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176 - Corruption Kills: Curbing Kleptocracy, Ending War
The pursuit of illicit profiteering drives the wars that cause immense human suffering, as in Ukraine’s Bakhmut, Kherson, and beyond, and throughout the devastating conflict in Sudan’s Khartoum, El Obeid, al-Fashir, Geneina, and Nyala cities.
Leaders order armies to attack in order to aggrandize, to gather the loot of aggression. Putin wants imperial glory, but also the industrial riches, coal, and iron of eastern Ukraine. The Sudanese regular army and the irregular Rapid Defense Force have created horrific mayhem, killing thousands and driving almost a million people out of their homes. Access to gold and oil wealth are at the root of their deadly competition.
Corruption kills, either directly through combat or indirectly, as in Somalia, the Brazilian Amazon, or Indonesian Kalimantan by neglect, persecution, or the kinds of disorder that lead to large-scale hunger and starvation. Corruption, especially the kinds of grand corruption that enable kleptocratic regimes like those in Russia, Belarus, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe to steal relentlessly from their citizens, is at the root of nearly all of the world’s conflicts now, and in earlier eras.
The world’s wave of migrants is also propelled by grand corruption and the wars that follow.
Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Niger, Somalia, and Tunisia are all immersed today in distressing internal races to see who, or which faction, can steal more thoroughly from their internal publics. Some of those places have military leaders, some have elected autocrats; only Niger is plausibly democratic.
Islamic jihadists compete for the right to loot in several of these states. The DRC has at least 200 contending factions, one at least backed by Rwanda, another allied to the Islamic State. In Zimbabwe the competition to purloin has already been won; the long time victors are President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga. They take whatever diamonds and gold that Zimbabwe still has, print fake money to cover their exploits, and send it offshore while their countrypeople literally starve, (A third of all Zinbabweans are fed by the UN World Food Program.)
No one knows precisely how much yearly is lost to the world’s GDP through grand corruption but the World Bank and many economists estimate that as much as 5 percent of many national income streams is squandered – good money that should be devoted to educating or caring for the health of the planet’s poor. Nicholas Kristof wrote an excellent column in the New York Times yesterday explaining how a few dollars of assistance or national revenue can purchase deworming medicine to prevent young people and their elders from suffering painfully and emotionally from worm infestations. Too often, especially in Africa, those dollars are stolen by kleptocrats and secreted out of a dictator’s country to safe havens in Switzerland or Delaware.
Putin is reputed to have appropriated so much lucre from the Russian body politic that the major job of several of his oligarchical compatriots is to front for him as they secret his riches (and his and their yachts) and their own immense gains in places where American sanctions cannot prevail.
South Africa has long been corrupt. The recent secret arms transfers between South Africa and Russia are part of a large-scale kleptocratic exchange. So are Russian investments in manganese mines in the northern reaches of South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting, so far with too little success, to corral those of his African National Congress compatriots who insist on embezzling from the state or selling their influence over policy and legislation. It is a truly Sisyphean task to curb their greed effectively (and to keep the nation’s lights lit).
Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and George all launder Russian corrupt proceeds, along with the ruling families of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the merchants of Dubai. India purchases below cost Russian oil and refines it and sells it onward to great profit, evading Western sanctions.
When Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first gained political power in Singapore in the late 1950s he quickly learned that only by eradicating his city-state’s long rampant corruption (organized under British colonial rule by ruthless Chinese triad Mafia-like gangs) could he gain legitimacy and stay in charge. He hence embarked on a remarkable fifty-year crusade to cleanse Singapore and to convert it from a Third World catastrophe to a First World Oasis (his words).
One of his key instruments to reduce corruption at high levels (and therefore throughout the small city-state) was to employ what are now called in European, Canadian, and African legislation “Unexplained Wealth Orders.” In Lee’s day, if he noticed a deputy prime minister or a cabinet minister living luxuriously or, in one famous case, a spouse sporting expensive jewelry at a gala, Lee sacked that important individual. He knew (and trials in court later demonstrated) that the minister in question was living beyond his means, i.e. living off bribes or other enrichments. One or more of the today’s U.S. Supreme Court justices would have been caught by Lee if such offenses had occurred in Singapore. Britain is using such Orders to good effect now, as well.
Ukraine has done its part, too. A Supreme Court chief justice, several ministers, and a go-between for a crooked local magnate have all been arrested, in one important case red-handed. None of these Ukrainian cases appear to be war-related, at least not directly. But amid the vicissitudes of combat it is smart of Ukraine to clean house and reduce the kleptocratic activities for which the country was infamous before Putin’s invasion. Dishonesty harms morale and endangers Ukraine’s defensive spirit.
The West has sanctioned many Russian oligarchs and seized Putin’s very large yacht. It is looking everywhere for those (Russians and others) who want the war to continue in order to profit. The world will never quench greed. But it can put up strong barriers against kleptocracy in order to limit battles over spoils. Doing so will contribute measurably to a reduction in civil conflict and casualties, and to the enhanced life outcomes for the world’s least privileged citizens.
It is time to follow Lee, but not necessarily his tactics, and extirpate corrupt endeavors by leaders and their associates from Washington to Tokyo. Doing so will mean improving transparency and accountability across the globe. Local prosecutors and courts, together with an investigative free media and an aroused civil society are essential. But in the world’s innumerable autocracies the executive (Putin or his many emulators) controls the courts. That is why the peoples of the world beset by avaricious kleptocrats (in Russia, Hungary, or Myanmar) need a new innovative legal instrument, an International Anti-Corruption Court.
Such a court could resolve those cases that are either too complex for domestic courts or are untouchable within a country because of an autocrat’s overweening power. A new court could also take on cases recommended by civil society in benighted countries where the citizenry has no voice. It could dispense justice where it no longer exists internally by acting as a court of final resort.
A number of prominent world leaders now want world order to create such a court, possibly by treaty. Distinguished jurists are now writing such a document, while its advocates are busy answering objections and indicating how, operationally, an International Anti-Corruption Court could be more efficient and much less costly than the International Criminal Court (that has indicted Putin for war crimes). The ICC itself was created by treaty in Rome in 1998. Signatories also agreed to ban land mines in 1997 in Ottawa, again by treaty. The Anti-Corruption tribunal could follow, striking another blow against the grand corruption that so harms humanity.