Transitional Justice Should Take On Corruption

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Large-scale corruption and economic crimes often go hand in hand with mass human rights abuses in authoritarian countries. The two are mutually reinforcing: Dictators gain and maintain power—and perpetuate impunity—through a combination of violent repression and the distribution of patronage and graft opportunities. The plunder of public wealth serves as both an incentive for retaining power by force, and a means of rewarding those who carry out or cover up regime crimes. Despite this connection, the mechanisms of transitional justice have not adequately dealt with the legacy of authoritarian corruption nor remedied its far-reaching socioeconomic effects.

Practitioners and policymakers within the transitional justice community are increasingly aware of the opportunities lost by failing to highlight the link between corruption and mass human rights abuses. During transitional periods, dictators and their cohorts use their economic gains to protect themselves, stall or obstruct meaningful reforms, and undermine their successors. In the majority of cases, victims of economic crimes and large-scale corruption outnumber victims of physical atrocities. But as their suffering goes unaddressed, they often come to blame their difficulties on the successor regime, and develop a blurred nostalgia for the old authoritarian order. It is incumbent upon the new regime and civil society to raise public awareness of the combined legacy of repression and corruption, and to introduce policies that tackle the problem.  

Some form of reparations could help meet the needs of victims and society at large, but new governments must act swiftly to identify ill-gotten assets and restore them to state coffers. Deposed dictators and their untouched associates frequently get away with their loot through the use of offshore accounts, shell companies, and secrecy laws.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for transitional justice mechanisms to take on corruption is that it is an increasingly common demand of citizens. The popular grievances at the heart of the Arab Spring uprisings, for example, involved personal dignity and social and economic inequities. Earlier “color revolutions” in places like Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan focused on the corruption of incumbent leaders and their efforts to rig elections.

Political transitions represent a critical opportunity to expose large-scale economic crimes and their link to repression, trace and recover assets, remove perpetrators from their positions of economic power, and establish a more just social contract. During these periods, civic consciousness is at its peak, and society is ready for a fresh start. Moreover, major delays could cripple any reforms attempted in the interim. Revealing corruption and its links to human rights abuses can help a society break from its authoritarian past, dispel conceptions of the former ruler as “harsh but clean,” and set longer-term institutional reform on the right footing.

There are several ways in which transitional justice processes could address the link between corruption and past human rights violations: 

  • Truth-seeking commissions can gather evidence and publicize authoritarian or atrocity-related graft. For example, the recent Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya collected victim testimony on illicit land grabs and other property seizures. 
  • Domestic and international prosecutions can include economic crimes. The trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor for his role in the Sierra Leone civil war scrutinized his trading in so-called blood diamonds, which helped fuel the conflict. Early in Tunisia’s transition, ousted leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife were sentenced in absentia to 35 years in prison for embezzlement and misuse of state funds, though the trial was expedited, somewhat flawed, and largely disconnected from any broader transitional justice process.
  • Any recovered assets could be used to fund collective or individual reparations for rights abuses.
  • Anticorruption efforts could be incorporated into institutional overhauls, including the vetting or lustration of officials. This would improve the quality of the civil service and the prospects for implementation of socioeconomic reforms.

Even if antigraft mechanisms cannot be built directly into transitional justice processes, there is ample opportunity for such processes to draw on existing tools. At least 140 countries have now signed the UN Convention against Corruption, which obliges them to create national investigative commissions, coordinate asset recovery across national borders, and improve enforcement, making them potentially valuable partners for transitional governments and institutions.

Transitional justice is an evolving field, one that is grappling with the new citizen demands of recent uprisings as well as flaws in the effectiveness of earlier transitions that have stalled or been reversed. To meet these challenges, theorists and practitioners can and should take on the link between large-scale corruption and mass human rights violations.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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