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Australia could take the lead in curbing global kleptocrats

Published in The Australian Financial Review, 29 April 2022

Too many years have passed since Australia last enjoyed any kind of general reputation as a good international citizen, seen by the world as willing to step up energetically and creatively to help solve global and regional problems even where we had little or no immediate prospect of direct security or economic reward.

We are serial laggards on climate change and now rank among the rich world’s least generous aid donors. We are not remotely as compassionate as we once were towards refugees and asylum seekers. We are no longer serious contributors to UN peacekeeping, have for many years made no significant contribution anywhere to peacemaking and have largely gone missing in our response to atrocity crimes, not least those committed by the Myanmar military. And our once world-leading support for nuclear disarmament, and arms control more generally, has evaporated.

One of the ways in which Australia could begin to restore our reputation for decency would be to play a leading role in the rapidly growing global movement to establish an international anti-corruption court aimed at tackling the huge and growing problem of abuse of public office for private gain by national leaders.

Fully 189 countries are party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption that requires them to have domestic laws criminalising corruption, and nearly all of them do. But the highly respected global monitoring body, Transparency International, assesses high-level public corruption as alarmingly high in as many as two-thirds of them, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and in our own region, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea – among the worst offenders.

That has often devastating consequences for citizens of these countries, as they are deprived access to public resources they need to survive, including food, healthcare and foreign aid.

It can seriously distort policymaking on critical issues such as climate change, as with kleptocrats profiting from deforestation. It can result in the concentration of enormous power in individual leaders, all too capable – like President Putin – of catastrophically misusing it both internally and externally. And – as seems all too likely to have been the case with Solomon Islands – it can mean deals being done with foreign powers with seriously negative long-term consequences for national and regional security.

No international institution exists to penalise those responsible for grand corruption. That means that in those countries where kleptocrats control all institutions of accountability (including police, prosecutors and courts), they have effective impunity. The proposed new court would be a forum of last resort able to intervene where national agencies have proved unable or unwilling to act against misappropriation of a country’s wealth.

How to begin?

As currently conceived, the IACC would have the authority to prosecute present and former heads of state or government, or anyone who knowingly assists them in committing grand corruption, including those bankers, lawyers, accountants and real estate agents who help launder the proceeds. It would employ investigators, prosecutors and judges experienced in dealing with complex financial crime. It would, where it could, punish criminal behaviour with fines and asset appropriation. And it would have the authority to recover, repatriate and repurpose illicit assets for the victims of grand corruption.

How would such a court realistically be established, from where would its authority be derived, and how could it enforce its decisions? All fair questions, and tough ones.

The most obviously attractive course would be for the jurisdiction of the existing International Criminal Court to be extended to cover grand corruption – but this would need its founding Rome Statute to be amended by a vote of at least two-thirds of member states. UN treaty-making forums would be equally impossible to navigate, given the number of member states with highly problematic corruption records.

The idea that is now winning support is for the new court to be created by a coalition of like-minded member states, perhaps numbering 20 or so in the first instance, who would agree on the laws to be enforced, including bribery, misappropriation of public funds, money laundering and conspiracy to commit any of these crimes, together with civil redress measures. The court’s jurisdiction would extend to anyone – including from a non-member state – who committed any element of any of these crimes in the territory of any member state.

Given that states with kleptocratic leaders are unlikely to either join the court or enforce its decisions, IACC’s effectiveness in practice obviously would depend on its member states including major financial centres such as the UK – which are favoured destinations for kleptocrat asset relocation and related transactions. (Australia may be a smaller player in this context, but it is not an insignificant one.) Leaders who are found guilty of grand corruption may evade jail time in their home countries, but will face other difficulties – including the inability to travel to, or keep money or assets in, any IACC signatory country.

Plenty of support

The proposal for an IACC has won the support, at last count, of more than 227 prominent leaders from 60 countries – including 32 Nobel laureates as well as former presidents and prime ministers – in a campaign being co-ordinated by a new global NGO, Integrity Initiatives International.

Very importantly, the IACC has won explicit government support from two countries with strong international citizenship credentials, and with whose values Australia has usually liked to think itself aligned, the Netherlands and Canada.

Given the Morrison government’s deep reluctance to establish a domestic Independent Commission Against Corruption with any kind of teeth, it is no doubt quixotic to think that, during the current election campaign, it will be willing to make an issue of fighting corruption anywhere else in the world. But both sides of politics should think hard about doing just that. By taking a strong leadership role on this issue, Australia would be not only striking an important blow for decency in global governance but for the overdue restoration of our own foreign policy credibility.

Gareth Evans was Australian Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996, and is a Distinguished Honorary Professor at ANU. Emil Bolongaita is a former senior Asian Development Bank official, Head and Distinguished Service Professor of Carnegie Mellon University’s Australian campus, and a Board Member of Integrity Initiatives International.

This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review on 29 April 2022.