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World: UN Convention Against Corruption Takes Force

  • Jeremy Bransten --> While corruption is international, a vicious cycle makes it that much worse in poorer countries (RFE/RL) The United Nations Convention Against Corruption enters into force today. Some 140 countries signed the treaty, while 38 have so far ratified it. The document is being praised as a major new tool in the fight against corruption. It comes not a moment too soon. Surveys show that in many countries, most people think corruption is getting worse, not better.

Prague, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- If you’re stopped by a police officer in Tajikistan and he tells you his "hand is tingling" or if the phone repairman comes by the house and asks for a "cup of tea" -- chances are you’re being solicited for a bribe.

Petty corruption is so pervasive in daily life that a whole terminology of euphemisms has evolved for bribing. There are a hundred different ways to request cash under the table. Abduvohid Shamolov of the Dushanbe-based Center for Strategic Studies listed some of the more colorful terms: "Make a cup of tea; have some sweets; give your share; open the tablecloth; bring some mud; give your brother's share; my hand is itching; my hand is tingling; giving a hat...."

Tajikistan ranks 150th out of 159 in Transparency International’s most recent annual "Corruption Perception Index." The nongovernmental organization’s survey reflects the feelings of business people, ordinary citizens, and analysts and is accepted worldwide as a fairly accurate reflection of a country’s level of corruption. Tajikistan received a score of 2.1 out of 10.

Neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan also scored poorly. Kazakhstan did a little better at 2.6. Russia scored only 2.4.

For comparison’s sake, Iceland, which topped the list as the world’s least corrupt country, scored 9.7. The goal of the UN Convention Against Corruption, which enters into force today, is to nudge more countries toward that standard.

Global Standards

Fritz Heimann, one of the founding members of Transparency International, called the convention a "big deal." Although individual countries and some international groups -- such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) -- already have their own anticorruption rules, this is the first truly international treaty that aims to set global standards.

The document obliges signatories to tackle corruption on several levels. It requires them to establish a legal framework that criminalizes a whole range of offenses -- from bribery to influence peddling.

The convention requires countries to provide their citizens with access to information and to protect "whistleblowers" who point out corruption. "Corruption is always conducted in secret, so unless there are insiders who are willing to talk, it’s very hard to uncover it," Heimann noted.

The convention also obligates signatories to cooperate with each other in detaining and prosecuting offenders who flee across borders. It facilitates the freezing of illegally acquired assets and the recovery of plundered wealth.

Poverty And Corruption

Wealthy donor countries will also be able to refer to the convention when deciding whether to extend loans to the developing world, to demand higher accountability standards.

Corruption, of course, exists in all wealthy countries. But the reason it appears so rampant in many poorer countries is that there is a vicious circle tying poverty to corruption.

On the one hand, poverty feeds corruption, as Ghayur Kahorov, another expert from Tajikistan’s Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL. Kahorov was a member of a joint UN Development Program-government commission that studied corruption levels throughout Tajikistan.

"Many people we asked said the most important way to fight corruption is to improve people's living standards. A female doctor from Regar district said: ‘If I had $200 or $300 a month, I wouldn't get bribes from my patients. Since I don't have such a salary, I have to take bribes.’ Many people said similar things," Kahorov said.

On the other hand, corruption creates poverty, because it diverts resources into private pockets that could otherwise be spent on the public good. On a worldwide scale, this diversion amounts to an estimated $840 billion a year -- a huge amount that dwarfs the gross domestic products of most countries.

A Huge Task

The task ahead is huge. The convention is being welcomed as an important step in the right direction. But the implementation of the document will be key and an independent monitoring mechanism still has to be worked out.

"The challenge of the convention is: will there be an effective follow-up monitoring program? Conventions by themselves only work if there is effective follow-up so that there's pressure on governments that are reluctant to take action to do so. The whole experience with conventions is that everybody watches everybody else. And if other countries don't take action that becomes a deterrent for others," Heimann of Transparency International said.

One country that has come up with an unusual deterrent against corruption that might serve as an inspiration to others is Norway. In Norway, annual tax returns -- whether they are from individuals or corporations -- are public information. The government posts them on the Internet for everyone to see. Want to know how much your neighbor makes, how much he spends on his mortgage and whether he donates to charity? Or how about looking into your favorite celebrity’s personal stock portfolio? It’s only a click away -- if you speak Norwegian.

That kind of system might not appeal to everyone. But it’s no surprise Norwegians are pretty confident that their country -- despite its oil wealth -- is squeaky clean.

(RFE/RL’s Tajik Service contributed to this report)