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Labelle Of Transparency International Says Pressure Should Be On Governments

Huguette Labelle, chairwoman of Transparency International and chancellor of the University of Ottawa, at the Global Leaders Forum 2010 in New York City.
Huguette Labelle, chairwoman of Transparency International and chancellor of the University of Ottawa, at the Global Leaders Forum 2010 in New York City.
Experts gathered in New York this past week for the UN Global Compact Leader Summit. Among the issues they discussed was how the world can come together in the fight against corruption. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev talked to Huguette Labelle, chair of the Transparency International watchdog group, about what can be done to fight corruption in Russia.

RFE/RL: In the last few years, Russia has been seen as growing more corrupt. In recent surveys, it ranks together with countries like Zimbabwe. At the same time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he is taking steps to tackle corruption. Why isn't it working?

Huguette Labelle: Right now Russia has asked to become part of the OECD [Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development] convention against corruption, which is a tremendously positive step on their part. They have a lot of work to do. They need to pass a law to criminalize corruption by their companies outside of Russia. They need to do that, and I hope that they will. So, they're taking a lot of very interesting steps. It's a big country, there's a lot to do, so it will be interesting to see within the next 2-3 years if this pressure by the government is sustained and if the industries, those who are trying to band together to fight corruption, continue their work. I think that we will see some positive results.

RFE/RL: Do you think the Russian government claims to be fighting corruption are genuine?

Labelle: It's hard to know; only time will tell. I think that in any country, when a country makes a number of statements, when they pass laws [against corruption], I think one has to see whether indeed those laws will be implemented, or whether the commitments they make will be respected. So, I think it's a question of time. The media, as we've said, is very important in all countries, and Russia has a very interesting media. Their role is vital. But the role of the private sector is also vital. Because as long as the private sector continues to offer very big bribes, it's very hard. It makes it very difficult for those who are used to take bribes to say, "No, no, I don't want any."

RFE/RL: The Swedish company IKEA attempted to make an example of itself in Russia by saying it would not pay any bribes. Since then, it's had to fire some of its employees who had approved several bribes. But did the initial gesture have an impact?

Labelle: I think that the way that this works very well is having more companies do this in a country, and that the companies who do it publicize it. "We don't just walk away quietly, but we say publicly that we have decided not to do business in this country because we believe the corruption is too high. And when corruption is reduced -- we will be glad to come back." The more companies who say that, of course the more powerful it becomes. But it's got to be known, it's got to be sufficiently public, so that the government begins to feel the pressure.

RFE/RL: Talk about the role of media in Russia. Being a journalist investigating corruption in Russia is quite a dangerous occupation.

Labelle: That's why I said you need the various groups in society to do their homework and to band together; it cannot be the media alone. Because in a highly corrupt country, journalists have lost their lives. They still do today. So it cannot be on the back of the journalism alone. That's why I say you've got to have the private sector. If there are religious groups -- they've got to be on you side, they can't be just witnesses. And civil society has to be involved.

So, when you have all of these groups together -- especially, for example, industry associations, accounting associations, professional associations of lawyers, of judges, when you begin to bring all of those together -- the circle begins to grow tight and tighter around those who remain corrupt.

RFE/RL: You said that in fighting corruption, the pressure should be on the governments. Why is this so important?

Labelle: Because the government in any country has a lot of the resources to [fight corruption] and is there to protect the public good. And if the government is corrupt, or if it does not have the tools, the laws, the kind of public sector that is ethical -- then it's very difficult for the private sector to act alone, or the media to act alone. They play a vital role in any country, and therefore the government has to clean up its act wherever they are. You've got to have a justice system that is of the highest integrity. You've got to have the kind of financial system which is transparent.

And you need to have procurement and construction because governments do a lot of construction, local governments -- it's roads, it's ports, it's airports -- huge amounts of construction. So if this is not done with integrity -- the amount of money which is lost [to corruption] is huge, the people lose their trust in the government, they stop paying their taxes so there's no money to really build the infrastructure for the country to develop both the social and physical infrastructure. So, the government is very important.