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Researchers: Freedom From Corruption Is ‘Human Right’

Many countries have laws criminalizing corruption by government officials.

But two researchers associated with a leading Washington research institution go beyond that, saying that freedom from corruption should be a basic human right.

In a position paper published by The Brookings Institution, University of Richmond law professor Andrew Spalding and Center for Business Ethics and Corporate Governance co-founder Matthew Murray "argue for acknowledging freedom from official corruption as a fundamental and inalienable human right."

"There has been talk about the relationship between corruption and human rights for some time," Spalding told VOA. "But we think corruption is more fundamental than that… Freedom from official corruption is more fundamental than many of the other rights we talk about today – and it’s more universal. And we want to call the world’s attention to the fact that corruption is one of the most basic human rights violations – and we should treat it that way."

Spalding rejects the view that corruption has to be accepted as an inherent human failing.

"These arguments, that it is somehow ‘wired’ into our system, have been used to rationalize human rights abuses as well," he said. "Our argument is: Let's not start from this premise that this is part of human nature. The same arguments have been used to justify and rationalize slavery, torture [and] other systemic problems we’ve had through history."

Arab Spring

For example, co-author Murray said, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia with the self-immolation of a fruit and vegetable vendor who had been extorted one too many times, usually by local police.

"It happened at a time when enough people had reached enough of a sort of disillusionment and frustration with official corruption – even petty [petit] corruption – that they decided they wanted new governments," he said.

In rising up against corrupt governments, Spalding said those taking part in the Arab Spring, as well as in the Maidan uprising in Kyiv against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, reflected principles set forth by English philosopher John Locke more than 300 years ago.

"Locke said that freedom is something that can only exist in civil society," Spalding said. "Where we don’t have a government that functions that way, where government is making decisions based on personal interest, not on the public good; where it is making decisions arbitrarily, [and] not based on the rule of law, there is no freedom."

And that’s why there must be zero tolerance against corruption, Murray said.

"In essence, you cannot condone government behavior in any form which amounts to theft, whether it’s in the form of a rigged public tender for building a new airport, or, whether it’s being extorted for petty cash if you’re running a fruit and vegetable stand in the middle of Tunisia," he said.

"It doesn’t matter what form of activity, [or] what form the official corruption takes," Murray said. "There should be an absolute ban on it – and it should start with an affirmative statement of the individual’s right to honest public service, to be able to develop and accumulate capital, [and to] protect their private property. We believe this is a universal principle."


One way to help fight corruption is through education of workers, Murray said.

"You have to take certain minimum steps, and you have to improve civil servant pay, you have to educate civil servants about what a conflict of interest really is, [and] what it looks like," he said. "You have to create codes of conduct that in effect establish higher professional standards on a voluntary basis."

Still, there not one way to fight against corruption, Spalding said.

"Corruption is a problem identified across cultures, across times, across government systems," he said. "Corruption is a universal problem.… There’s no ‘silver bullet’ to it. But we can address it, and we can reduce it in exactly the same way that we have succeeded in reducing other forms of crime."

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.