The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates in a 2013 report that child mortality rates in countries with high levels of corruption are about one third higher than in countries with low corruption, and infant mortality rates are almost twice as high. When officials use their positions for private gain – such as awarding concessions for the extraction of natural resources based on cronyism or accepting multi-million dollar bribes to maintain slack border regulations – entire nations sink into desolation. Instead of a transparent and safe environment for all citizens, public services deteriorate and everyday people are left open to exploitation. By stealing their nations’ resources and using their authority to gain personal wealth, corrupt governments are not only committing fraud – they are reaping suffering, hunger, disease, and even death among the citizens of their country.
Do such egregious human rights abuses require international action? When corruption is carried out by heads of state and their close associates, it is often endemic to every public institution in a country, leaving citizens with no recourse. Dictators, Presidents-for-Life, Kings, and even democratically elected leaders are free to operate with impunity.
One of the principal debates raging within the anti-corruption community centers around the idea of an international court to prosecute ‘grand corruption,’ defined as state leaders and politicians misusing their authority to sustain their power, status, and wealth. These are the Frederick Chilubas, Robert Mugabes, and Muamar Qaddafis of the world – heads of state and their colleagues in the upper echelons of government or business (often both) who amass vast fortunes via their control over national resources, government contracts, and state revenues. Such an anti-corruption court would provide an international mechanism for bringing these otherwise immune individuals to justice – a global watchdog to defend the citizen victims of these enormous and unconscionable crimes.
The argument for such a court has prominent proponents and detractors alike, all anti-corruption experts who agree on the need but not the means to tackle the grotesque amount of graft emanating from some of the highest offices in the world. Most notably, U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf and Executive Director of Not in My Country Roey Rosenblith, who support the initiative, find themselves at odds with Harvard Law’s Matthew Stephenson and Northwestern’s Karen Alter and Juliet Sorensen. Judge Wolf, while not the first to propose such a court, has crystallized the idea into a working proposal that envisions an entirely new and independent International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) modeled after the International Criminal Court (ICC). Among other mechanisms to ensure the initiative’s success, Wolf recommends making World Bank loans as well as membership of international organizations like the OECD and WTO open only to signatories of this Court.
Critics argue that the ineffectiveness of the ICC makes it a poor model for a new international court. Linking participation in the court to membership in key international institutions could pose an even bigger problem, potentially leading major international players like the United States, India, Russia, China, and Brazil to oppose the court, while many corrupt leaders would readily forego World Bank financing and other benefits to protect themselves and their personal corruption networks. Indeed, it is hard to imagine dictators who have spent decades corruptly accumulating wealth and power to join to an international court that could potentially take it all away — regardless of the level of pressure to do so or the consequences of refusing.