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Opinion

Corruption is a broken promise

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Ever since it was first written by the English historian John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, this statement has served as a warning for citizens and their leaders. Of all the many enemies that a State may have, of all the evils that may plague it, none is as subversive nor as deadly as corruption.

What do we mean when we speak of corruption in this sense? The subject is more complex than it originally seems. The United Nations Convention Against Corruption – touted as the world’s only legally binding universal anti-corruption instrument – does not define corruption itself, instead listing specific corrupt acts. The latest definition used by Transparency International, the leading anti-corruption NGO, provides a solid base: Corruption is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” It’s a broad definition, but it must be… nowadays, corruption takes on many forms.

There is corruption that involves the giving of bribes and corruption that involves the taking of bribes. There is everyday corruption in the “greasing of the wheels” of business regulations, and there is grand-scale corruption of the likes seen in post-communist nations where State assets are stripped and sold to create the new ruling class. There is the kind of corruption that merely waits for the opportunity, and the predatory kind, which extorts and blackmails. There is corruption that is simply monetary, and one where favors are traded for influence.

Corruption that affects national welfare has even seeped beyond the realm of government power… One of the reasons that the Transparency International definition does not specify “government power” is because large corporations have now amassed a great amount, especially in situations where the State has outsourced public services to private entities. There are days when the most direct exercise of power in your lives comes not from the government but from corporations – telecom companies, social media companies, utility companies.

But however many the forms that corruption takes, whatever its scale or circumstance, some things remain the same.

Corruption is always an abuse of power. Whether that power is wielded by a traffic enforcer or a senator, it is power all the same. When power over another is exercised or withheld for the wrong reasons, it cannot be anything other than abuse.

But corruption does not involve all power, but “entrusted” power. The power that is abused is not something that the abuser owns – it is not that of an athlete bullying an invalid. In corruption the power is always given or borrowed from another, which makes it all the more heinous. In a republican government such as ours, the power of the State comes solely from the people, who agree to be bound by the laws of the State with the understanding that these laws will be for the greater good.

Even when a private corporation exercises power, it does so within the same framework of understanding that the State would allow this only if it were for the public good. Abuse of this entrusted power breaks this social contract, and hence corruption is always a betrayal of the trust of the people.

What makes it worse is that this betrayal is for the lowest of reasons – personal enrichment. More than that, it’s enrichment at great cost to others – corruption is about private gain at the expense of public loss. And when this involves the laws of the land, that cost can be more than monetary.

When regulations meant to ensure public safety are circumvented, lives can be lost. The use of substandard building materials can lead to the collapse of buildings, dikes or dams, resulting in tragic deaths and massive damage to property. Criminal syndicates use corruption to evade prosecution by law enforcement, making possible the continued trafficking of everything from drugs, to weapons, to human beings. Blatant deforestation and the continued operation of firms that violate environmental standards can also be laid at the feet of corruption, exacerbating the existential threat of climate change.

And even when the ill-effects of corruption on human lives is not as direct, studies have shown that even corruption meant to sidestep harmful or excessive regulation causes harm to economic growth. A poorer nation means less money for public works, for schools and infrastructure, for hospitals and subsidies. Corruption is a key driver in a cycle of poverty where the richest become richer at the expense of the poorest. Corruption destroys human life at every level.

This is the reason why President Rodrigo Duterte has issued the Oct. 27, 2020 Memorandum ordering the Department of Justice (DOJ) to commence investigations into allegations of corruption in the government. The President authorized the DOJ to decide which allegations to investigate, taking into consideration the gravity of the allegations and their impact on the delivery of government service. Pursuant to this, the Task Force Against Corruption (TFAC) was created, having as its members the DOJ, Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, the Anti-Money Laundering Council and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The Civil Service Commission, the Commission on Audit and the Office of the Ombudsman also participated to share relevant information.

As of Dec. 3, the TFAC has received 325 complaints of corruption in government, 319 of which were already acted upon by the TFAC. Five of these complaints were already found to be sufficient in form and substance and were referred to the Office of the Ombudsman for the appropriate cases to be filed before the Sandiganbayan.

Most of them are still undergoing collection of more evidence or with the involved departments or agencies for clarification. Some of the complaints need further investigation by the NBI and two are already with the National Prosecution Service. Towards the end of President Duterte’s administration, the TFAC is still giving its strongest push to fight corruption.

Corruption destroys the government itself. It breaks the tie between citizen and government, and removes incentive for the people to participate. Corruption undermines the legitimacy of government itself, and so contrary is it to the essence of government that even the mere appearance of it can give rise to anger and unrest.

Corruption is a broken promise that can break the nation.

A government has the duty to expunge the scourge of corruption. This is a fight where no quarter can be given, nor leniency granted – and where the investigation and prosecution must be transparently within the bounds of the rule of law – because corruption threatens the very existence of the State.

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