As a major United Nations conference met to discuss the implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in Jordan last December, Ireland had to watch, rather than take part in proceedings.
Since Ireland has yet to ratify UNCAC, it is not recognised as a “State Party” and did not have a say in how this important instrument should be implemented at home - or in any countries which receive a large portion of Irish development assistance. This represented a lost opportunity for the Irish Government to shape the international agenda in promoting good governance.
In short,Ireland’s failure to ratify UNCAC undermines its credibility as a country willing and able to fight corruption at home and abroad.
To be fair, Ireland has already ratified OECD, EU and Council of Europe conventions which cover both domestic and foreign corruption, while the Minister for Justice also announced that UNCAC would be ratified in 2007.
Nevertheless, Irish implementation of existing conventions has been underwhelming. In particular, there has been no enforcement or promotion of the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials. Five allegations of bribery of foreign public officials by Irish nationals were reported in the Irish Times during 2005 alone. Of these, three separate cases involved kickbacks to Saddam Hussein during the Oil for Food Programme. Apparently there has been no follow up by the Irish authorities.
In spite of evidence obtained by the Volcker Commission which reported on the payments, we have yet to hear of a single investigation by the Garda. What’s more, no effort appears to have been made to educate Irish civil servants or business that bribing foreign public officials overseas is a crime in Ireland.
UNCAC offers Ireland a second chance to show it’s serious about tackling corruption.
Firstly the convention covers more ground than those conventions that we have already signed up to. It will help address issues that have been inadequately addressed – such as the protection of whistleblowers and the need for public information on corruption.
UNCAC also lays out the legal framework for governments and legal authorities to work together in investigating and prosecuting cross-border corruption; it requires banks in Europe and elsewhere to repatriate assets stolen by dictators and corrupt officials back to their countries of origin; and encourages states to offer technical assistance to other countries that are attempting to combat corruption.
The success of Ireland’s aid programme will also rest to a great extent on the success of international anti-corruption initiatives such as UNCAC.
With Irish Aid recently announcing that €813 million will be spent on development aid in 2007, the risk that much of this money will be wasted will be heightened by a lack of any effort by western governments to prevent their banks from laundering looted cash and to prosecute their companies from bribing in the developing world.
Corruption undermines donor efforts to support the world’s poorest countries. Bribery of public officials raises the cost of development projects as the price of the bribe is included in the size of the contract. It also undermines the “business case” for a contract. In other words, decisions are based not on the value or quality of work or goods procured by governments, but on the size of the pay-off to a corrupt official or politician.
The cost of poor quality and over-priced government contracting and procurement is ultimately met by those who can least afford it: ordinary citizens in both donor and recipient countries.
One question arises therefore: what would it do for the credibility of Ireland’s aid programme if an Irish company or consultant were found to have bribed an official in Africa to secure a contract supported by Irish taxpayer’s money?
Ireland needs to put in place a regime now to prevent this from happening in the future, and to deal with the problem should it arise. If the rule of law is to be upheld, the Irish Government will, as a first step, have to coordinate and institutionalise policy and action. Secondly, An Garda Síochána will need to be adequately resourced to investigate allegations of bribery.
The Irish Government should also use UNCAC as a platform to support civil society and governments in developing countries to fight corruption. Building demand for accountability in recipient countries will sometimes require difficult decisions from donor countries, but these should be made with the bigger picture in mind.
UNCAC is by no means perfect: many of the provisions are non-binding (which makes them weak) and there is, as yet, no monitoring mechanism in place to ensure that ratifying countries are living up to their obligations. However UNCAC is a fresh start and represents a growing consensus on the need to tackle corruption around the world.
With 140 signatory countries and 80 ratifying states so far, UNCAC is the first truly global convention against corruption. Ireland should not delay any longer in joining the club.
John Devitt is Chief Executive of Transparency International Ireland. Its analysis on what UNCAC means for Ireland was published in December and is available at www.transparency.ie