Leading officials from 125 countries are expected to sign the first worldwide anti-corruption treaty this week during a U.N. convention being held in Merida, capital of Mexico's Yucatan state.
Attorney General John Ashcroft and Mexican President Vicente Fox were among the first to sign the U.N. Convention Against Corruption, an agreement aimed at stamping out corruption and embezzlement in poor and rich nations.
"Corruption is a tax on the poor. It steals from the needy to enrich the wealthy. Corruption must end," Mr. Ashcroft said.
The agreement requires banks in money havens to be placed under more scrutiny, while allowing poor countries to recover billions of stolen dollars. Poor nations usually must wait for years before such funds are returned, if they ever are fully paid back.
The treaty also urges signatories to fight theft in the corporate sector and punish domestic companies that pay bribes in other nations.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the treaty a major breakthrough.
In a written statement, he said it will help tackle a pressing problem for many developing countries, where corrupt elite have looted billions of dollars that are desperately needed by new governments to redress the economic and social problems inflicted on their society.
It is estimated that billions of dollars have been lost to graft in poor nations, destroying schools, hospitals, agriculture, and industries. International agencies say corruption takes about five percent of the world's economic output.
The U.N. meeting ends Thursday, but the treaty will not go into effect until ratified by the legislatures of at least 30 signatory countries.