New Internationalist

More scary

Issue 396

A word of warning from Anna Winterbottom.

It is a commonplace of anti-corruption campaigns that the world has more to fear from corruption than terrorism. Indeed, the current use of the term ‘corruption’ can be compared to the term ‘terrorism’ with which it is often linked. ‘Fear’ is the key to this message, as demonstrated by a US State Department release on the necessity for the invasion of Iraq with the headline ‘Terrorism, Corruption, War’. Like the atrocities excused in the name of combating terrorism, ‘war’ on corruption is often used to justify measures that would normally be considered unconstitutional, illegal, or even ‘corrupt’.

In a particularly graphic illustration of this tendency, Idi Amin cited corruption as one of 18 reasons for overthrowing the Government of Uganda in 1971. The institutions he set up to investigate the abuse of public power soon became infamous for the persecution of political opponents.

Corruption is often represented as an internal disease of a state or political culture rather than as the result of a complex set of international relations and circumstances. Perhaps because of this focus, commentators tend to explain corruption by looking to cultural factors.

Such speculations are useful to those who wish to disregard the international elements of the problem of corruption. It also allows responsibility for the combating of corruption to be deferred to ‘civil society’, often with little analysis of the capacity of local civil society organizations to challenge high-level corruption.

Once corruption has been internalized as a disease of national governments, international institutions are free to prescribe cures. Popular panaceas are democratization and economic liberalization; the G8 conditions on debt cancellation require governments to ‘tackle corruption, boost private sector development’.

Indonesia’s new government, elected on a promise of tackling graft and widely hailed as the country’s first democratic regime, appears to have taken the combined pill proffered by the G8 leaders. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced recently ‘our anti-corruption measures have spared no-one from the arms of the law’. The statement, made in an address to a global business conference, was combined with assurances that his government was ‘committed to the process of democratization and to creating a more favourable climate for investment’.

While the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) has engaged in the energetic prosecutions of prominent figures, some have noted the stalling of investigations into the murder of Munir Said Thalib, a prominent human rights and anti-corruption activist.

Munir Said Thalib was murdered with a fatal dose of arsenic in his drink on a flight bound for The Netherlands two years ago. He was known as a vocal critic of Indonesia’s armed forces, which committed gross human rights violations, namely in Papua, Aceh and East Timor.

In June 2005, a government-appointed fact-finding team had handed over its report to President Yudhoyono with some recommendations that several former National Intelligence Agency officials need to be investigated. However, it was neither released to the public nor used in court proceedings. The failure of the Indonesian government to hold Munir’s murderers accountable is an illustration of impunity that still reigns in Indonesia.

Questions could also be raised about the wisdom of some of the laws passed by the new government to deal with those suspected of corruption. These include investing the police, ranked by Transparency International among Indonesia’s most corrupt institutions, with the power to detain those suspected of corruption without trial for up to six months, in the same way as terror suspects. The rhetoric of fighting corruption seems to be more important than the way in which the ‘war’ is waged.

Tackling corruption has become an essential ingredient of election manifestos, a condition for those seeking to attract aid and investment, and a stated aim of NGOs and governments alike. It is undeniable that the misuse of public office for private gain is a real problem with severe consequences worldwide. Coalitions of civil society, public, and private sector groups co-operating within and across national borders have made significant progress in exposing and combating this behaviour. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the power of morally-weighted words like ‘corruption’ and ‘terrorism’. Their use inspires fear and can justify measures that would normally be considered unconstitutional or even illegal.

Anna Winterbottom is a writer, editor, researcher and former volunteer with Global Witness.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on More scary

Leave your comment