Thank you for that kind introduction and to all of you for investing your evening in this event.  Let me also thank the U.S. Embassy and Transparency International for making it possible.

You are here because you understand that corruption is a threat to national and international security, to democracy, and to human life, and that it takes a collective effort to stamp it out.  Our panel gathered here will provide further examples of the human costs of corruption and the insidious threat that it presents to all of us in our daily lives.  So, I will not invest considerable time in making that case to you.  

I will instead focus my short time with you underscoring three points:

First, corruption represents a national and international security risk that directly results from the human security costs that it imposes.

Second, that all states in the international system bear a responsibility to address their part in the global corruption problem.

Third, that we have the tools… if we have the courage and resolve to use them.

To the first point, corruption undermines governance and economic performance in fundamental ways.  When corrupt interests capture governments, when governments fail to function, when they fail to deliver for their people, those people lose faith in those governments.  They look to alternatives and those alternatives are often not terribly beneficial.

We can castigate people for making that choice.  But let’s stop to think less as foreign policy professionals and instead consider matters as just people.  If I was faced with a clear choice between paying a bribe or failing to get my child the medicine he or she needs, I know what choice I’d make every day of the week.

While each individual incident of petty corruption is – in isolation – not a security problem, the aggregate of them is corrosive to the sense of justice, fairness, and equality that is necessary for a transparent, productive society.

Moreover, petty corruption and the sort of administrative corruption that accompanies it in many cases create the conditions for the sort of national rot that can allow much worse to happen.  

The effects can manifest in a variety of ways.  

In some cases, if governments cannot perform their core functions – or to do so in any reasonably fair or efficient way – then they can be displaced by those groups that thrive on rot.  These may be terrorist groups, criminal gangs, or militias.  Citizens frustrated by a failed government often support these rotten alternatives.  

In other cases, the state itself and the economy more generally is opened up to the predations of cliques from within or outside groups to engage in state capture.

In all, the common denominator is that corruption undermines the foundations of governance.  Social programs wither, infrastructure frays, voting becomes a sham (and worse, is seen as such), and government service becomes “a time to eat,” as I was told on one of my trips last year. With these foundations exposed, everyday problems become harder to solve and crises can paralyze state functions.  

The result is that people suffer… and lose even more faith in their institutions and leaders.

This is the reason why President Biden not only established the fight against corruption as a core national security interest, he also placed it as a pillar in the Summits for Democracy that we led in 2021 and 2023 – and will participate in this year.  

He sees corruption’s consequences for people as prejudicial to democracy, resulting in weakened states that are vulnerable to predations of others.  The international community as a whole becomes weaker, sicker, and more exposed.  And, in this context, no state is safe.

This takes me to my second point: no country can rest on its laurels, confident that it has this issue under control, or indulge in pointing fingers at others. 

Some countries have made more progress than others.  Some have better procurement systems or legislation that protects whistleblowers.  Some have stronger judicial systems or information sharing for the gathering of evidence.

But no country is immune from corruption or its effects.  Moreover, no country is immune from being a vehicle through which corrupt actors engage in their illicit trade.

The United States and the United Kingdom are, in this regard, particularly at risk.  Let me put it simply: bad actors want to use our financial systems to move their ill-gotten gains around the world.  They may also want to live in our countries, to use our civil liberties and judicial protections, to educate their children, to launder their proceeds.  

Fortunately, I can also say that the United States and the United Kingdom are doing a lot to improve our own defensive systems at home as well as to work with partners around the world to strengthen their own.  We work closely in multilateral fora to raise the international baseline for anti-corruption by pressing for the effective implementation of treaty obligations as well as improving the standards of good anti-corruption practices, legislation, and regulation.   We are investing in building the capacity in countries that are trying to do more.  We are also pushing back against attempts by some governments to weaken the international anti-corruption architecture or try to abuse it for their own political reasons.  

But this only serves to underline the point: everyone can do something to help address this problem.  Governments where corruption is endemic may have a long list of activities to pursue, but so too do governments where bad actors may seek to operate.  

I’ve focused much of my remarks thus far on states and their responsibilities… force of habit for someone in government.  But one of the other elements of the Biden Administration approach has been to concentrate on multi-stakeholder engagement.  We also see significant roles for the private sector, for civil society, for the media, for international organizations, and for everyday people.  

This takes me to my last point: we can do this.

I’m often asked, “you fix corruption yet?” by friends in the State Department or family.  No one has ill intent in making such comments… it’s a pleasantry.  But it papers over a significant amount of cynicism.  

There is a global expectation that there has always been corruption and always will be corruption.  That trying to fight corruption is a losing proposition.

I reject this notion on its face and suspect the people gathered in this room do too.  Perhaps we’re united in our pragmatism – as well as our confidence – about tackling corruption.  Or, put another way, I see no reason to look at corruption any differently than we would at murder, robbery, or other crimes.  Sure, we may not prevent a single murder from happening on earth… but that doesn’t mean that we don’t try, that we don’t develop and design systems intended to deter murder, to make it harder to commit, and harder to escape the consequences.

So too with corruption: we may not end corruption, but we can make it harder to do and harder to get away with it.

Moreover, we have the tools.

Let’s start with the legislative and legal ones.  We have the UN Convention against Corruption, one of the most universal conventions in the world with now 190 member states and the only legally-binding universal anti-corruption instrument.  We met just a month ago in Atlanta at the Conference of States Parties (COSP) to discuss the problem of corruption and what States Parties might do to improve implementation of the Convention.

States Parties presented on their progress, but also their needs.  They also worked together to adopt – by consensus – 14 resolutions and decisions that addressed particular elements of the corruption fight, ranging from issues around gender equality to procurement transparency to private sector engagement to accountability,

The COSP also discussed the ways that the rest of the world can help those struggling with this challenge to do better.  There are programs and joint      evaluations and      projects that all aim at doing just that.

We have civil society support.  In Atlanta, we gathered hundreds of activists and champions from around the world.  We more than doubled the previous record for civil society attendance at a COSP.  A year ago, we co-hosted the civil society-led IACC in Washington, and we will be in Vilnius in full force in June as TI and Lithuania co-host the next one.  Everywhere I go, I meet civil society actors prepared to risk everything to expose corrupt practices and to demand change.

They shouldn’t have to risk anything to do so, of course.  As a government, the United States has a variety of ways of demonstrating our support for these champions, whether in the form of awards or legal support services through a membership-based program to combat legal harassment meant to silence investigative journalists and activists.            

We are also regularly looking at our toolkit to see whether more can and should be done, and I’d welcome your ideas.   As one element, look at the Atlanta 2023 document adopted at the COSP, where for the first time the Conference agreed – by consensus – that States Parties should respect, protect, and support the role of individuals outside the public sector in fighting corruption.  In the coming weeks, we will identify ways to operationalize this consequential, consensus view.

Globally, we also have a private sector that is increasingly mindful and, in some cases, I would even say seized by the importance of upholding its own responsibilities to create and foster a global business environment that is hostile to corrupt actors.  Is it universal yet?  No.  But this mindset, this approach, this consideration of global responsibilities is also not a mirage.

And where we need to, we are looking for ways to strengthen the incentive structures for anti-corruption and to impose accountability on the corrupt.  

Over the last month, the President has acted, issuing a proclamation that strengthened our ability to deny access to the United States of those who enable significant public corruption.  

Congress has acted, augmenting the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act with the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act to allow for the prosecution of those who solicit transnational bribes in addition to those who pay them.  

Congress has also strengthened the State Department’s hand to acknowledge the hard work of our foreign partners to address corruption through the reporting called for in the new Combatting Global Corruption Act – which we hope will encourage the right sort of investment and collaboration with those countries to meet minimum anti-corruption standards – while at the same time giving us tools to examine those cases where we see either more work to be done or new challenges emerging.

All good tools, all good steps, but they only take us so far.  To get farther, we need more and more done by our international partners.  

Some examples:

In the 2021 National Strategy on Countering Corruption, the president charged us with seeking other partners’ support to impose  consequences – including via sanctions – on corrupt actors.  Although some governments have adopted sanctions structures similar to our own Global Magnitsky sanctions program, including the UK of course, others have not.  We hope that our partners will join us in this effort in the months to come.

We need to collectively do more to prevent the enablers of corruption from enjoying their illicit profits.  Travel restrictions, improved financial monitoring, and overall a focus on integrity rather than mere compliance are needed.

We need to improve transparency around the world and protect those who confront corrupt actors from violence and harmful litigation.

And we need to do the routine, everyday work of strengthening the institutional systems of governance around the world to ensure it delivers for its people.

I’m not daunted by the challenge of fighting corruption.  I’m convinced we can succeed in our common task.  I look forward to continuing it with all of you.

Thank you.               

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future