which is the way everybody pictures corruption (petty corruption is payments or favours in everyday life).

What double standards by countries exist when it comes to corruption?

There are, in some ways, double standards in anti-corruption forums. Every state will say that they are committed to fighting corruption, no state says that corruption isn’t an issue. But then, what do they mean when they say that they’re committed to anti-corruption? Corruption starts with the small payments in everyday life, and then escalates to banking secrecy laws that hide proceeds of corruption and crimes attached to that. In international forums, where states discuss anti-corruption, some focus on petty corruption, usually because it’s not prevalent in their country, but others have the opposite political agenda. From a human rights perspective, every form of corruption needs to be addressed, one isn’t a bigger problem than the other.

What is that most important thing that should be taken away upon reading the report?

There are a lot of misconceptions because human rights organizations and anti-corruption organizations have developed ways of working that are so far from each other. It creates misconceptions from one to the other, when in fact there’s a lot of common narrative.

Human rights aren’t just procedural rights in criminal proceedings, the presumption of innocence is not the only human rights concern in a criminal proceeding. But, that’s the picture that a lot of anti-corruption activists have. It’s a very limited view of what human rights mechanisms have said about corruption. Equally, some human rights organizations point to the fact that anti-corruption investigations can be used for political means, and they have in some places, but again, it’s only part of everything that’s done in anti-corruption. So, there are really stereotypes of what matters to the other, that don’t reflect reality. We wanted to show that it is possible to work together: for an anti-corruption organization to use human rights mechanisms. It’s not going to solve the problem in a day, but human rights mechanisms and institutions exist, and they should be used before being discarded.