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Take a Bite out of Crime

As the United Nations steps up its crackdown on corruption, pressure mounts for Egypt to enact tough legislation and ratify a new international convention

By  Rania Al Malky

Omar Mohsen/Egypt Today
Libyan Mohamed Abdul-Aziz has been with the UNODC for 25 years but moved from the headquarters in Vienna to head the Middle East and North Africa Regional Office three months ago.

IT WAS HARD to know whether to laugh or cry as the Friday sermon boomed from the loudspeakers of a Nasr City area mosque last month: “Corruption,” the preacher declared, “has caused the scourge of the Almighty to fall upon us. Swarms of ravenous locusts are devouring our crops and instilling fear in our hearts,” he continued, recalling one of the nine plagues God brought on the Egyptians before the Pharaoh’s army drowned as it chased Moses and the children of Israel across the Red Sea.

How the region stacks up according to Transparency International’s 2004 Corruption Perception Index. Countries were scored on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the most corrupt.

Which brings us to Kofi Annan and his foreword to the UN Convention Against Corruption, which first opened for signing in Merida, Mexico, one year ago this month. In an uncanny premonition of the preacher’s theory of divine retribution, Annan conceded that “Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies.”

Complementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime which entered into force in February the UN Convention Against Corruption will celebrate its first Global Anti-Corruption Day on December 9.

Lobbying efforts by Transparency International (TI), the world’s leading non-governmental corruption watchdog, was instrumental in creating the awareness day, even as ratification of the anti-corruption convention lags.

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One hundred and thirteen countries have signed the convention, but only nine have ratified it: Algeria, El Salvador, Mexico, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Namibia and Sri Lanka. Mohamed Abdul-Aziz, the regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for the Middle East and North Africa, says the UN has been involved in shaping anti-corruption policies for years. It will only enter into force when it is ratified by 30 countries.

“The convention is focused on prevention, criminalization, international cooperation and technical assistance,” explains Abdul-Aziz, a 25-year veteran of UNODC. “The most important inventions of this convention are the articles related to asset recovery and those concerning the implementation mechanics of the convention with the setting up of the state parties conference that will meet after the convention enters into force. This is a monitoring mechanism to evaluate the problems of implementation and provide advice on the best way to ensure the execution of policies.”

The awareness day, he says, will raise public awareness about the negative consequences of corruption on the development process in all countries, whether “developed” Western economies or emerging markets in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. By diverting funds intended for development, Abdul-Aziz says, corruption has hurt the poor most because it discourages foreign aid and investment.

For the campaign, UNODC and TI, which has 90 chapters worldwide, plan to launch a coordinated media campaign in a bid to convince citizens to urge their governments to ratify the convention as soon as possible.

TI’s 2004 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) the leading global ranking of how industry and government executives see corruption saw Egypt place in the middle of the pack at 77 out of 146 countries ranked. The score: 3.2 out of a maximum of 10; Finland was ranked the least corrupt with a score of 9.7, followed by New Zealand, Denmark and Iceland.

But Abdul-Aziz is optimistic about Egypt’s determination to improve its record and ratify the convention.

“Egypt has played a crucial and active role in the negotiation of the convention by bringing forward specific suggestions on various issues,” says Abdul-Aziz. Moreover, he adds, the ratification debate has already started as a handful of government ministries are now working to update domestic anti-corruption laws to bring them up to snuff with the document, which dwells heavily on asset recovery.

Given Egypt’s influence on the regional and international political scenes, analysts say, ratification of the treaty here will give the global process a much-needed shot in the arm. Should the People’s Assembly sign off on the agreement, Egypt would then be entitled to take part in the next “state parties’ conference” and contribute to the overall decision-making process.

The debate comes in the wake of a high-profile anti-graft campaign in 2002. Hitler Tantawi, then head of the Administrative Control Authority, a state body that specializes in corruption cases, led investigations that resulted in the conviction of 48 senior government officials including high-ranking bureaucrats, former Cabinet ministers, governors and members of parliament on charges of influence peddling, abuse of office and misappropriation of funds.

The high-profile campaign, which drew to a close when Tantawi retired earlier this year, drove three members of the People’s Assembly (PA) independent MPs Kamal Ahmed, Abdel-Moneim El-Oleimi and El-Ghad president Ayman Nour to submit a draft law in March 2004 that took aim at state corruption. It also looked to overhaul the ineffective Law No. 79/1958, the act of parliament that regulates legal proceedings against Cabinet ministers.

The bills proposed granting the speaker of the PA the authority to put ministers on trial for crimes committed while in office; they also suggested suspending serving ministers from office until they are cleared in an investigation or brought to trial.

The drafts have yet to come up for debate, but Egypt has made some undeniable progress in the war on graft. The People’s Assembly has ratified the 1988 United Nations Convention on Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and has become increasingly active in law enforcement policy discussions at the bilateral, regional and international levels. More significantly, the PA finished last session a lengthy overhaul of banking law and anti-money-laundering statutes that saw Egypt removed from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Financial Action Task Force’s black list of nations deemed “non-cooperative” in the global fight against money laundering.

Most recently, Egypt lobbied hard for the right to host the first meeting of the soon-to-be-established International Association of Cyberlaw, which was held in Cairo in September.

Oman and the UAE tied for the best score in the Middle East at 29th place on Transparency International’s CPI list with scores of 6.1, while Iraq finished a clean 100 places below at 129 with a score of 2.1. The survey results suggest that oil-rich countries have extremely low scores, which, according to the TI report, prove that “in these countries, public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by revenues vanishing into the pockets of western oil executives, middlemen and local officials.”

Egypt’s efforts seem to have sparked a regional bid to clamp down on the problem. The Arab League held a meeting in Cairo from October 31 through November 4 of an expert committee to coordinate the position of Arab countries on the UN Convention Against Corruption. Participants stressed that corruption is an international phenomenon requiring both national and international action to combat it. Since the UN convention is a very balanced one, meeting its obligations is of paramount importance for all countries to protect economies and the development process as well as strengthen cooperation against crime, delegates said.

The recommendations included calling on all Arab countries to sign the convention; encouraging them to ratify it; holding a ministerial symposium on how to implement the convention’s provisions in cooperation with the UNODC; calling on Arab countries and the secretariat of the Arab Council of the Ministries of Interior and the Arab Council of the Ministries of Justice to intensify their efforts by participating in seminars and regional conferences dealing with the convention to benefit from the exchange of experience among countries; and the review of the Arab Model Law on Combating Corruption prepared by the councils with a view to including elements of the UN Convention Against Corruption.

“The UNODC’s December 9 celebration will herald in a new era of public campaigning to sustain efforts which are currently underway in Egypt and the region to fight corruption,” Abdul-Aziz concludes.  et

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