Corruption is a corrosive force in many parts of the world and some observers consider it endemic - part of the cultural and the political reality - in Latin America, writes Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.
A series of corruption scandals have erupted lately in a way that is new. Suspicions surrounding scandals and allegations of misconduct have virtually brought the governments of Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina to paralysis. And, in Venezuela, accusations of corruption against the government - and government accusations of subversion against the opposition - have brought it to the brink of chaos.
Corruption undermines the efficiency of an economy and consulting firm McKinsey publishes an annual index in which it estimates the negative impact of corruption on a country’s GDP. The World Bank maintains a similar index.
For nearly a century, the best protection in dealing with corruption was considered to be transparency. A German NGO, Transparency International, founded in 1993, has achieved nearly institutional status with its annual index of Corruption Perceptions. It also attempts to improve governance in 100 countries around the world.
Transparency International has become so important that the Russian government ordered it to register as a foreign agent in January 2015 so Russia can observe its activities and threaten Russian nationals working for it.
But increasing, transparency fails to get to the heart of the problem in Latin America where the issue for debate today is impunity or accountability.
What do you do about it once investigating journalists or good government activists have exposed malfeasance? You need laws which declare what behaviour is unacceptable and you need institutions strong enough to enforce the laws to put the miscreants in jail.
The current scandal involving money transferred illegally from the Brazilian National Petroleum Company, Petrobras, to members of Brazil’s ruling Workers Party, the PT, has had lots of exposure. The problem is that if the Petrobras case is not handled quickly, and in a manner the international financial community considers appropriate, the capacity of Petrobras to function in the coming year will be diminished.
Several investment houses have predicted that the weakening of Petrobras will reduce Brazilian GDP by nearly one full percentage point.
What is the next step in dealing with corruption? Mark Wolf, senior judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts has proposed an International Anti-Corruption Court. Judge Wolf is convinced that sunshine is the best disinfectant in countries with a free press, effective law enforcement, and an honest judiciary.
‘Transparency, however, is valuable only if these instruments of accountability exist and operate with regard to corrupt officials at the highest levels of government,’ he says.
‘Many nations are characterised by a culture of impunity. Even when grand corruption is exposed, often by courageous people at great personal peril, there is no credible threat of prosecution and punishment to deter high-level corruption. Therefore, the exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction in an International Anti-Corruption Court is both justified and important.’
Judge Wolf notes that he has received an endorsement for his proposal from Jose Ugaz, the new chairman of Transparency International.
The judge takes his model from the International Criminal Court and points to the many examples in which those who have been accused of horrific crimes committed by governments and by armed groups in the former Yugoslavia and Africa have been brought to account for their crimes in the international court.
He sees a similar evolution in the workings of an International Anti-Corruption Court. Perhaps he is right. It certainly is worth a try.