The Case for an International Anti Corruption Court 

Jonathan Fanton 


It is an honor to be part of the Mroz Institute World Affair Series and to serve on the Institute’s Steering Committee. Thank you Max Kovalov and Dean Johnson for the invitation. I greatly admire the work of the Institute and am enjoying conversations with faculty and students. And I always love coming to the beautiful and vibrant campus of the College of Charleston. 

While I had long admired the work of John Mroz and the East West Institute, I only came to know it deeply when I was asked by the Board to help with its transition from an independent NGO to an affiliate of the other institutions. The active track 2 programs were placed at the Stimson Center while the archives and training activities came to the College of Charleston. 

Hilton Smith, who is here tonight, first proposed the partnership in recognition of John Mroz’s role advising the creation of the School of Languages, Cultures and World Affairs in 2006. John Mroz was here for a conference on diplomacy and transatlantic partnership. We considered several possible homes for the EWl legacy but made the right choice in the College of Charleston. So thank you Hilton. And thank you Karen Mroz for your leadership in keeping John’s vision and accomplishments vibrant, an inspiration for a new generation. 

John Mroz established the East West Institute in 1981 and led it until his death in 2014. Track 2 diplomacy has played a critical role in preventing and containing conflict. It developed the concept of track 2 diplomacy, sometimes called backchannel diplomacy. It is the practice of informal, unofficial contacts between private citizens or groups of individuals on different sides of actual or potential conflicts. It often draws on former political and military leaders who have ties to people currently in power. Differences can be narrowed in those informed backchannel conversations, misunderstandings clarified, incremental steps to build bridges identified. By creating a safe space for high ranking officials- past and present of adversarial powers to talk about contentious topics EWI has contributed to a safer world.  

As Vladimir Ivanov, Director of EWI’s Russia program has said, “John’s favorite undertaking was ad hoc, high level task force meetings including open minded political, military and private sector leaders, sometimes followed by policy reports and public debates, sometimes helping establish sincere unofficial communications between critical decision makers.”

Here are a few examples of what EWI accomplished with Track 2 dialogues. 

  • The Task force on New Soviet Thinking helped build confidence for US policy makers in Gorbachev’s reforms
  • In The Bratislava Process, EWI hosted Serbian opposition parties in 1999- 2001 to help Serbs develop principles for a broad coalition to defeat Milosevic at the polls. 
  • EWI conducted shuttle diplomacy between the 2 main Kurdish parties in Syria 
  • It built trust between a core group of Saudi and Iranian experts and developed ideas for cooperation in areas like climate change and people to people exchange. 
  • Current work includes dialogue between political parties in the US and China and between military leaders.
  • It is also sponsoring worldwide talks on cyber security.

As EWI Fellow Greg Austin said, “Mroz saw collaboration between opposing parties as the only pathway to solving successfully intractable conflicts. If collaboration was not possible, dialogue was essential.” 

I only wish John Mroz were with us today and could turn his attention to the Ukrainian crisis. 

The College of Charleston is now the home of the noble heritage of John Mroz and the East West Institute. Through the Mroz Leadership Institute and LCWA it will train a new generation of leaders committed to Track 2 diplomacy while scholars here explore the impact of this undervalued agent for avoiding and limiting conflict. 

EWI resonates with me personally and its values are central to my life’s work,  

my volunteer work as chair of Human Rights Watch and a member of the Board of the World Refugee and Migration Council, but also my work as President of the New School for Social Research and the MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur makes grants in 60 countries on projects related to conservation and the environment, women’s health, peace and security and human rights and international justice, a set of concerns that over laps with the subjects of your World Affairs series. During my time there, I became close to Kofi Annan and responded to his request to create a commission that developed the norm of The Responsibility to Protect. And I was happy to provide startup funds for the International Criminal Court before state party’s funding was sufficient. 

`Later, I had the honor of serving as President of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock, with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as early members. 

The Academy’s mission, then as now, was to give good advice to the leaders of our country in building and preserving a strong democracy in pursuit of a more just and humane world at peace. During my time as President, we worked on issues central to the UN’s agenda, including the new nuclear age and gender equality. In our project on New Dilemmas in Ethics Technology and War, and later in our project on Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses, we partnered with the UN Department of Peace Operations and the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. We also included UN representatives in early discussions about the need for an International Anti-Corruption Court. That is the topic I want to discuss with you today.

Festering at the root of many of the global challenges is the problem of grand corruption. We define grand corruption as the abuse of public office for personal gain by a nation’s leaders. We only need to read the newspaper to see its effects. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an object lesson of how corrupt leaders in many countries are able to enrich themselves by diverting public funds from supporting critical public goods and services, including healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

In his Our Common Agenda report submitted to the UN General Assembly in September 2021, Secretary General Antonio Guterres observed that “There is a growing disconnect between people and the institutions that serve them, with many feeling left behind and no longer confident that the system is working for them, an increase in social movements and protests and an ever deeper crisis of trust fomented by a loss of shared truth and understanding.”

Around the world, corrupt high-level public officials, known as kleptocrats, and their co-conspirators have drawn public ire. Several corrupt governments have collapsed. But in other countries such as Venezuela and Lebanon, mass protests against corrupt regimes have been quelled by state violence, and the brutality of kleptocratic rulers has triggered mass exodus, exacerbating an already serious refugee crisis.

In too many countries, kleptocrats are able to use their influence in a variety of ways to suppress police investigations and the prosecution of anti-corruption cases. In some countries kleptocrats even control the judiciary and operate with impunity. 

It is no wonder that Secretary General Guterres has identified the erosion of public trust as a core issue that needs to be addressed to facilitate efforts to tackle the increasingly complex and interconnected problems facing the international community.

In the Our Common Agenda report, he says that “We will examine how our rule of law assistance can support States, communities and people in rebuilding their social contract as a foundation for sustaining peace. In this vein, it will also be important to accelerate action to tackle corruption, in line with the United Nations Convention against Corruption.”

This is undoubtedly the proper strategy, and we should do everything in our power to support the UN in its efforts. However, grand corruption is particularly difficult to address. Although its effects are often localized, grand corruption depends upon an international network of accomplices and accessories who help kleptocrats launder, hide, and enjoy their stolen assets.

The landmark Panama Papers investigation in 2016, and subsequent reports, have helped shine a light on the shadowy world of transnational money laundering networks that support grand corruption. Kleptocrats prefer to hide their money in countries with strong rule of law, stable institutions, and reliable financial systems. They are attracted to luxury real estate markets where their families and friends can enjoy opulent lifestyles and where their children can attend prestigious educational institutions. 

They hide in plain sight.

The only way to address this state of affairs effectively is to build a coordinated multinational effort, one that responds to instances of grand corruption at home but also has an international reach.

One important proposal, and one that I support wholeheartedly, is the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court. The IACC was first proposed by US District Court Judge Mark Wolf and is supported by Integrity Initiatives International, an NGO on whose board I serve. Judge Wolf is providing strong and effective leadership to build an international movement behind the IACC. I am delighted he is with us today on zoom and will join me in the discussion that follows my remarks.

When the UN Convention against Corruption was adopted by the General Assembly in 2003, it was a landmark progressive instrument that advanced our understanding of the problem and the need for greater accountability.

The Convention requires the 189 parties that have now ratified it to criminalize the bribery of public officials, the embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, money laundering, and the obstruction of justice. The Convention also calls on member states to enhance transparency, increase international cooperation, and recover and return the proceeds of transnational crimes of corruption. The Convention has a review mechanism which will complete its second oversight cycle in 2024.

But we already know there is a crucial gap in the international legal framework for combatting corruption: in countries where kleptocrats control the courts and the police, there is no international mechanism for bringing them to justice.

That is why the proposal for an IACC is so important. As a court of last resort, existing outside of local and domestic politics, it would be able to investigate and prosecute anti-corruption cases when national governments are unable or unwilling to do so. 

An IACC would be complementary to the UN Convention against Corruption, the development of national anti-corruption institutions such as the High Anti-Corruption Court in Ukraine, and hybrid national-international institutions like the now-defunct UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala IACC is urgently needed for effective implementation of the UN convention. 

The IACC can also help strengthen the capacity of national anti-corruption institutions in a number of other ways. Triple I’s partners who have worked for Indonesia’s Corruption and Eradication Commission and as anti-corruption prosecutors in Nigeria have told story after story of times when they were able to discover evidence they needed through communications with their law enforcement counterparts in places such as the United States. But the formal processes required to obtain and share evidence between countries are too slow and ineffective. By creating more effective mutual legal assistance systems with its member states, as well as with other key nations, the IACC could serve a coordinating function to help national anti-corruption investigators and prosecutors obtain the evidence they need in a more timely manner. 

The Court would be able to work with investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and private investigation firms often employed to trace funds from looted banks and other sources. And it would have the power to prosecute private parties who pay bribes to officials, and not just the officials themselves—an important step in the effort to gather evidence against kleptocrats. Once they have such evidence, the IACC and willing public servants around the world would have greater opportunities to build the capacity to fight corruption. 

An IACC would be especially helpful to nations like Moldova, where democratic change provides a window of opportunity for principled governance. Such countries may have the political will but not the capacity, at least initially, to hold corrupt actors accountable. For assistance, they could turn to the IACC. 

And it would provide an opportunity to improve existing asset recovery and return structures. The Court would have the power to trace stolen funds and recover the proceeds of grand corruption. And its judges would have the power to order either the return or the repurposing of stolen assets in ways that directly benefit victims, including refugees.

There will be a cost to creating an IACC but it need not be great. In any event, the global cost of grand corruption is estimated in the trillions. Global Financial Integrity estimates that developing countries lose ten times as much to corruption as they receive in foreign aid. Compared with the scale of the problem worldwide, the cost of operating an international court can only be considered a valuable long-term cost-saving institution by safeguarding investment, helping to make sure that investment reaches its intended recipients, and streamlining international prosecutions.

The good news is that we have learned a great deal from the experiences of the international courts and tribunals that have been established in recent decades, including hundreds of recommendations provided by the Independent Review of the International Criminal Court, which was chaired by Triple I’s Vice Chair Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa. The IACC initiative is not meant to replicate pre-existing models of international justice, but rather to improve upon them.

The community of interest in the IACC has grown significantly in the past year. A Declaration of Support for the Creation of the IACC organized by my colleagues at Triple I now has nearly 300 signatories from more than 80 countries. They include over 40 former presidents and prime ministers, more than 30 Nobel laureates, high court judges, cabinet officials, and leaders of civil society, faith, and business communities. Since December 2021, both Canada and the Netherlands have made official foreign policy commitments to work with international partners to create the IACC. Ecuador has more recently joined them in making its support for the IACC public. On African Union Anti-Corruption Day in July 2022, the President of Nigeria said that the fight against corruption has been difficult and that an IACC is needed. Additionally, each of the past two Presidents of Colombia endorsed the IACC and the current President of Timor Leste has as well. Triple I is collaborating with Canada and the Netherlands to identify and recruit a cross-regional group of countries that will commit to working towards the Court’s establishment.

In November 2022, Canada, Ecuador, and the Netherlands hosted ministers from fourteen countries in The Hague to discuss gaps in the international legal framework for combatting corruption and potential solutions, including the IACC. The majority of the ministers present signaled their support for or interest in the IACC. Through Triple I’s advocacy, additional countries are eager to engage with the Canadian and Dutch governments on the IACC initiative. Triple I is also facilitating a growing network of young people and civil society organizations, primarily from countries that struggle with the most acute crises of grand corruption, to call for the Court’s urgent establishment.

If the 189 parties that have ratified the UN Convention against Corruption are, as the Convention’s preamble states, “Concerned about the seriousness of problems and threats posed by corruption to the stability and security of societies, undermining the institutions and values of democracy, ethical values and justice and jeopardizing sustainable development and the rule of law,” then they should welcome the creation of an IACC that can play a key role in the global tapestry of anti-corruption institutions.

The momentum for creating an IACC is building and I hope there will be an international convention on the model of the Rome convention that gave rise to the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. A group led by Richard Goldstone is preparing a draft of the treaty. I hope that organizations in the US and around the globe will lend their vocal support to the creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court.

It is now my pleasure to invite Judge Wolf to join me as we open the meeting to your questions and comments. He was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in 1985, served as its Chief Judge from 2006 through 2012, and is now a Senior Judge. Prior to his appointment in 1985, he served as a Special Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States after Watergate and as the Deputy United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts. After our conversation we will open the floor to your comments and questions.

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