Human Rights and Grand Corruption: What Role for International Law?

Leonie Rauls / The Inter-American Dialogue

On December 3, the Inter-American Dialogue partnered with the Due Process of Law Foundation to host an event titled “Human Rights and Grand Corruption: What Role for International Law?” The discussion was moderated by Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue and Katya Salazar, executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation, and featured keynote speaker Hernán Larraín, Minister for Justice and Human Rights in Chile. Panelists included, José Ugaz, former chair of the board at Transparency International; Naomi Roht-Arriaza, distinguished professor at UC Hastings College of Law; Claudio Nash Rojas, professor of International Human Rights at the University of Chile; and Jan-Michael Siman, director for Latin America at the Max Planck Institute of Foreign and International Criminal Law in Freiburg, Germany.

After opening remarks by Michael Shifter, Hernán Larraín gave a presentation outlining the advantages for adopting a human rights approach against corruption. He argued that an effective human rights strategy against corruption requires effort on both the national and regional level. This changing landscape calls for an innovative approach to fighting corruption. Larraín argued how transnational corruption is a phenomenon that does not only impact the integrity of public officials, but has the capacity to destabilize institutions, and thus threatens the governance of our countries. In order to combat transnational corruption, Larraín argued that a human rights centered strategy will be most effective because it labels the struggle against corruption as a legal duty of the State and it opens the door for more regional cooperation. He outlined a two-dimensional strategy covering actions on the domestic and regional level. On the domestic level, he urged States to promote democracy, institutions, and the reinforcement of the rule of law. On the regional level, he encouraged States to implement supranational instruments and improve coordination by empowering a regional institution to assist States in enforcing the Inter-American Convention against Corruption.

The panelists commented on the presentation and discussed the linkage between human rights and corruption in further detail. Salazar commented how in the region there is frustration with countries that transitioned to democracy because the promise of human rights protection is not guaranteed. Ugaz added that the abusers of human rights are always linked to corruption—take the case of Pinochet. Rojas agreed and introduced the term “grand corruption” as a phenomenon closely linked with human rights abuses. He explained how grand corruption is committed by people with extreme public or private power who have immense amounts of resources. Therefore, the common element between human rights and anti-corruption is that both are fights against the abuse of power.

The panelists agreed that corruption is so central to the economy and the State that it is like an operating system. It can’t be fought case by case but must be attacked systematically. They discussed CICIG as a model for a systematic approach to combating corruption through a human rights approach and the panelists agreed that we need more mechanisms like CICIG to combat corruption. Larraín explained how although the Inter-American Convention against Corruption is explicit concerning the duties of States and the need of advancing regional coordination against corruption, it does not clearly identify an institution to assist States in this process. Therefore, Larraín argued for establishing an international “watchdog” mechanism.

The Q & A focused on the practicality of establishing this international watchdog mechanism. One audience member questioned the practicality of delegating more sovereignty to regional bodies in this age of nationalism. Another asked about the limitations in the implementation of a voluntary convention. The panelists responded that the regional institution should only assist States in their own efforts to prevent corruption rather than replacing them. Furthermore, it should be non-judicial and connected to the OAS in order to hold States accountable. Lastly, the panelists acknowledged that any regional institution will depend on how committed States are in the struggle against corruption. Therefore, it is critical that the mechanism works towards setting basic and common standards for approaching corruption through a human rights lens.

Watch full event recording here:

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