The UNGA special session on corruption fell way short of expectations
The United Nations General Assembly just concluded a unique special session from June 2 to June 4. It was the first ever session devoted to the issue of corruption in the history of the Assembly. Convening such a session is a manifestation of the increasing global recognition of the menace of corruption. There had been hectic preparations for the special session during the past three years with the signatory states of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption – UNCAC, taking the lead. The outcome is a political declaration adopted on the first day of the special session which underscores the key objective of the session as the ‘common commitment to effectively addressing challenges and implementing measures to prevent and combat corruption and strengthen international cooperation.’
Conservative estimates of annual global corruption range from US $1 trillion by the IMF to 5 percent of GDP by the World Bank. CSIS, a renowned US think tank estimated that corruption in the third world is almost three times the aid received by them from the rich nations. Some other agencies estimate that developing countries lose 9 times the aid received.
The UNGASS21, as the special session is popularly known, has been organized at a time when global concerns about corruption have further heightened since the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic-- which has exposed massive weaknesses in governance structures around the globe. There have been numerous reports of embezzlement of international donations and the scarce domestic funds allocated to procurement of vaccines and upgrading of health facilities by powerful actors with impunity at the cost of millions of people requiring health facilities and livelihood in the wake of increasing unemployment.
The special session was held in the backdrop of another important milestone in the history of the UN. The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) was adopted in 2003 as the first legally binding global instrument to combat corruption. The process of UNCAC implementation review in individual countries has considerably slowed down, if not stalled, due to COVID-19 – a time when implementation review was needed more than ever because huge sums of money were being transacted in the pandemic emergency with weaker checks and oversight.
Sadly, the 86-point political declaration has fallen way short of expectations. Instead of being a pointed action-oriented document, it followed the traditional template of long-winding narration in diplomatic language.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
It was hoped that the political declaration adopted by UNGASS 2021 would breathe new life into UNCAC and further strengthen the efforts against corruption, especially after the experience of COVID-19. Sadly, the 86-point political declaration has fallen way short of expectations. Instead of being a pointed action-oriented document, it followed the traditional template of long-winding narration in diplomatic language. The UNCAC Coalition, which is a global network of over 350 civil society organizations (CSOs) in over 100 countries said that the declaration would not be sufficient to ensure substantive progress in global efforts to prevent corruption, hold perpetrators to account, and increase the recovery and return of stolen assets.
“The Political Declaration does not adequately address the urgent need for the international community to end the impunity of powerful individuals in large-scale corruption cases,” the coalition said.
119 countries were listed among the participants of the UNGASS2021 out of which 14 were represented at the level of either heads of government or deputy heads. 56 countries were represented by Ministers and 6 by Vice Ministers. Remaining 43 countries were represented by their permanent representatives at the UN or other officials. Pakistan, which was among the very first signatories of UNCAC, was represented by its permanent representative Munir Akram. Justice (Retired) Javed Iqbal, Chairman of Pakistan’s premier Anti-Corruption agency, National Accountability Bureau (NAB), addressed the session via video link.
But keeping in view the high importance which Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government attaches to the issue of corruption, it would have been more befitting if the PM had personally represented Pakistan at the UNGASS and shared his vision of combatting corruption. Hardly a day goes by without PM Khan raising the issue at one forum or the other.
Global efforts to combat corruption should certainly not stop or slow down after the conclusion of the special session. Even after the successful organization of the session, UNCAC movement needs to be re-energized so that effective monitoring of implementation of the Convention in signatory countries is ensured. Since mega-corruption cases generally have an international footprint, international cooperation to detect, retrieve and return stolen assets needs to be strengthened and made more enforceable.
*Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.