home Guatemala, rule of law Strong National Legal Systems & Rule of Law – Not UN Proxy – Needed in Latin America

Strong National Legal Systems & Rule of Law – Not UN Proxy – Needed in Latin America

When Guatemala government officials asked a UN-sponsored international organization (IO) about nine years ago to oversee and investigate anti-corruption efforts, I was extremely skeptical. I still am, despite the fact that the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) completed most of its work this month and, in the process, helped unseat Guatemala’s President.

The title of this Wall Street Journal says it best, Guatemala Outsources a Corruption Crackdown (emphasis my own):

Eight years ago, when Guatemala outsourced part of its corrupt judicial system to a U.N.-sponsored agency, few would have given the experiment much of a chance. After all, this is a country where tens of thousands of civilians died at the hands of death squads during a 36-year civil war, and almost no one was held accountable.

Now, with Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina behind bars—the first time a democratically elected leader has ever stepped down over corruption-related charges here—politicians and the public throughout Latin America are paying closer attention to one of the most unusual gambits in the annals of corruption fighting.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or Cicig, has broad powers to launch its own criminal investigations. It then works alongside Guatemala’s own attorney general’s office to prosecute cases in local courts. Its staff hails from 20 countries, from Italians who have tussled with the Mafia to Colombian anti-money-laundering experts.

You can read the entire article at The Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required).

Guatemala and, indeed, in a clear majority of Latin American and Caribbean nations, corruption is a serious problem. Governments on the right and the left have been plagued by it because they’ve invested very little in their law and order institutions. I understand why Guatemala invited CICIG to meddle in domestic matters, and many people in Guatemala are celebrating it; however, IOs are not a solution for improving rule of law in the Americas. In fact, if this process is adopted again, it could serve to undermine national legal systems over the long term and provide unprecedented influence and power to the United Nations. This, in turn, works against and undermines U.S. interests.

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Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina (behind podium) at a press conference with CICIG officials long before his arrest recent on alleged corruption charges. Strong national legal systems needed, not UN-sponsored organizations meddling in national affairs.

The political jury is still out if CICIG accomplished anything of long-term value. Taking down a President is one thing, assuming that the processes were transparent and the prosecutions hold under national systems. But it should have never reached this point. American taxpayers have invested billions throughout the Western Hemisphere for decades in law and order programs. These monies were supposed to build capacity and make for better police, lawyers, and judges.

National systems such as a department of Justice, the Congress, attorney generals, and others should be the primary drivers in these matters, not IOs. Strong nation-states working on their own domestic matters, make for a stronger and more stable international system. The national processes may be messy at times and it will take longer; however, it beats allowing an IO comprised of foreign nationals to meddle and undermine the legitimacy of national legal systems.

Then there is very real issue of the manipulation of UN programs, such as CICIG, by political interests currently out of power who seek to use imperfect UN bodies, comprised of foreign nationals, to engage in potentially one-sided and ideologically driven prosecutions. If you think that the Guatemalan case was not ideologically driven by the left, think again. The President may not have been a saint, but he was a conservative-leaning leader with free market tendencies. He was a thorn on the side of Guatemalans leftists. At this juncture in the Guatemala matter, there is no evidence that this was a politically driven process; however, whose to say that the rather flaccid UN systems will not be manipulated to do just that in the future?

All nation-states must deal with corruption in one form or another. It is never going to go away completely. The best way to combat corruption begins with a strong respect for the rule of law and via national systems. In order to foster a culture that will advance that goal, you need a combination of things including a strong civil society, a robust private sector, as well as political leaders committed to cleaning up the police, courts, and other sectors. Injecting an international body in that process may sound like a good idea in the near term, and in some cases could help in isolated cases, but over the long run could, and probably will, undermine national systems. And, keep in mind, that the UN is not the paragon of anti-corruption. When it comes to the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. would be better served by keeping UN bodies out.

P.S., now Honduras may want a CICIG process of its own!

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