Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on Corruption and Conflict
I thank Secretary-General Guterres for being here today and shining a light on the link between corruption and international peace and security. I also thank John Prendergast for telling us about the important work his team does to uncover the ways that corruption fuels conflict, and giving us clear recommendations on what we can do to stop it. I thank everyone for being here for this, the first Security Council session on the relationship between corruption and conflict. This is an issue that has for too long gone unaddressed.
For all the time we spend here discussing conflict, we hardly ever talk about how corruption fuels the instability, violence, and criminal activity that put countries on our agenda. We pour billions and billions of dollars into trying to fix these problems. We deploy blue helmets, we set up massive assistance missions. We send experts to all corners of the globe. But we fail to recognize the issue that is staring us in the face – corruption.
At its core, corruption is the transfer of wealth from the powerless to the powerful. Bribes, insider deals, skimming of public funds, and diversion of humanitarian aid – these are all forms of the involuntary tribute the poorest pay to the powerful in corrupt regimes. When the weight of this burden becomes too much for the people to endure, they inevitably react.
Corruption also allows transnational crime and drug trafficking to flourish, threatening the health and safety of all of us. The resulting instability and outflows of desperate people demonstrate that corruption is not just an internal matter. It is a regional and global concern for all of us.
On December 17, 2010, a humble Tunisian fruit seller sat down in front of the local governor’s office, doused himself with paint thinner, and set himself on fire. Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act set off the Arab Spring and made him the face of protest against authoritarian governments. What is often lost in his story is that Mohamed was driven to publicly and painfully kill himself by corruption.
Like other poor street vendors in Tunisia, Mohamed was routinely harassed by officials seeking bribes. Hours before his suicide, he had experienced yet another humiliating shake down by a local police officer. Perhaps hoping that others would understand his plight, Mohamed committed one final act of protest against the system that was robbing him, not only of his livelihood, but of his dignity.
Mohamed’s action sparked a wave of anti-corruption uprising across the Arab world. Governments that had appeared stable for decades fell within weeks. In Yemen, Syria, and Libya, protests quickly spiraled into conflicts as corrupt leaders and their cronies tried to hang on to power.
All of this unrest eventually found its way to the Security Council’s agenda. In fact, nine out of the ten countries that Transparency International considers the most corrupt in the world are on the Security Council agenda. Nine out of ten.
But instead of reflecting on why this is the case, the United Nations is too often willing to ignore corruption. We fear that addressing it will put off governments and shut off cooperation. Or we regard corruption as just the “cost of doing business” in some countries. But this head-in-the-sand approach is backwards. In the most troubled countries in the world, corruption isn’t simply a part of the system. Corruption is the system. The governments in places like Venezuela and Iran don’t exist to serve their people and happen to do a little corruption on the side. They exist to serve their own interests and corruption is the means by which they do so.
The fact is, corrupt regimes cannot be ignored, wished away, or dealt with quietly or with whispers. If the Security Council is going to deliver on its commitment to peace and security, corruption must be addressed. Examples of corruption leading to conflict are all around us. The estimates of how much the corrupt government of Victor Yanukovych stole from the Ukrainian people run as a high as $100 billion over the course of less than four years. His lavish lifestyle was legendary and greatly resented by the Ukrainian people. And when Yanukovych was eventually ousted for his crimes, the ripple effects were global. Russia occupied Crimea and began the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Corruption also fuels terrorist movements. Citizens who watch government insiders get rich by stealing resources or demanding bribes are ripe for recruitment for terrorists. Boko Haram gained power and support in Nigeria largely in opposition to government corruption and oppression. The first targets of its violent attacks were the police stations that house Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt and abusive police force. And as Boko Haram carried out barbaric attacks that killed thousands, Nigeria’s leaders stole countless amounts of money meant to defeat terrorism. Since then, Nigeria has taken real steps toward reform, and we commend the government for recognizing the need for change.
Corruption sustains and prolongs conflict. The ethnic divisions in South Sudan are real, but the driving source of the conflict is a fight over who will control South Sudan’s oil revenues, as we heard earlier today. Until there is a way to transparently distribute national resources in a way that is seen fair by the South Sudanese people, the civil war will go on. Elsewhere in Africa, groups exploit natural resources, even trafficking in wildlife, to pay for war.
Corruption is also an international problem because looted funds are laundered through the global financial system. More than any other country, the United States has taken action to stop this. Through the Kleptocracy Initiative, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, we have shut down corrupt actors involved in narco-trafficking, arms trafficking, and money laundering.
In countries like the Congo, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, where corruption has fueled conflict or prevented its resolution, the U.S. Treasury has leveled significant sanctions. In the Congo, Treasury used the Global Magnitsky authority to sanction businessman Dan Gertler, one associated individual, and 33 entities for corruption related to the DRC.
In Venezuela, Treasury has imposed targeted sanctions on government officials to stop them from moving their stolen assets in the international financial system. And we have gone the extra mile to ensure that our sanctions are aimed directly at the Maduro regime and not at the Venezuelan people.
Later today, the United States will host an Arria-formula meeting that will focus specifically on the toll that corruption in Venezuela has taken on its people and how it threatens international security. We welcome all Member States to join us at the meeting.
Last year during the United States’ presidency, we demonstrated that human rights is an issue of peace and security. This year, we make the same argument for the Council’s time and attention on the issue of corruption. By the time a person like Mohamed Bouazizi is moved to lash out against his oppressors, it is too late to prevent corruption from becoming a full-fledged threat to international peace and security.
To those of my colleagues who are serious about fulfilling their duties as members of the Security Council, I urge that we take a longer view. If we fail to take seriously the issue of corruption now, we will doom ourselves to deal with the violence it creates in the future.