The good news is that the world has stabilized corruption at the same level for the past 11 years. The bad news is that Transparency International’s annual index has settled at a pretty dreadful level. More than two-thirds of nations had a serious issue with graft in 2022.
The wealthy world has acknowledged the problem, a little at least. The fight against corruption was made a core national security interest by the Biden administration in 2021. The issue “rots democracy from the inside and is increasingly weaponized by authoritarian states to undermine democratic institutions . . . We will crack down on tax havens and illicit financing that contribute to income inequality, fund terrorism, and generate pernicious foreign influence,” the administration memorandum stated.
The Anti-Bribery Convention produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and follow-up work also suggests progress. Then again, the 44 signatories included Russia, which may suggest a deeper problem with international agreements of this sort.
It is time for a new approach. The idea of an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) takes its inspiration in part from the International Criminal Court (ICC) — which despite its name does not include grand corruption — and its gathering pace. Action is needed if we are to hold accountable heads of state and government, and their enablers, who are too rarely held to account for acts of gross dereliction and larceny.
The effort is being led by eminent jurors, including a number working under the umbrella of Integrity Initiatives International. So far, more than 300 notable figures, including more than 45 current and former heads of state and government, from over 80 nations have expressed support for the creation of the IACC. This includes Canada and the Netherlands, which have incorporated the idea into their formal foreign policy. The idea is picking up steam; it was discussed at a workshop at the European Parliament this week, following that body’s call for the creation of “an international anti-corruption court under the supervision of the UN” when it published its 2022 annual report on human rights and democracy.
The IACC would serve as a court of last resort, meaning it would hold kleptocrats accountable for their crimes only when national governments are unable or unwilling to do so. While headline cases would likely come from the arrest and prosecution of famous or notorious national leaders, they would also take aim at the networks of professional enablers like lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and bankers which make misrule possible.
There are, of course, very significant hurdles to overcome. Critics point to the disappointed hopes some held out for the ICC and argue the IACC might run into the same issues. Advocates argue they will take lessons learned from the ICC and ensure the court is more limited, sleeker, and cost-effective, and will not copy those elements of the ICC that haven’t worked. Furthermore, crimes like bribery of public officials, embezzlement of public funds, misappropriation of public property, money laundering, and other corruption offenses that would be tried by the IACC are already offenses in just about every country on the globe. So the accusation that will inevitably be made — that the court will dish out rich world justice to the rulers of poor countries — is diminished. The inclusion of rich country enablers (like lawyers and bankers, see above) would also answer this criticism; corrupt elites need a home for their money and that invariably means Western assets.
Opponents of the court also worry about expense, even though corruption itself costs trillions of dollars annually. According to Global Financial Integrity, from 2000-2009, developing countries lost $8.44 trillion to illicit financial flows, 10 times more than the amount of foreign aid they received over the same period. Moreover, their 2021 report indicated that the problem persists today. The creation of the IACC would deter and reduce corruption by also saving countries lots of money.
The IACC would also recover stolen assets and return them to their rightful owners. While operating an international institution costs money, it would amount to significantly less than the International Criminal Court which cost roughly $168m in 2021. This is because the IACC’s reach would be more limited and its procedures much less complex. It could also use income from fines to cover operational costs.
In countries like Russia, Ukraine, and Bosnia, corruption has undermined the opportunity to build more stable and prosperous societies. Unless criminals are held accountable, nothing is likely to change. Corruption afflicts good governance and security all over the world, and until an international court like the IACC is created, there is little to stop the thieves who blight their countries’ futures.
Krista Viksnins is a Program Officer with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Her interests include Baltic security, cyberwarfare, the rule of law, and congressional relations. Krista received her J.D. from the University of St. Thomas School of Law and her B.A. in Political Science and Spanish from St. Olaf College. She is also a licensed attorney.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.