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An independent expert on corruption and human rights: do we need one?

UN human rights mechanisms don’t always recognise the link between corruption and human rights. An independent expert would connect the two.
14 December 2021
Should the UN have a Special Rapporteur on Anti-Corruption? A new mandate for such an expert could become a focal point for anti-corruption and human rights around the world. Photo:
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
CC BY-NC-ND

Spoiler alert: yes, we do.

Existing UN human rights mechanisms don’t always recognise the obvious link between corruption and human rights. And because they often fail to make the connection, they fail to address corruption as an underlying cause of human rights violations. A new UN mandate for corruption and human rights would connect the two fields in important ways and provide a focal point for change.

UN treaty bodies offer a patchy response

Let’s look at the nine UN treaty bodies. In 2020, the Centre for Civil and Political Rights carried out research, looking at how the treaty bodies approached corruption. As Figure 1 shows, these bodies have increasingly been including corruption issues in their recommendations to states in recent years.

Nine UN treaty bodies

  • Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
  • Human Rights Committee (CCPR)
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • Committee against Torture (CAT)
  • Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Committee on Migrant Workers (CMW)
  • Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED)

Figure 1. Number of Concluding Observations from the nine UN treaty bodies that containedconcerns/recommendations about corruption

A line chart with a single plot, generally rising between 2007 and 2019. A trendline overlaid makes the upward trend clear.

The number of times UN treaty bodies include recommendations about corruption in their reports to Member States has been steadily increasing over time.

Credit: Source: Improving the Human Rights Dimension of the Fight against Corruption (Centre for Civil and Political Rights) by-nc

However, there are considerable differences between the treaty bodies (see Figure 2) — perhaps in part because their mandates are limited to monitoring the implementation of each treaty. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), for example, addresses corruption in more than half of its State reviews, while the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) addresses it in less than 20% of its State reviews.

Figure 2. Proportion of Concluding Observations from the nine UN treaty bodies that mentioned corruption (Observations adopted between 2007 and 2019)

A bar chart, showing the nine UN treaty bodies and the proportion of their recommendations that include corruption. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is highest; the Committee on Enforced Disappearances is the lowest.

Some UN treaty bodies include corruption in their recommendations more often that others.

Credit: Source: Improving the Human Rights Dimension of the Fight against Corruption (Centre for Civil and Political Rights) by-nc-nd

Traditionally, anti-corruption is more frequently linked with economic, social and cultural rights. The relationship between having to pay a bribe to your daughter’s teacher in order for her to attend school, and the right to education, is very straightforward. But civil and political rights can be severely impeded due to corruption as well: think about the need for an independent judicial system and fair electoral processes, or the prohibition of arbitrary detention. But, as Figure 2 shows us, not all treaty bodies are systematically and comprehensively addressing corruption and its negative impact on human rights in their recommendations to States.

The UN Human Rights Council — limited and vague

Second, let’s have a look at the UN Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental UN body comprised of 47 States. It addresses corruption in the regular resolutions it adopts on the topic. However, these texts tend to be very general and vague, simply urging States to implement the UNCAC, for example.

The Human Rights Council also effectively outsources part of its anti-corruption work to its own Special Procedures. These are independent human rights experts — either individuals or working groups — that report and advise on human rights, either from a thematic, or a country-specific perspective.

These individuals or working groups are independent human rights experts that report and advise on human rights, either from a thematic, or a country-specific perspective. Thematic mandates look at one specific issue in all countries, while country-specific mandates look at all human rights in one specific country. There are currently 45 thematic and 13 country mandates.

Even with 45 thematic mandates, a Human Rights Council, and nine treaty bodies, the issue of corruption still falls through the cracks.

Mandate holders can publish reports about the impact of corruption on their area of interest, but this only happens occasionally, ad hoc, and again, their reports usually have a limited scope.

Consequently, even with 45 thematic mandates, a Human Rights Council and nine treaty bodies, the issue of corruption still falls through the cracks, for several reasons: these mechanisms don’t always have the time, resources, knowledge or expertise to go in depth on how to address corruption.

A new UN mandate on corruption and human rights

To overcome these challenges, we at the Centre for Civil and Political Rights propose the establishment of a 46th thematic mandate on corruption and human rights.

Crucially, such a mandate could address corruption in all parts of the world, without the requirement for countries to have ratified a human rights instrument. As a result, this mandate holder could look at corruption in all countries, and its impact on all human rights, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, addressing the challenges and gaps of existing mechanisms.

A new mandate for corruption and human rights could address corruption in all parts of the world, without the requirement for countries to have ratified a human rights instrument.

Evidently, one more Special Procedure will require extra budget. However, the serious disconnect between the realities of corruption on the one hand, and the sporadic measures taken to confront it on the other makes this new mandate essential.

In terms of concrete action, the expert/s entrusted with this mandate would:

  • Undertake country visits
  • Send communications to States in relation to individual corruption cases and/or more systemic concerns
  • Evaluate States’ measures taken to counter corruption
  • Make recommendations to States
  • Conduct thematic studies and report on those and raise public awareness about specific phenomena related to corruption.

Protection and access for those involved in anti-corruption

This mandate would also clearly contribute to the protection of human rights defenders, anti-corruption experts, whistleblowers, and others working to end corruption. The mandate would become a focal point to this community, able to speak out about reprisals, threats, intimidation, violence, and other behaviour that creates a chilling effect against speaking out. Especially in States where governments recently have stepped up crackdowns on journalists, whistleblowers and organisations that expose corruption, this mandate could be an important additional avenue.

The mandate would become a focal point to the community of human rights defenders, anti-corruption experts, whistleblowers, and others working to end corruption.

Moreover, anti-corruption experts — and activists generally — find the UN human rights system very difficult to navigate. Having an expert with a clear mandate on the interdependency between corruption and human rights, as a focal point for the anti-corruption community, would make all human rights mechanisms more accessible to that community.

A unique role that spans human rights and anti-corruption

Human rights and anti-corruption work often take different approaches. The human rights approach revolves around the victim–State relationship, while the anti-corruption framework focuses on curbing corruption. Since this expert would combine both approaches, and look at corruption holistically, they would be able to address systemic and structural problems as well as specific criminal cases.

Ideally, the mandate holder would have experience and expertise in both fields, allowing them to expertly assist governments, both in implementing the UNCAC and in fulfilling their human rights obligations.

Linking both fields will also reinforce the links between the UN mechanisms involved: in Geneva (the centre of the UN human rights mechanisms); Vienna (the centre of the UNCAC); and New York (the centre of the UN overall).

***

On 15 December 2021, the author will be speaking at a virtual special session of the State Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). A recording of the expert panel — discussing the question ‘Do we need a Special Rapporteur on Anti-Corruption and if so, what should its mandate look like?’ — will be available shortly afterwards. U4 is moderating the event.

    About the author

    Làzarie Eeckeloo

    Disclaimer


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

    Keywords


    human rights, UNCAC – United Nations Convention against Corruption, civil society, whistleblowing, anti-corruption policy