How global anti-corruption efforts are being corrupted

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For several years now, Brazil has led efforts to investigate and prosecute powerful figures in a sprawling anti-corruption probe known as Lava Jato (Carwash). The endeavor earned the country widespread praise and accolades in domestic and foreign media, making the nation’s judiciary a supposed model for the rest of Latin America and the developing world to emulate. 

And why not? In a country known for impunity, all of a sudden the untouchables were being touched and the telenovela-esque drama of it all was so tantalizing that many in Brazil and abroad were content to turn a blind eye to problems of procedural integrity. Especially so given that the probe itself became so personalized around one man, Sérgio Moro, the head judge overseeing the investigation, who now also serves as minister of justice.

But now, with the latest revelations alleging backroom collaboration between Moro and Deltan Dallagnol, the case’s lead prosecutor, the narrative of Brazil leading the ethical fight against corruption has imploded. And along with it, the idea that those leading the war on corruption are somehow immune from corruption itself.

Reactions in Brazil have ranged widely. Much of the left and supporters of jailed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claim that the entire investigation and its convictions should be declared invalid and overturned. That’s highly unlikely and of dubious merit. On the other end of the political spectrum, the supporters of current President Jair Bolsonaro claim that what Judge Moro did is somehow acceptable because the Workers’ Party had to be stopped at all costs — a seriously concerning disdain for the rule of law. 

But among Brazil’s polite society and intelligentsia, the feeling is one of betrayal. How could Moro, a shining paragon of righteousness in a lawless land, let all his cheerleaders down? How could he allow such an important investigation to become tainted by politics? 

To the disheartened observers of Brazil and their fellow supporters of anti-corruption, the only consolation to offer is this: Lava Jato’s sad trajectory is very far from exceptional and, in fact, is consistent with trends we see in numerous other jurisdictions.

The fact is that anti-corruption campaigns seldom are immune to politics. Time and again, nominally sound anti-graft initiatives are revealed to have deep political machinations guiding which way their tendrils reach. And it’s not just leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping finding ways to use corruption investigations as political cudgels. It’s a dynamic we see across the political spectrum, even in the strongest, most consolidated democracies. 

Take South Korea, for example. It was just a couple years ago that the country’s new anti-graft drive was generating an enormous buzz among observers worldwide. President Moon Jae-in had just been elected on a central campaign promise to root out the covert, quiet corruption that has long existed under the surface of Korean politics. Cheerleaders heaped praise as he began implementing that initiative, rebranding the Asian tiger an “anti-corruption tiger.”

But what seemed a genuine — if belated — response to the Korean people’s anger over graft has since taken on a marked political bent. Much as the crosshairs of Brazil’s celebrated anti-corruption drive increasingly focused on the left, Korea’s has aimed more and more exclusively at the right, eventually evolving into what veteran East Asia correspondent Donald Kirk now describes as a crusade to “sublimate conservative voices.”

It’s a pattern we’ve seen time and time again, from Vietnam to Lebanon to Kenya. Anti-corruption efforts have become a powerful tool, not least because of the popularity they almost inevitably will enjoy among the general population. Corruption, after all, is unambiguously bad. It follows, then, that anti-corruption is unambiguously good. Using popular support as a source of legitimacy, those undertaking these efforts can skirt procedural norms at will, as long as it’s done relatively quietly, knowing that the opinion of the public — and, importantly, of the opinion-makers — will rest comfortably on their side.

Should that remain the case, there’s no longer an excuse for pearl-clutching when revelations such as those that recently shook Brazil come to light. As governments around the world rightly continue the fight against the scourge of corruption, citizens and especially media have an obligation to keep a watchful eye. 

Due process and presumption of innocence may be unpopular in today’s political climate. They may make reporting less sexy and more complicated. But they are fundamental to any system that wants to call itself a democracy. To succeed in the future, to have real teeth, anti-corruption efforts need fewer cheerleaders and more conscientious onlookers. If not, episodes such as Brazil’s will become more common, as will the erosion of trust that accompanies them.

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer with 35 years experience working on high-profile cases in emerging markets and the founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners LLP. Follow him on Twitter @robertamsterdam.

Tags anti-corruption Operation Car Wash Political corruption Sérgio Moro Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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