Rights and corruption
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan () - October 20, 2008 - 12:00am

PARIS – Last Saturday at the Trocadero from where one can get the best view of the Eiffel Tower, the World Wildlife Fund had set up an exhibit of sorts to drum up support for saving China’s endangered panda.

The other weekend Chinese themselves were at the Trocadero, practicing Falun Dafa or Falun Gong as they protested the continuing repression of the spiritual practice in China.

If foreigners here are accorded the rights guaranteed under the United Nations universal declaration, the French themselves see human rights as their birthright. At the train station on my way to the European Union headquarters in Brussels last Friday morning, some workers were shouting and banging an umbrella on a table. They later unfurled a banner that even to a non-French speaker like me seemed to declare that they were on strike. Fortunately, they were members of the janitorial services, demanding higher pay and better working conditions, and not the engineers running the Thalys trains. So my train left on time for Belgium.

France, land of liberté, egalité and fraternité, has long pushed the cause of freedom of expression and other human rights, as do most of the countries that make up the European Union. With France holding the revolving EU presidency, human rights are always high on the agenda, especially in EU ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

French and EU officials in this city and in Brussels are elated that the ASEAN Charter has finally been ratified by all the members of the Southeast Asian grouping, with the Philippines and Indonesia as the final holdouts.

The charter, which commits ASEAN to respecting human rights, is non-binding and offers no sanctions for rights violators. ASEAN and its partners can try shaming violators, but this tack has largely failed in the case of Myanmar, whose repressive junta would rather give up the revolving ASEAN chair than implement democratic reforms.

Human rights will be high on the agenda of the two-day Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit to be hosted by Beijing later this week, which President Arroyo will attend.

It will be interesting to watch Europe interact with China, the largest prison for journalists in the world, and Myanmar. Like the United States, the world’s bastion of democracy, the EU engages China but isolates Myanmar. And the only reason the world can see is that China has a vast market for US and EU goods while poor Myanmar has only a fraction of China’s population, with the majority of Burmese having little disposable income. 

If the Europeans want to push their human rights agenda in developing countries, they should include in the effort programs to eradicate corruption.

* * *

Corrupt regimes are among the world’s worst violators of human rights. Consider the sad, violent experience of many African countries such as Uganda and now Zimbabwe.

State power is deployed by despots for personal interests, so they can continue enjoying the perks of power including the illegal accumulation of vast wealth. Where the military becomes an instrument for perpetuating someone in power, the worst human rights violations are committed.

Even when a corrupt administration can validly argue that there is no systematic violation of human rights, it may hesitate to go after state forces involved in forced disappearances or extrajudicial killings for fear of losing military support.

When there is corruption at the top, it becomes nearly impossible to eradicate corruption at the lower levels of government. There is no moral ascendancy to demand honesty, decency, transparency and public accountability within the bureaucracy.

And where there is bad governance, it becomes harder to liberate people from the shackles of poverty. Every day we see the consequences of this failure in our developing country: poverty deprives people of many basic rights.

* * *

The Europeans have often denounced unexplained killings in the Philippines, and the forced disappearances that have been on the rise since the number of killings went down last year. Of particular concern to them is the impunity that arises from the failure to solve the crimes.

But while the Europeans are quick to denounce human rights violations, they keep their hands off corruption issues, limiting themselves to the promotion of transparency and public accountability, as they do in the Philippines.

One of the reasons is that corruption is not unique to poor countries. Corruption scandals hound even leaders of the EU and Group of 7 industrialized nations. In addressing corruption, where does one draw the line between support for transparency and intervention in internal state affairs? 

Western countries are wary even of linking official development assistance to corruption in the recipient country. One argument is that withdrawing ODA from a country to punish a corrupt regime could punish the sectors that need the aid.

But the ODA need not be withdrawn. Instead its utilization can be subjected to stringent conditions that will promote transparency, from government procurement to actual program implementation. Such requirements, when met, can also make it easier for ODA donors to justify their foreign aid programs to their taxpayers or stakeholders.

There are no such conditions in Chinese ODA. This has been exploited by the crooks in the Philippine government, who can now count on the blessings of a compliant Supreme Court to make ODA utilization even more opaque than the financial transactions that led to the collapse of giant investment banks.

The Americans are trying a different tack, promising additional aid to the Philippines as a reward for effective efforts to fight corruption. The country has just flunked the latest test, making it lose its chance for fresh funding from the Millennium Challenge Corp.

That indictment in the form of a loss of funding hurts the Arroyo administration more than any condemnation of human rights violations, which the military will simply deny.

The EU can work on something similar, focusing on rewarding reforms if it wants to avoid accusations of intervention.

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