Friday, March 18, 2011

Corruption: Africa - What Role for Civil Society in the UN Anti-corruption Efforts?

Source: ISS

What Role for Civil Society in the UN Anti-corruption Efforts?

Shahnaaz Parker, Programme Assistant, Corruption and Governance Programme, ISS Cape Town Office

In addressing corruption globally and domestically the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) is a promising anti-corruption tool. The convention, which to date has 148 signatory states is unique in recognizing both punitive and preventative measures in combating various forms of corruption. The fight against global corruption can only be meaningful if countries voluntarily ratify and implement the convention. It was therefore encouraging when the first Conference of State Parties (CoSP), in 2006, agreed on the need to establish an appropriate and working mechanism on the implementation of the UNCAC. It was even more inspiring when the Doha deal on the UNCAC review mechanism, the first ever United Nations peer review mechanism, was concluded in 2009. Under this deal all State Parties should complete comprehensive self-assessment checklists on their implementation of UNCAC.

Unfortunately the Doha agreement has not been much cause for celebration. For starters, the review mechanism was allowed to operate in secrecy on a government-to-government basis, with no mandatory requirements for non-governmental inputs, country visits or publication of full review reports. The mechanism also grants governments permission to keep Country Review reports confidential and makes report publication discretionary. In the mechanisms’ final Terms of Reference (TOR), paragraphs about civil society participation were removed and decision-making regarding the review process was deemed exclusive to governments’ experts. In this spirit the mechanism provided only for the appointment of 15 governmental experts for the purpose of the review process. This is inconsistent with the anti-corruption ethos of transparency, public participation and accountability. Paradoxically, the UNCAC Review mechanism takes pride in having transparency, inclusiveness, and impartiality, among other things, as its guiding principles and characteristics.

On the other hand the review mechanism, albeit flawed, is a small step in a process that can improve. It does at least exhort a State party under review to endeavor to prepare its responses to the comprehensive self-assessment checklist through broad consultations at the national level with all relevant stakeholders, including the private sector individuals and groups outside the public sector. It is now up to citizens’ groups around the world to take up the challenge to ensure that governments do not only pay lip service to the principles of transparency and civil society participation. The UNCAC Coalition, consisting of 240 civil society organizations globally is one such citizens’ group, which realizes the importance of undertaking independent assessments to input into the peer review process.

The review mechanism’s TOR stipulate that each review phase shall be composed of two review cycles of five years each and one fourth of the State Parties will be reviewed in each of the first four years. Fortunately the TOR also binds the Conference of State Parties to assess the performance of the Mechanism and its terms of reference following the completion of each review cycle. This is an excellent opportunity for civil society groups to lobby the Conference of State Parties to institute amendments to the Mechanism’s rather bizarre terms of reference.

Among the group of countries that are in the second year of the first review cycle, which looks at the compliance in implementing (Chapter III, Criminalization and Law Enforcement and Chapter IV International Cooperation) UNCAC, is South Africa. This is a great opportunity for South African civil society organizations (CSOs), especially those who are part of the UNCAC Coalition, to advocate for a transparent and inclusive review process. This is not likely to be an easy task given the mechanism’s determination to maintain the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of, or used in, the country review process. Nonetheless citizens’ groups should persuade government to announce its focal point as well as publish the results of its self-assessments. This will require constructive engagements with the review team to enable non-governmental organizations to prepare an independent version of the self-assessment report. This could potentially provide rich material for comparative purposes and is likely to facilitate dialogue between government and non-governmental organizations.

The Implementation Review Group, the structure to which State parties must submit their consolidated reports, should therefore also seriously consider taking into account civil society inputs in order to complete maintain the principles outlined by UNCAC.

The UNCAC review mechanism creates an opportunity for government and civil society to come together in creating a transparent and inclusive review process, which promotes access to information and accountability.