Should Corruption be a Human Rights Issue?

Graffiti in Tunisia. (Photo: Foreign Policy)

The link between corruption and human rights abuses seems to many to be self-evident: when laws are up for sale and justice has a price tag, a citizen’s treatment by the government is determined more by the ability to pay than by fundamental principles of fairness and respect for the rule of law. But can systemic corruption be considered a violation of human rights on its own? In Tunisia, the country where endemic economic injustice set off a wave of revolutions in the Arab world, activists are making exactly that case.

A commission established soon after the January 2011 revolution to investigate the economic dealings of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali uncovered a pervasive and highly structured network of corruption. The most lucrative parts of the economy were doled out to favored relatives and associates, while the machinery of government – banks, tax authorities, and the justice system – became tools to reward cronies and punish dissenters, part of what writer Sarah Chayes calls a “diabolically intrusive system of state corruption” and Tunisian activists call “economic crimes.”

Perhaps most importantly, average citizens were locked out of most economic opportunities altogether. Indeed, it was the 2011 self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor worn down by the petty indignities of everyday corruption, that kicked off the Tunisian revolution and the whole Arab Spring that followed.

Now, Chayes writes, Tunisian anti-corruption campaigners want to expand the definition of gross violations of human rights to include “systemic economic crimes” like those perpetrated by the Ben Ali regime. If they are successful, their campaign could have enormous implications for how other countries fight against corruption.

Most academics and policymakers already agree that pervasive corruption can undermine various human rights, or lead indirectly to human rights violations. But the idea that systemic corruption is a human rights violation in itself would immediately raise its profile as an international issue, as well as potentially bringing the machinery of international human rights law to bear on fighting it.

This could mean that states have an obligation to fight corruption, and that failure to do so would also be considered a human rights violation. It would provide certain legal remedies outside of national legislative and enforcement mechanisms, which, in places affected by systemic corruption, will often be a part of that corruption.

The approach is not without risks. For one, the international community might not embrace a new human rights obligation built around a concept like “corruption” that can take many forms, and is difficult to define or prove to be happening. More importantly, it could also obligate the international community to act when a country fails to fight corruption effectively enough – a task that many governments around the world struggle with.

However, such a dramatic change in human rights doctrine may not be necessary. The Tunisian activists themselves are simply hoping for a public national reconciliation process similar to those in South Africa or Rwanda, not a major shift in international law. And human rights campaigners are already beginning to focus more on the role that corruption plays in facilitating human rights abuses.

Still, it is important to stress that corruption – especially the systemic, all-encompassing kind found in Tunisia, Egypt, and too many other countries around the world – is more than just a nuisance. Left unchecked, it can spark a revolution.

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