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OAS Secretary General Inaugural speech VIII Summit of the Americas

  April 13, 2018


We, the Americas, clearly have a problem. And we will continue having that problem. Corruption is a hereditary, autoimmune disease in any political system run by human beings. It respects borders of no kind, be they ideological, or political color, or even levels of institutional strength.

• In recent years, corruption scandals across the hemisphere have brought the problem to the surface a bit more, giving the impression that this is a new development, or that it is even more pronounced in democratic contexts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The disease of corruption destroys the healthy and well-intentioned parts of politics and has been unyielding and pervasive throughout history, especially when it has been ignored.

• Not because of democracy, but rather thanks to democracy, there is now a greater frankness is discussing the problem, which forces us to face it head-on.

• What we have to fight is the disease, not the system.

• When we judge corruption the way it is done today in a great deal of our countries, the picture ceases to be as gloomy. The intention here is to be realistic. We need to be real, if we are even to try to deal with the problem of corruption. We must start with an essential premise, whose logic I will borrow from Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck: “It isn't that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn't die.” We will never be completely rid of corruption. No country in the world has zero corruption: Some have more, others have less. But we must conquer it. And we must win democracy must be the basis for our victory.

• Like I said before, the first bit of good news is that our entire hemisphere is confronting it and we have seen that although corruption will perhaps never die, it can be contained, the necessary cultural changes are achievable and it can be conquered.

• Winning demands an understanding of the causes and new expressions of corruption in democracy, especially in young democracies like those in Latin America. There is every reason that we must restrain corruption. Many make the ethical argument, insisting that abuse of power and impunity are immoral – and this is true. Obviously, nobody holding public office should steal from the people’s taxes or use their influence for personal gain. Those seeking public office must understand once and for all that politics is not the career if they want to make money. If money making is what they are after, we should steer them towards other professions. Others have quantified the economic cost and the opportunity cost of corruption, to the detriment of a higher level of economic and social development. That, too, is sensible thinking.

• In terms of the link between corruption and human rights, there are at least two different perspectives. Firstly, we examine whether corruption itself, as an act by public officials, is a violation of human rights. It certainly is, basically, insofar as it impinges upon the basic principles of a democracy of equal opportunity for citizens. Only those who can afford it get access to rights. This conflicts as well with the public interest, stemming, as it does, from an overlap of public interest and the personal interest of perpetrators.

• The second perspective – clearly a consequence of the first – worries us most. That is, when corruption gets to extremes and undermines institutions, which leads to entrenched impunity. When this happens, guarantees under the law totally disappear and rights become a matter of perspective, shaking or completely perverting the rule of law. The place for civil society to lodge complaints is reduced to a bare minimum when the checks and balances enshrined in constitutions to provide citizens with guarantees and to essentially restrain the powers of the state or a branch of government cease to be legally effective and cease to be effective instruments to stop corruption, human rights violations, or environmental disasters. “Law enforcement” can unreasonably subdue rights in complicity with other branches of government, giving rise to the conditions for the most outrageous deviations to occur. The most corrupt societies are also societies with deteriorating human rights.

• In this instance, I will cite what I consider to be the top reasons for the situation in the region.

• Corruption begets corruption, and it does so at a speed much faster than democracy can withstand. This abuse causes political instability and undermines the formal institutional system while building a parallel one, characterized by contagious bad practices.

• Presidents who have resigned, get prosecuted and jailed, or are pressured to take action and end up acting to cover up and to ease off the pressure – are just the part we can see.

• Keeping up corrupt practices at the highest level very likely involves a supporting structure behind and under the decision-makers. Besides, middle- and low-level managers take their cue from – or model themselves on – top leadership when it comes to tolerating corrupt practices, hence not even the slightest margin of tolerance can be allowed. As a disease, corruption can completely permeate a political system, affecting it from – or even going up to – the top, even the most routine activities of social coexistence, such as getting a number for a simple bureaucratic transaction.

• The weakening of the public service is a matter of concern as well, and is one side effect of the wave of scandals and public protests based on the perception of younger generations. Persistent corruption in politics attracts people who are not suitable for public office. It also discourages and scares off those with a genuine calling to public service because a negative connotation, synonymous with dirty, is attached to politics. Participation carries many risks – including public exposure, in real-time and 24/7 over social media – as well as the politically-misguided notion that certain lower or higher levels of corruption are inevitable in order to get government to work.

• If we want to have honest political leaders in a decade or so, who will continue to entrench democracy instead of polluting it, we must from now on continue scoring wins against corruption, even more commanding wins, to put politics and public service in a more positive light. This doesn’t come free; and society should never, ever give it away for free.

• On the contrary; it must be earned through action, results, prosecutions and convictions, and by building stronger institutions. We cannot afford to fail in that endeavor, nor do we have all the time in the world to succeed. Inaction and whipping up media hype for the sake of self-promotion and showmanship only play into the hands of the corrupt; we need investigators and investigation, we need institutional commitment, we need to grapple with the essential factors that allow corruption to survive in politics, we need to root out the causes of impunity. We need to understand that we have to get this done, that wasting time, be it two days or two years, only aids the corrupt and corruption.

• That was why we were so tremendously opposed to the way in which the MACCIH was operating. But we have rectified many of its shortcomings and internal irregularities. Stronger now, it faces more problems as a result of unjust attacks from those who criticize the changes, as well as because of the conditions that it has to contend with. In spite of that, nothing will stop the results that will eventually come.

• It is critical to beat corruption because it constantly feeds the public’s disaffection for democracy. In other words, the disease of corruption weakens democracy and creates major dysfunctionalities.

• Distrust for political parties and dissatisfaction with the system have grown in 2017, according to reliable monitors, such as Latinobarómetro.

• The paradox is that the greater the disillusion and disenchantment with democracy because of corruption, the higher the likelihood of messianic candidates emerging. Demagogic populists with little patience for institutions are finding more avenues for reaching power.

• It is ironic: the public’s rejection of corruption opens the way for platforms as bad or worse than the ones rejected initially to rise up in a din of demagoguery, as if the fight against corruption were an attack on democracy. There is no magic formula; we must use the political arena to defend the rights of citizens because that is the most efficient way of attacking this problem.

• While it may be difficult to come up with a list of specific solutions, it is feasible, nonetheless, to agree on a goal and a common roadmap to frame the actions we will take. To do so we must guard against two repeatedly proposed courses of action, both of which are utterly unacceptable. The first is the implementation of a messianic anticorruption model that helps corruption by promoting undemocratic solutions without oversight or regard for people’s rights, a policy that only helps officials to go unpunished and undermines judicial independence. Justice should not mean impunity, but it should not mean the lynch mob either.

• The second scenario is where systems act as is nothing were amiss, as if corruption is a problem that others have, one that is never brought to justice and is said almost not to exist. That is what happened under the much of the Odebrecht and the so-called Panama and Paradise papers have documented. Although there have been some responses and convictions, the temptation to give way to impunity for the sake of supposed “governance” or the preservation of the system has prevailed on a number of occasions. That is what happens when the fight against corruption becomes mere window dressing that serves to prop up governance but not to ensure justice; that is what happens when actors in the fight against corruption become media personalities or part of the political establishment. Instruments or missions to combat corruption should not purely decorative, but effective; they should not waste time, but stick doggedly to scientific investigation procedures.

• Therefore, we call for anticorruption instruments to be strengthened, just as human rights protection mechanisms have. The MESICIC must be provided with the necessary resources to deploy better missions and more effectively follow up on its recommendations, so that they are implemented and put into practice, not become mere repetitive exercises in bureaucracy.

• In reality, we have only one option where corruption is concerned: confront it and fight it, knowing that while we will never completely defeat it, we can at least drastically curb it and in so doing introduce a new culture in politics.

• Fighting always seems the tougher option, but fight we must. We must gradually forge that transition in our societies and in democracy itself, so that each case of high-level corruption and impunity becomes another nail in the coffin of impunity and a step toward the certainty of justice.

• Each citizen, each educator, each individual, no matter their age, has a responsibility in bringing about a crucial cultural shift. We, the leaders, politicians, and diplomats, are certainly not the only actors in that process. We all have our part to play. Shared responsibility is the price we pay for liberty and democracy.

• Every step in the fight against corruption matters. For example, education is an essential component and I welcome the fact that the countries at this Summit are giving the OAS a fundamental role in the Inter-American Education System reflected in the Declaration approved yesterday at the level of Foreign Ministers.
• Ultimately, the antidote against corruption comprises the values and principles that underpin our hemispheric community: democracy, human rights, freedoms.

• We must focus our efforts on those three bulwarks of our hemispheric collective lest we fail as the Hemisphere’s leaders.

• To honor the cumulative legacy of our ancestors means working day in, day out to have more democratic countries where promotion and protection of human rights are the priority, and freedoms, the rule.

• Rigidly anchoring our principles in those values and projecting a prosperous and free hemisphere is our greatest desire and the worst nightmare of the corrupt.

• We should always keep in mind that the corrupt and the oppressor are kin.

• The oppressor who perverts the rights of his people for his own enrichment and impunity is perfectly at home in the waters of corruption.

• The corrupt opportunist, for his part, finds no better place to prosper than in a dictatorship or a system where the rule of law is weak.

• An extreme example of the most ruinous disregard for human rights of which dictatorships are capable is the chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against its own population. Faced with these crimes against humanity we cannot remain silent.

• Our ancestors were wise indeed when they forged the legal and political machinery of our hemispheric community, for they gave us the wherewithal to restore democracy and probity whenever they are attacked.

• This is a critical juncture for our countries and our citizens.

• As this Summit of the Americas begins our region is facing problems that are well beyond the strategic realm: they are existential.

• Ridding itself of corruption is an existential matter for the hemispheric community.

• It is also an existential matter—and one integral to our values—to restore democracy for the citizens of the two countries of the Hemisphere where the rule of law and freedoms are currently absent.

Political prisoners, the relatives of victims of repression, people suffering hunger and disease, people who can neither vote nor express their opinions without fear—they are watching us and they are listening.

• We owe it to them and to all the citizens of the Americas.

To all those who have ever suffered under a dictatorship and to all those who should never have to.

• It is to them that we owe a daily reckoning.

• Knowing that our debt as leaders will never be settled until the Hemisphere is safe, prosperous and untroubled by corruption, with 35 nations free, living in democracy, where human rights are respected.


Reference: S-012/18