PoliticsSocial issues

The Other Great Sin: The Fight Against Corruption

– by Hanifa Abdiraihan

In 2008, over 10,000 of schoolchildren in China died as the result of their classrooms collapsing in an earthquake. While other buildings in the area still stood against the quake, numerous “new” schools in Sichuan folded like cards in a matter of seconds. The investigation committee blamed the collapse on proximity to fault lines, or poor-quality construction. According to the International Herald Tribune, dissenting parents were offered thousands in hard cash in exchange for silence.

When the disease Ebola broke out last year, Sierra Leone – a country still recovering from a decade-long, vicious civil war – was one of those hit hardest. The country received over $40,000 in aid to assist in fighting the illness, which at its peak infected five in one hour in Sierra Leone. Yet at this time, a shipment containing $140,000 worth in medical supplies had sat unopened at the docks for several months, despite the national emergency.

Both of these cases have one thing in common: high-level corruption.

In a world where factional wars and terrorists have taken the front seat, corruption is something that often gets lost in the headlines simply because it isn’t as violent.

But why?

Corruption is a devastating disease, and often just as deadly. The case of the Sichuan ‘tofu’ schools is but one of hundreds – a 2011 study found that 83% of all deaths resulting from earthquake building collapse in the past three decades happened in corrupt countries.

It has been repeatedly proven that corruption has strong links to poverty; the poorest nations are also likely to be some of the most corrupt. Economist William Easterly acknowledged that foreign aid is a frequent victim of embezzlement. As the funds pass through the bureaucracy, each level they come in contact with ‘skims off the top’ until only a fraction remains when they reach the intended recipients. When the money is meant to power schools and stock medical supplies – which, often, it is – the consequences can be disastrous.

Many of the cases recorded by corruption watchdog Transparency International illustrate this. Students in Cameroon are expelled or suspended for not being able to pay optional fees to receive their report cards. Other students in Indonesia face being given failed grades for speaking up about embezzlement in their school. Urgent medical procedures all over the globe are postponed or cancelled altogether when “processing fees” cannot be paid.

In some cases where corruption has permeated most or all levels of the government, it is difficult to see a real point in whistleblowing. More often than not – and especially in lower echelons – a ‘clean’ official would be considered an obstruction and quickly replaced with one willing to go along with corrupt agendas. While possible, combating corruption from the inside is an arduous and oftentimes dangerous, and so outside assistance is needed.

The International Criminal Court is a ‘court of last resort’ with judicial authority over individuals guilty of crimes “of international concern”: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The Court is guided by the Rome Statute, and their aim is to end impunity and try individuals whose countries are either unable to or unwilling.

Going by its aims alone, the purpose of the Court would be a good, if not perfect, avenue to combat corruption. A corrupt government may either be unwilling or unable to try its own officials if said individual carried too much clout, or could simply buy their way out.

However, yet again, this is thwarted – by a single word.

Article 7, Paragraph 1, Section (k) of the Rome Statute reads: “Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

Intentionally is the troublesome word. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who decided to embezzle funds to intentionally cause great suffering or serious injury. Perhaps some do it knowing that it would cause unpleasant consequences, but not with the intent to cause it.

It is clear that corruption is an international problem, and it is clear it produces serious obstructions in development. It is therefore an indescribable irony that an authority specialising in investigating individuals otherwise acting in impunity would be barred from investigating cases of corruption by bureaucracy and legal wranglings.

John T. Noonan, Jr., a US federal judge, once wrote, “Dictatorship and corruption are the two great sins of government.”

Both dictatorship and corruption are about unfair distribution – the distribution of wealth, power and authority. But unlike toppling authoritarians, fighting corruption is a silent war, nearly a classic Marxian battlefield against the corrupt authorities running the system. The fact remains, however, that there are few avenues to facilitate the fix. If no one is stepping up to the duty, then the question to be asked is for those claiming to be working for the people: is keeping it silent the greater sin?

Visit Transparency International to see what you can bring to the conversation.

Photo credit: watchsmart

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