This week the United Nations (UN) observes two international days. The first is the International Anti-Corruption Day, observed on the 9th of December. Corruption, of course, affects all countries. It undermines democratic institutions and contributes to governmental instability by warping the rule of law, attacking election integrity, and creating bureaucratic loopholes that facilitate dishonest behavior by those in positions of power. Corruption also slows economic development by wasting public funds, bogging down business operations, or scaring away investments.
Sometimes, corruption is so pervasive that it becomes difficult to imagine just how large an impact it has on us. To put things in perspective, in September 2018, the UN said that 5% of the world’s gross domestic product goes to global corruption. In December 2018, the World Economic Forum and the UN said that international corruption’s annual costs amount to $3.6 trillion in the form of bribes and stolen money. In 2019, Transparency International noted that corruption, bribery, theft, and tax evasion, and other illicit financial flows cost developing countries $1.26 trillion per year. They said this figure was roughly the combined size of the economies of Switzerland, South Africa, and Belgium and would be enough money to lift 1.4 billion people out of poverty for six whole years.
In the Philippines, in 2018, the World Financial Review said the Philippines had lost almost $10 billion every year to illicit financial flows. In 2019, Deputy Ombudsman Cyril Ramos, citing UN estimates, noted that corruption loss in the country was estimated as 20% of annual government appropriations. This meant that the Philippine government might have lost around P1.4 trillion to corruption since 2017.
The second UN international day observed this week is the International Human Rights Day. It is observed on 10th of December in commemoration of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Health Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees every individual a broad range of fundamental rights and freedoms regardless of their nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, religion, language, or any other status.
According to a 2020 UN report on Human Rights in the Philippines, “while there have been important human rights gains in recent years, particularly in economic and social rights, the underpinning focus on national security threats — real and inflated — has led to serious human rights violations, reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high-level officials.”
“Since the Government launched its campaign against illegal drugs in 2016, official figures indicate that at least 8,663 people have been killed, with some estimates putting the real toll at more than triple that number. The UN Human Rights Office has also documented that, between 2015 and 2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists have been killed in relation to their work,” the report added.
These figures tell us that corruption and human rights violations are long-standing issues that have plagued the country for years. But this year, especially, forces us to view these persistent issues through the additional lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, for this year’s International Anti-Corruption Day, the UN highlights the need to “recover with integrity.” According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, “this year, however, the focus is recovering with integrity. Corruption is criminal, immoral, and the ultimate betrayal of public trust. It is even more damaging in times of crisis — as the world is experiencing now with the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to the virus is creating new opportunities to exploit weak oversight and inadequate Transparency, diverting funds away from people in their hour of greatest need.”
This year, the UN also reminds us to “recover better” and to ensure that Human Rights are at the center of the post-pandemic world. COVID-19 has exposed and aggravated economic and social inequalities, and to fully recover and build back a world that is better, we must close these gaps and advance human rights.
Here in the Philippines, the government’s response to COVID-19 has been characterized by the unchecked movement of large discretionary funds, creating openings for corrupt practices by opportunistic public servants. This creates a multifaceted threat by interacting with the rising trend of human rights violations and persistent impunity.
As we observe International Anti-Corruption Day and International Human Rights Day this week, we should keep in mind how COVID-19 has only exacerbated the challenges that the country faces on these fronts and that mitigating the growing risks demands no less than a whole-of-society response. Both the fight against corruption and human rights violations should hold particular importance to us as these two concepts are central to supporting the rule of law and democracy — themselves crucial to our development as a nation in the new normal.
Paco A. Pangalangan is the Executive Director of the Stratbase ADR Institute.