The writer is a senior adviser at the Center on Economic and Financial Power and chief growth officer at Blank Slate Technologies
President Joe Biden’s recent directive that the US would make the fight against corruption a core national security priority could not be more timely. Momentum is building to take on not only venal public officials and kleptocrats, but also the complex international networks of bankers, real estate agents, accountants, lawyers and other service providers who make their corruption possible.
In the US, a new bipartisan Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy is lining up a host of bills that would increase the consequences for kleptocrats. This is a crucial first step. But the transnational nature of kleptocracy also demands bold international action.
The central role corruption plays in emerging markets in particular makes it difficult for ethical multinational corporations to compete with those willing to pay bribes. In a cautionary tale, Goldman Sachs was fined $2.9bn under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in October 2020 for its role in helping former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak siphon $4.5bn from his country’s state development fund, 1MDB. Further penalties were levied by authorities in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK, and Malaysia.
Such fines may deter other US-based private entities from participating in grand corruption, but they do not address the demand side of bribery — that is, the corrupt officials themselves. Nor do they deter unscrupulous business competitors from other countries who may be willing to supply bribes.
Covid-19 has created new opportunities for grand corruption, as both democratic and authoritarian governments have suspended or ignored existing transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption enforcement mechanisms. Climate finance under the Paris agreement and future agreements faces similar corruption risks. Six of the top 10 recipients of public climate finance are in the bottom half of Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index.
US laws such as the FCPA and the dedicated efforts of honest officials in the global community are insufficient to dismantle the system of licit and illicit activity that supports global corruption. A new international institution is needed that can be independent of geopolitics and tackle the transnational character of corruption in a way that national courts cannot.
More than one hundred former heads of state, cabinet ministers, legislators, intergovernmental officials, business leaders and representatives of civil society have signed a declaration in support of the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) to prosecute corrupt officials when their governments are unable or unwilling to do so.
The court would bring together expert investigators, experienced international prosecutors and judges to preside over complex criminal proceedings involving transnational financial networks. Although kleptocrats will not willingly sign up their countries, the IACC could still have jurisdiction to recover, repatriate and repurpose stolen assets with the co-operation of major financial centres.
The sanctioning, defunding and potential imprisonment of kleptocrats by an IACC would act as a deterrent and allow them to be replaced by principled officials. Honest multinational corporations would have better opportunities to compete for public contracts, and a court would help businesses resist corrupt overtures.
We need an IACC that dramatically curtails the freedom with which kleptocrats pillage national resources and hide their wealth around the world. Only with a global system to hold officials to a higher standard will ethical politicians and businesses have a chance to promote liberty, prosperity and security.