Opening of the High-Level Conference “Strengthening transparency and accountability to ensure integrity: United against corruption”
Check against delivery
Ministers, President of GRECO, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you to the Croatian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for inviting us to Šibenik. We are all aware that this town was a strategic city over centuries, and now it has become a strategic city in the fight against corruption.
As you know, the Council of Europe was set up to protect Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law after the Second World War.
We have developed legal instruments and monitoring systems – at the top of which is the European Court of Human Rights. Fighting corruption has become an increasing part of our work. GRECO – our anti-corruption body – has become more and more important, far beyond the Council of Europe itself. And it delivers very clear messages, because it is an independent body. The intervention before mine, by the President of GRECO, has demonstrated this once again.
Transparency and accountability are the means by which we shall implement a zero tolerance approach which is necessary to fight corruption.
And concerted action at both the international level and by domestic governments is the only way to achieve those ends.
This partnership approach threads through the three topics that form the basis of this Conference, and on which you are seeking new ideas and ways forward:
The fight against so-called “grand corruption”.
The need for strong, national anti-corruption bodies.
And the crucial role of free media capable of rooting out and exposing malpractice wherever it exists.
Grand corruption is perhaps the most shocking and damaging kind.
Because it takes hold at the highest end of politics, it distorts the proper functioning of the state or international system.
And when money and power are seen to benefit the few at the expense of the many, this abuse of power corrodes public trust not just in politicians, but in the institutions and values in which we believe.
Preventing and tackling corruption and, at worst, state capture, must therefore be a top priority for governments across Europe and the world.
GRECO has been active in and has contributed greatly to that effort, helping strengthen public sector integrity.
Previous evaluation rounds on political party funding and the prevention of corruption among MPs have provided a wealth of information and resources about how this occurs and what can be done to stop it.
And I anticipate that the current round focusing specifically on the prevention of corruption in central government will do likewise.
The question is what more should we do?
Are existing immunities, jurisdictions and sanctions adequate?
Should we strengthen our criminal laws, including the creation of a civil action mechanism?
And, if further action is needed, would people in this room and beyond have an appetite for new anti-corruption legal standards in this area?
Specialised national corruption bodies are also a vital tool for identifying and investigating, and tackling and preventing crimes at different levels of the public and private sectors alike.
It is encouraging to see so many representatives of those national bodies here today:
Not only from European states but from much further afield too – including Canada and Hong Kong, Qatar and Benin – and the USA, which is a full member of GRECO.
You know that to do your jobs efficiently and effectively, your work must be independent and your investigations impartial.
Adequate resources and a culture of co-operation are also important.
Again this is true at the domestic level, but equally important at the international level too –
Not least where your work leads you across national borders.
So I think that we can all warmly welcome the launch at the end of the Conference of a brand new network of corruption prevention authorities.
This will allow the easy exchange of information between authorities in multiple countries where an international element is involved.
Today, in Europe and the wider world, there are multiple means by which law enforcement can work together against cross-border crime.
Anti-corruption techniques should not lag behind.
This network should help bridge the gap.
This is your network.
However, you should go forward in the certain knowledge that the Council of Europe stands behind it and is ready to help where needed.
But exposing corruption has never been the role of state authorities alone.
The media has a crucial role to play.
Over the years, journalists have uncovered a wide range of stories in this area.
Often very big stories that can themselves result in criminal prosecutions.
This is what the European Court of Human Rights meant when it described journalists as “watchdogs of democracy”.
But only a free media can fulfil that role properly.
Where journalists are subjected to harassment, intimidation, or prosecution –or even killed – for carrying out their legitimate work, the chilling effect is clear.
We cannot expect them to play the part they want to play in a democratic society:
To uncover the truth and hold authority to account.
These problems are very real, with sometimes terrible outcomes.
Since 2015, our Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists has recorded the unlawful deaths of 22 journalists in our member states – in addition to severe physical attacks on 120 others.
And this is to say nothing of the number of journalists who have been detained.
National authorities in our member states have an obligation to defend the free press:
An obligation that is underpinned by European law and Council of Europe initiatives.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a binding provision interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Standard-setting instruments on the protection of those who work in the media and on media pluralism and transparency.
And our research and co-operation activities with individual countries too.
Equally, it is important that a free media is also trustworthy.
The concentration of ownership and conflicts of interest remain a significant challenge.
Not least at a time of technological developments and the growing involvement of media players in political life.
Some journalists also cut ethical corners and fall short of the professional standards expected of them.
And in these areas too we are working with member states to help them ensure a fair and balanced media, with a range of guidelines and, most recently, our draft recommendation on promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age.
Ladies and gentlemen, as the Council of Europe’s monitoring body in this area, GRECO has done a great deal of good work over the past twenty years to promote integrity and boost transparency.
But their reports show the persistence of specific problems, and the emergence of new ones.
They also show that no country is immune and that we all can and must do better.
I am therefore particularly pleased to see such a diverse pool of expertise here today from government, the judiciary, the media and more – some of whom have travelled a great distance to be here.
To finish, I would like to come back where I started.
When we are talking about fighting corruption, we are talking about securing democracy and the Rule of Law.
Corruption is a threat to democracies. On the one hand because it deprives public institutions of huge amounts of money. On the other hand because it ruins trust in institutions, leading to instability, upheavals, revolution and more.
If somebody believes – as more and more commentators say is the case – that authoritarian systems bring more stability and economic growth than democracies, I would say this to them: I remember when the Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space, before the United States of America. Everybody said the Soviet Union had won the race. But history shows that when that happened, the Soviet Union was at its peak. Afterwards the Berlin Wall came down. No one had predicted it. What happened is that people took history in their own hands, in the middle of the Cold War. And this happened because the Soviet Union had no checks and balances and was closed in on itself.
The same kind of story was heard in Tunis when the owner of a grocery shop set himself on fire to protest against corruption.
And in Ukraine the people took to the streets because they were so exhausted by corruption.
So I have a message to democratic leaders. If you engage in corruption, sooner or later you will lose.
This is what history tells us about the relationship between checks and balances and corruption.