UNCAC CoSP Meeting being held in Atlanta this week

For those fighting for anti-corruption around the world, including in New Zealand, this double acronym heralds an important meeting to be held in Atlanta, US, from 11-15 December 2023.

The UNCAC is the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and signatories to that Convention meet at the Conference of State Parties (CoSP), to debate clauses of UNCAC and to work together to promote and review its implementation.

Held every two years, the CosP is an important occasion for the 190 ‘state parties’ that have ratified UNCAC. Non-state actors, including civil society groups like Transparency International, are able to make submissions and attend as observers. So far 300+ CSOs and 900 individuals are registered for the 2023 CoSP. In the case of nine countries, including Fiji, a civil society representative is a member of the country delegation.

Unfortunately civil society organisations are generally excluded from participating as observers in meetings of UNCAC subsidiary bodies.

Transparency International (global) has made seven submissions to the CoSP, including on its three priority advocacy topics: civic space, beneficial ownership transparency and funding of candidates and political parties. TI Chapters have also contributed to submissions with other civil society organisations including UNCAC Coalition, of which TINZ is member.

These three priority areas are also highly relevant to the New Zealand government because:

a) legislation on a beneficial ownership register is currently in early drafting stage

b) the Independent Electoral Review reported its final recommendations to the Minister of Justice on 30 November. This report may well include recommendations on political party funding

c) The National Counter Fraud and Anti-Corruption Strategy is currently in development, and also NZ Overseas Aid funding provides important validation for civil society organisations in the Pacific who are working on anti-corruption policy and practice.

Civic Space is at risk

UNCAC explicitly recognises the important role of civil society in anti-corruption efforts in its Articles. The Convention also recognises the public’s important role in reporting corruption and protecting whistleblowers.

Unfortunately, successive UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders have identified anti-corruption activists and CSOs as particularly at risk.

In 2022 The Special Rapporteur issued a report on the situation of anti-corruption activists, finding that activists and CSOs working on corruption “are often subjected to a range of attacks, including electronic or physical surveillance, cyberattacks, direct threats, online harassment and smear campaigns, criminalization, judicial harassment, attacks on their property and physical attacks, including murder.”

Transparency International’s submission urges UNCAC State Parties to provide an enabling environment for civil society. Important elements include:

  • Participation of independent civil society in anti-corruption efforts such as national action plans and relevant legislative and policy processes. Full respect for the right to freedom of association.
  • Ensuring that other laws on public order, national security, cyber-crime and defamation are compliant with international standards on the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.
  • Effective measures in place to ensure the protection of civil society actors facing risks and retaliation due to their anti-corruption work. This includes whistleblower protection laws in line with international best practice; and ensuring that threats and attacks are effectively investigated and perpetrators held to account.

Transparency International also urges the UNCAC CoSP to affect implementation of UNCAC participation principles at the international level including by permitting civil society participation as observers in UNCAC subsidiary bodies and informal negotiations.

TI seeks greater transparency of State Party information especially around which stakeholders it engages with in the review mechanism process, and civil society participation in the implementation of the review recommendations.

Promoting access and use of beneficial ownership registers

Recognising the critical role of corporate transparency in the fight against corruption, the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) calls on States Parties to promote “transparency among private entities, including, where appropriate, measures regarding the identity of legal and natural persons involved in the establishment and management of corporate entities.” It is clear that the Convention does not go far enough when it comes to specific obligations for ensuring effective beneficial ownership transparency frameworks.

In a welcome step, States Parties made further commitments to enhance beneficial ownership transparency in the political declaration of the UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption.

The Financial Action Task Force has also revised the global anti-money laundering standard on company ownership, and are now requiring countries to set up and maintain central beneficial ownership registers.

The Ministry for Business Immigration and Employment is leading work on a Register of Beneficial Ownership for New Zealand. Critical elements of transparency for any register is its accessibility, verification and use of data by all actors who have a role to play in anti-corruption. TI recommends access to and use of beneficial ownership information by domestic public authorities such as law enforcement agencies, financial intelligence units, tax administrations, and also anti-corruption agencies, election management bodies and public procurement agencies, foreign authorities, and civil society organisations, media and other relevant non-governmental stakeholders.

To make it an effective anti-corruption mechanism, beneficial ownership data should be interoperable with other domestic and foreign datasets such as those covering public procurement, sanctions and politically exposed persons.

Funding of candidates and political parties

Transparency and accountability of political finances help to deter conflicts of interest, state capture, and corruption in public office, strengthening the integrity of democratic institutions and elections.

Transparency International urges the CoSP to fulfil the commitment in the Political Declaration of the 2021 UN General Assembly Special Session against Corruption to ‘maintain, strengthen, develop and implement measures” to ensure transparency in the funding of candidates, political parties and campaigns, and make a priority the issuing of guidelines to give full effect to article 7.3 of the Convention. This should include measures to:

  • Close regulatory loopholes that enable illicit funding of political parties, candidates and election campaigns (such as use of third parties to circumvent rules.)
  • Introduce compulsory systems for digital reporting and disclosure of political finance information, including the identity of persons providing funding.
  • Improve oversight and accountability of political finance regimes. Evidence shows that having a well-resourced and mandated oversight agency has a consistently positive effect on transparency.
  • Promote knowledge, civic engagement and public participation. State parties should actively engage civil society, encourage public participation in political finance oversight, including the honest use of public resources in election campaigns, and protect the rights of whistleblowers who expose corruption within the political finance system.
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