Why nations are not alone in fighting graft

Despite its faltering steps against corruption, Romania shows how foreign support and pressure can bring progress toward clean governance.

A protester waves a pair of handcuffs in front of Social Democrat Party leader Liviu Dragnea in Bucharest, Romania, October 3, 2017.

By itself, this news out of Romania on Thursday may not mean much outside Romania: A court sentenced the country’s most powerful politician, Liviu Dragnea, to 3-1/2 years over a fake jobs scandal. As a triumph for rule of law in one of Europe’s most corrupt countries, the sentence was a big one.

Yet these days, such news also shows that countries like Romania are not battling corruption alone. Global norms on transparency and accountability are being better enforced by international institutions. And prosecutors in different countries are working more closely to nab corrupt individuals and share techniques of investigation.

Romania is one example. Since joining the European Union in 2007, it has been under special watch by the EU to build up an independent judiciary. To win EU membership, it ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2004. It also set up a body of independent prosecutors, called the National Anticorruption Directorate, to fight corruption. Thousands of officials have been convicted.

Last year, when Mr. Dragnea’s ruling Social Democrat party tried to roll back anti-corruption measures, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. Many appealed for more EU pressure. This month, when the party tried again to weaken anti-graft laws, more than 10,000 people protested nationwide.

Perhaps just as significant, a top official from the US State Department was in Bucharest this week giving a warning.

“You have made significant progress [against corruption] and now is not a moment in history when we would want to see Romania take a step back from there,” said Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs. “You are not alone in this fight. Every country in the world has to fight corruption.” The United States provides funds for Romania to reform its legal standards.

The momentum for international cooperation on corruption really took off in 1997 when a group of advanced countries known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development adopted an anti-bribery convention. In addition, the US had shown leadership by using the long arm of a particular law to reach for offenders across borders. Its 1977 law, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, has led to the conviction of many foreign firms and led to more cooperation and joint enforcements with other nations’ prosecutors, notably in Brazil with its recent explosion of bribery cases.

Last year, the International Monetary Fund insisted for the first time that a country – Ukraine – set up a special court to deal with anti-corruption cases as a condition for receiving financial aid.

The aspiration for clean governance is a universal sentiment. Fulfilling that desire can become just as universal.

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