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Local Perspectives on Anti-Corruption and Human Rights: An Interview With Helena Olsson

“A stronger awareness of the human rights violations that corruption leads to, I believe can mobilize a bottom up reaction against corrupt practices”

Such were the words of Morten Kjaerum, director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, at the International Human Rights Policy Session at the World Human Rights City Forum. The session consisted of a series of feature speakers who provided different knowledge and insights on the topic: “The role of cities in combatting corruption and strengthening human rights”.

The connections between anti-corruption and human rights work is receiving increasing attention in recent years. According to RWI director Morten Kjaerum, who was a featured speaker during the session, corruption is one of the biggest impediments both for the realisation of human rights and for the wider sustainable development agenda. Corruption erodes the rule of law and the justice system, effects the delivery of public services, and interferes with political processes. While Kjaerum acknowledges it as a global issue, he connects it to limited rights:

“Corruption seems to breed best in societies where civil and political rights are restricted- where there is limited access to information, and weak functioning mechanisms to holding officials accountable to the public and limited freedom of media. In this sense human rights implementation is a key instrument to reduce corruption”

In the drive to build back better after the Covid-19 crisis the fight against corruption is a key component of the reconstruction. Building back better is an approach to post-disaster recovery adopted by the UN that aims to increase communities’ and nations’ resilience to future disasters. Kjaerum made the point that if corruption is not seriously addressed, societies will simply not build back better. According to him, local governments will play a key role in turning societies away from corruption and building trust in governance and governance structures.

Kjaerum also added another dimension to the discussion: the (lack of) stigmatisation. Corrupt practices can in many places be seen as part of normality, and Kjaerum claimed that globally it is still not sufficiently stigmatized to be corrupt. It was suggested that one reason for this could be that corruption is sometimes seen as the crime without victims. Soo A Kim, the Human Rights policy director of the Korean Ministry of Justice, explained that anti-corruption work focuses on the perpetrators and system of corruption, whereas human rights work is victim oriented. Applying a human rights based approach to anti-corruption puts various stake holders, especially victims, at the center which helps make corruption a public issue. A human rights based approach also allows for different methods of litigation and monitoring. Through a human rights based approach, victims of corruption – people whose rights to life, health, protection and services have been violated – become visible.

Local Perspectives for Global Benefit: an Interview with Helena Olsson of RWI

The topic of human rights and anti-corruption was chosen in dialogue with embassy of Sweden in Seoul, who co-organised the panel with RWI. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs organises so called democracy talks with partners all over the world as part of the policy initiative “Drive for Democracy”. “The Drive for Democracy”-initiative aims to provide support to the institutions, processes and defenders of democracy while also responding to the growing threats and challenges facing democracy today.

The question is what can be gained from a session that connect human rights, corruption and democracy, and what purpose the local perspective serves. To answer this we sat down with Helena Olsson, a Senior Program Officer from RWI, who is one of the organisers of the panel.

What can you tell us about the connection between human rights and anti-corruption.

That corruption has serious implications on human rights protection is a question that RWI has been trying to raise for years. Corruption is often seen as something that has no victims, and therefore no connection to human rights. However, we see the connection very clearly, especially in times of crises such as floods or earthquakes, or the current Covid-19 crisis.

In crises, the elements that come into focus are public funds for water, housing, protection and services for groups that are often the worst affected, such as people with disabilities, the elderly, homeless people and so on. In cases of corruption there is no protection, because funds have disappeared elsewhere. In a crisis like the current one of Covid-19 – when people lose their employment, when people get sick – the eyes turn to the state and its duty to the citizens. Once you start digging into it, which is what we did at this forum, you see how strongly connected corruption and human rights violations are.

What can be gained from discussing local approaches to anti-corruption and human rights?

In a forum that really focuses on the local level things become concrete. When we talk about international human rights policy it often has a relatively theoretical perspective. We have the principles, we know what we want to happen, and what people deserve to have. The question is how to do it; how to make it real and how to make it go deeper into human rights in practice. When you talk about these issues at the local level it is real, especially in smaller cities. The duty bearers and the right holders have names, they see each other in the street, the rights-holders have addresses that are known to the city officials. 

In the session we had mayors and council members from local governments that shared how they are working with these issues. Those concrete examples were very memorable.

Helena refers to two addresses made by government officials in Iztapalapa, Mexico and Istanbul, Turkey, which explain the very concrete steps both local governments have taken. The Mayor of Iztapalapa, Clara Brugada, explained how the Iztapalapa government dedicated itself to fighting corruption and reorganized both the government and how public funds are being spent.

“We decided that we could do more with less resources if we returned the governance of the municipality to its essence: a public administration that provides directly and not only dedicated to hiring private companies in order to fulfill our functions.”

The region had, for instance, previously outsourced water delivery to private companies which resulted in expensive deals and money lost to corruption in the delivery processes. By stopping the outsourcing the government of Iztapalapa managed to both cut back on costs and provide free water to those who previously did not have access to it.

As part of the reorganizing of how funds were spent, the government invested in cultural and recreational spaces, as well as improved the local infrastructure to benefit the inhabitants. The Iztapalapa government also created a citizens’ network and started a security cabinet to address public insecurity. The purpose of introducing these measures was to instigate public participation, as well as to allow for public assessment of the government and the police.

Further examples of concrete measures were provided by Figen Kaharan, Istanbul City Council Member who shared that the Istanbul administration noted 3 to 6 cars per institution manager. The administration also found that most of these vehicles were allocated for political institutions outside of the municipality. Deciding to take action, the administration collected the vehicles, exhibited them to the public, and then sold them. Selling the cars amounted in savings of 2000 vehicles per year, which were transformed into a 40% discount for students on public transport, as well as free transportation for mothers with young children. In addition to this, 1000 properties belonging to the municipality were transformed into different institutions, such as housing for women that had suffered violence.

According to Helena Olsson, another dimension that is highlighted from a local perspective is how human rights implementation takes place in a complicated context of resources and priorities.

Something that becomes very concrete at a local level is the prioritizing. These government officials present a reality: “We have what we have in public funds and we desperately need more schools, we have an overfull prison, and we would also like to build a new statue”. The weighing of priorities and which groups need attention is very real. It is acknowledged in international treaties that economic, social and cultural rights will be implemented progressively – everything cannot necessarily happen at the same time – but the way (local) governments weigh their alternatives should be argued in a way that explains to the citizens why they have decided as they have. The same treaty (CESCR) also says that economic and social rights should be implemented “to the maximum availability of resources”[1]. What that means is determined in political decisions, weighing priorities against each other, and being accountable to rights holders for these prioritizations.

Models for more systematic anti-corruption work at the local level were also presented during the session. Ali Imran from Pakistan shared how the government have set up a system of local level treaty implementation cells. It is a model where the reporting to the treaty bodies – the different conventions that the state is part of – occurs at the local level instead of the national. This is an attempt to locally compile information on how the different treaties are implemented at the local level, which then feeds into the central level reporting.

This was presented as a way to increase accountability for human rights – a transparency for human rights at the local level. It’s an approach that seems quite unique for Pakistan. It is still relatively new, but very interesting. He also talked about another way of having local transparency, which is the voluntary local reviews of the SDGs.

Then we heard from Cecilia Berglin of SALAR (Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions). SALAR has worked with RWI over the last few years in a research based process to develop a common platform for local governments across the country. This platform aims to standardize principles for how local governments can ensure human rights at the local level. This platform also includes corruption issues.

What can be gained from future collaborative work between the anti-corruption movement and the human rights movement?

All the panelists, the moderators and those who participated from the outside, seemed to be in strong agreement that there is much more to discuss on these issues. The more we talk the more we find. Corruption is often said to be a victimless crime, but it is clear that it is not victimless at all. The human rights perspective brings out the rights and the duties of the state when it comes to the victims of not countering corruption.

More collaboration between the fields would be beneficial. Anti-corruption work can make use of arguments and different monitoring bodies and institutions that are involved in human rights. Human rights education for anti-corruption officials would also be very useful.

And there is a need for research. Neither human rights, nor anti-corruption is new are any way. However, there is very little research on the link between them, and seeing how they actually interact and function in connection to each other.

What impact can forums and sessions such as this one have on the human rights movement?

It is very easy to say “you have to implement human rights” and that “you have to guarantee all the rights to the population”. However, consider a location where you have constant floods, an earthquake, refugees, high levels of poverty and Covid-19, where people do not have a fixed income, where most of the economy is informal. Then the human rights challenges are immense. It is not something that can be fixed easily or quickly, but it is a start to become aware of the non-discrimination issues and the importance of seeing the groups that might not be seen at first glance. Who is left behind, who is it that we do not see, who does not get access to whatever rights are needed to live dignified lives?

Once you start looking at that and having those perspectives you can improve. That is what we are trying to support. Many people have somewhat given up on human rights – they feel the concept does not work. However, it does, especially in some places. The examples from Iztapalapa and Istanbul showed how the measures taken had concrete effects on the populations’ ability to enjoy their rights. This forum is a sort of a laboratory. At the local level you see real examples, exchange knowledge with each other and learn what does not work, and what does.

The local engagement for human rights, reflected in the human rights cities movement, is a hopeful way forward for the human rights movement.

[1] See

See the WHRCF 2020 program book for the addresses made by the speakers. 

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