Conventional Corruption

Every time I hear Americans compaining about the UN, about how inefficient or corrupt it is, how it threatens “national sovereignty”, I wonder how much they actually know about the UN. Probably 1%, if that, of its activities have any sort of public face in the US, while all over the world the UN chugs away in relative obscurity. Who is going to do all this stuff if not the UN, I ask its critics, and then sit back while the level of their ignorance becomes clearer and clearer.

Granted, the UN has its problems: some important issues are vastly underfunded or overbureaucratized, some initiatives take way too much time and energy to satisfy the interests of limited parties on isues that don’t, ultimately, matter much. The Security Council has become a travesty, maintaining a severe power imbalance to the benefit of a handful of countries. This post isn’t meant as a defense of the UN, but rather by way of introduction to one of the many things the UN does do, and does fairly well, out of sight and mind of the American public.

What I’m speaking about is the ongoing effort to draft a Convention on Corruption. I have sort of an “inside track” on the negotiations, as my partner has been working at the talks, writing reports for the European Commission’s offices in Belgium, which explains why I even know about this, as a Google search doesn’t turn up a single American media reference to this important event, proceedings of which are just wrapping up pending the release of the final Convention in December.

The most important advances so far seem to be standardizing relations between criminal jurisdictions in different countries. While many countries have traditionally preferred individually-negotiated extradition treaties (the US has 110), the Convention would call for a regularized agreement for countries to aid other countries in their investigations and execution of justice even when the two countries disagree on their definitions of the particular crime. That is, if something is illegal in Mexico but not in the US, US authorities would still assist Mexican authorities in prosecuting criminals who may have fled to the US. While this scares me a little in terms of “ordinary” criminality (for instance, I admire the position France and some other nations have taken, refusing to extradite accused criminals to the US in cases where they would face the death penalty), in relation to corruption it is essential, as all too many corrupt officials flee the country and enjoy relative immunity from prosecution under the current system–often taking with them huge amounts of illicitly-gained money and leaving behind economies struggling to deal with the effects of such a massive withdrawal of funds.

As a corollary to this, the new Convention would mandate the return of funds involved in embezzlement, bribery, and fraud to their country of origin, helping especially developing and transitional economies to recover from the often massive hits their economies can take from even a single well-placed, corrupt official.

Of course, as you would expect, the US is holding up the game. At issue is the relation of political parties to government. As you might expect, the US has been fighting tooth and nail — and will probably refuse to ratify the final Convention — to prevent any sort of interference with corruption within political parties. Article 10 requires member states to control both conflicts of interests and funding of political party through “illegal and corrupt practices”:

1. Each State Party shall adopt, maintain and strengthen measures and regulations concerning the funding of political parties. Such measures and regulations shall serve:

(a) To prevent conflicts of interest;
(b) To preserve the integrity of democratic political structures and processes;
(c) To proscribe the use of funds acquired through illegal and corrupt
practices to finance political parties; and
(d) To incorporate the concept of transparency into funding of political
parties by requiring declaration of donations exceeding a specified limit.

2. Each State Party shall take measures to avoid as far as possible conflicts
of interest owing to simultaneous holding of elective office and responsibilities in
the private sector.

Since a great majority of our current administration’s highest-placed people (although corruption is obviously not limited to the current administration) have made a career of reaping the benefits of “simultaneous holding of elective office and responsibilities in the private sector”, and since “illegal and corrupt” fundraising practices have been raised to an art by our Democratic and Republican leaderships, you can see where the current administration would be especially reluctant to endorse such a position. My partner actually heard the US delegate tell the assembly that the US has no interest in this clause because “We don’t have political parties in the US”. She puts it this way: “Their argument is that in America money is allowed to follow good ideas…in other words, political corruption is allowed.”

Yay, us.

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  • Anonymous

    I always tell my friends from abroad that in the US we don’t call it corruption, we call it “lobbying”!

  • Anonymous

    Ha! That’s pretty good–and gets to the heart of something I’ve been trying to think through. See, I live in Las Vegas, which has obviously seen its share of corruption in its day. The thing is, as corrupt and interbred as our corporate/government alliance is these days, everybody thinks of Vegas, even those who live here, as having “cleaned up” since the corrupt days of the ’50s-’70s. As if the rise of corporate rule in the casinos, in replacing the former mob bosses and getting rid of the “skim”, had driven out corruption.

    Of course, these corporations have their own “skim”, sending their money to overseas corporate headquarters to be laundered, just like every other major corporation. And I’m sure there’s not a major politician in the state of NV who isn’t owned by one or more corporate interests. But we just don’t think of it as “corruption” in the same way we look back at the Syndicate dealings of the good/bad old days.

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