The Case for Framing Corruption in Terms of Human Rights

By Kiwiev (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Kiwiev (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

While in the past 20 years the international community has made strides in acknowledging that corruption contributes to and facilitates human rights abuses, it has yet to acknowledge that acts of official corruption are in and of themselves human rights abuses. In other words, we treat corruption as a symptom rather than a cause of social, political, and economic privation.

In a recent white paper released by the Brookings Institution, Matthew Murray and Andrew Spalding argue that elevating freedom from corruption to the status of a human right would send the message to victims of official corruption as well as to the perpetrators that “the vigorous enforcement of anti-corruption measures is not only possible, but essential.”

Murray, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Spalding, an Associate Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, outline four arguments for recognizing corruption as an abuse of human rights. They first assert that the case for treating acts of corruption as human rights abuses is grounded in philosophy and legal theory. According to John Locke’s “law of nature,” without the regulation of a neutral third party – or government – people will act in their own self-interest and encroach on the liberty of those around them. If government officials are participating in corrupt practices, they cease to act as neutral intermediaries. Institutions that are meant to mediate between self-interested parties and victims of corruption become vehicles through which officials can exploit their authority to encroach on other’s liberty.

The second argument that Murray and Spalding make for regarding official corruption as a rights violation is that it would give laws regarding corruption greater weight. Murray and Spalding describe human rights as “trumps” in that they are given “higher enforcement priority” than crimes. When human rights are being violated, the international community is compelled to act. By framing corruption as a human rights violation, there is more pressure on the international community to enforce international anti-corruption regulations.  Murray and Spalding argue that freedom from corruption is universally recognized to the point of being jus cogens or a norm that is observed above other country-specific laws similar to other human rights recognized in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The third argument for deeming freedom from official corruption a human right is that it will deflate the argument that corruption is inherent to certain cultures. National leaders sometimes dismiss anti-corruption initiatives by positing that corruption is a cultural phenomenon. Describing bribes as gifts or tea money reinforces this notion and diminishes the gravity of participating in corrupt practices. Murray and Spalding cite Confucianism and Islamic law to suggest that almost all religions and cultures consider corruption to be an impediment to good governance. Most people, regardless of culture or ethnicity, do not want to participate in corruption, but weak institutions allow for bribery to occur. The inherent universality of human rights nullifies the assertion that certain cultures are more corrupt than others and helps initiatives to combat corruption to take root.

The fourth and final argument that Murray and Spalding present for considering freedom from corruption to be a human right is that it is impossible to address other fundamental human rights, including the rights to secure health and education, without also addressing corruption. This point is key for the international development community. In many societies, corruption pervades every aspect of life, from opening a business to obtaining an elementary education. By diminishing a root cause of deprivation, other human rights will be more easily fulfilled. Simultaneously, if pervasive corruption is not eradicated, it is more difficult to abate other human rights abuses and international aid initiatives will be less effective in improving access to food, medicine, education and other basic human necessities.

Murray and Spalding lay the intellectual groundwork for a campaign to have freedom from official corruption ingrained in international law. But they leave open the question of how to define such a right.  We first need to mobilize support in international institutions for such reframing. Although anti-corruption efforts are growing and initiatives such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) have sought to increase enforcement of anti-corruption laws, political will is lacking in many countries. Framing freedom from corruption as a basic human right will create the impetus that is needed for many countries to seriously address corruption at all levels and to bolster initiatives to combat corruption.

April Snedeker is a Program Assistant for Russia and Central Asia at CIPE.