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International anti-corruption court needed

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The more I read about the massive government corruption in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and other countries where top officials have been accused of stealing fortunes with near total impunity, the more I like a new proposal that is making the rounds in world legal circles — creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court.

The idea of creating an International Anti-Corruption Court along the lines of the existing International Criminal Court has been proposed by federal judge and former Justice Department official Mark L. Wolf. He explained his proposal in an article published earlier this week on the Brookings Institution’s website.

According to Wolf, the world needs an International Anti-Corruption Court because many governments have created a culture of impunity, in which there is neither the will nor the capacity to investigate, prosecute and punish corruption.

Just like the international community created the International Criminal Court in 2002 to prosecute massive human rights violations by high-level officials in countries that are not willing or able to do it by themselves, it should do the same with top level corruption — what he calls "grand corruption" — in countries that don’t prosecute high level graft, he argues.

Wolf wrote his paper with countries such as Russia and Nigeria in mind, but he would have found just as good — or better — examples in Latin America.

In a growing number of countries, elected leaders have gradually taken over near absolute powers, increasingly controlling their justice systems through hand-picked prosecutors and judges, and — in the case of Ecuador and Venezuela — silencing opposition media.

As a result, top officials enjoy a licence to steal. Consider some of the latest headlines from South America.

In Argentina, where despite President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s efforts to silence independent journalism, there are still media companies that denounce government corruption, hardly a day goes by without new revelations about Vice President Amado Boudou’s shady business deals.

Boudou has been charged, among other things, with secretly buying a major company while he was finance minister. But it wasn’t just any company: it was the company that prints the country’s currency.

In addition, he has been charged with using his government position to seek tax pardons for the money printing company’s debts, and — most recently — forging the registry papers of a red convertible Honda car in an alleged effort to keep it from being claimed by his former wife during divorce proceedings.

Yet, to this day, Boudou is happily serving as Argentina’s vice president, and as acting president when Fernandez travels abroad.

Fernandez herself has been linked, among other scandals, to the 2007 discovery of a suitcase with $800,000 in cash brought to the country aboard a Venezuelan government aircraft by Key Biscayne-based Venezuelan resident Guido A. Antonini Wilson. A U.S. prosecutor in Florida later quoted one of several men arrested for trying to bribe Antonini Wilson into silence as saying that the money was for then-candidate Fernandez’s campaign.

In Brazil, there have been numerous press reports — which triggered national protests — of huge overbillings in government infrastructure projects for the recent World Cup. Among them was the Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia, whose budged tripled to US$900 million because of what government auditors said was overpricing of building materials.

The case is still pending (although, to her credit, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff in recent years sacked half a dozen cabinet ministers for allegations of corruption).

In Venezuela and Ecuador, where there is no separation of powers and virtually no opposition media to denounce high-level corruption, top level corruption is even greater.

Not surprisingly, Transparency International, the independent anti-corruption advocacy group, places Venezuela as the champion of corruption in the Americas, and one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It ranks 160th among 175 nations in Transparency’s latest Corruption Perception Index. Ecuador ranks 102.

My opinion: The idea of creating an International Anti-Corruption Court, modeled after the existing ICC, deserves support.

Granted, the ICC has not pursued many cases, in part because the United States and other countries don’t fully recognize it. But Wolf argues that the proposed anti-corruption court would have much greater U.S. and European support, because U.S. and European companies are already bound by anti-bribery laws, and would greatly benefit if their Russian and Chinese competitors were bound by similar standards.

The movement for creation of an anti-corruption court is just beginning. Let’s hope it takes off — it would be a great tool to help fight the culture of impunity in many countries.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.

— The Miami Herald


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