SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning everyone, and welcome everyone. It’s so good to see you all here in person. We’ve, as Todd said, been proceeding with these very important recognitions and awards, but we’ve done it virtually, and I’m very, very glad that we actually are able to get together today in person.
Todd, thank you for your leadership on this issue, and for now 36 years of service and counting to the department. Todd started when he was 12 years old, which explains 36 years. (Laughter.) And I’m also very glad to be joined by a great colleague and friend, Richard Nephew, who is leading our efforts, and we’ll hear more from him in a little while.
Todd and I, by the way, share something in common with some of the folks getting awards today. We both actually started our careers as journalists. The experience is one of the many reasons that we have such deep respect for journalists, whose work is indispensable to free and open societies.
To our awardees, to their families and colleagues joining us in person, some joining us remotely, simply put I’m honored as well as inspired to be with all of you today.
You all hail from different countries, you work in different kinds of institutions, you focus on distinct challenges. Several themes, though, cut across the extraordinary efforts to combat corruption that join all of you together.
For one, while we’re honoring you today as individuals, we also know that each of you did this work as part of a team.
Moreover, all of you persist in this work despite significant harassment, significant threats. You’ve been interrogated; you’ve been detained; you’ve been prosecuted; you’ve been labeled as enemies of the state, agents of foreign governments, partners of organized crime. Your homes have been searched and ransacked, your offices shuttered. You and your loved ones have been intimidated, and in some instances attacked. Some of you have seen colleagues killed for their work.
All of this I know has been brutal on you and on your families. And yet the other thing that joins you together is you have refused to give up. You kept at it – out of a commitment to justice and to your fellow citizens.
So to you, to your teammates, to your families, we say very simply: thank you, thank you, thank you, for your courage and for your sacrifice.
At events like these we usually try to give a quick summary of the accomplishments of each person receiving an award. But the contributions of these champions over decades of public service are in many ways almost too vast to do that.
So what I’d like to do over the next few minutes is something a little bit different, and maybe try to pull some common lessons from the work of our awardees: eight lessons from eight champions. Consider them maybe a how-to guide for effectively combatting corruption and empowering citizens.
First, today’s champions have made innovative use of technology to uncover graft. In Serbia, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network – founded and edited by Stevan Dojcinovic – created a public, searchable database of information, of documents and data, that can be mined for corruption and conflicts of interest, as well as an online tool that tracks the assets of public officials. These easy to use, accessible tools have empowered journalists, activists, prosecutors, ordinary citizens to conduct their own fact-finding on illicit activities to bring it to light.
Second, awardees have come up with creative ways to raise public awareness about impunity and its impact on people’s daily lives – a crucial step toward mobilizing the public to demand change. In Zimbabwe, Janet Zhou and her organization, the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, use billboards, tweets, even a dancehall playlist that they handed out to motorists at stoplights to build support for a campaign that demanded answers in high-profile corruption cases. Their tagline was, “You deserve to know; I deserve to know.” And with time, more and more Zimbabweans agreed.
Third, the champions have mentored rising generations of anti-corruption activists. As president of one of Malaysia’s highest courts, Judge Rakotondramihamina – excuse me for the pronunciation – has spearheaded countless investigations that reach the highest levels of government. Yet he somehow also found time to build a team and also mentor many younger members that share his relentless commitment to accountability. And he’s trained them in the skills that he’s used to carry out effective prosecutions, such as how to identify and trace missing public funds.
Fourth, the champions have demonstrated that – even in opaque institutions that have struggled with corruption – pockets of transparency and accountability can be nurtured. When Qismah Salih Ali Mendeli took over as Director General of the Central Bank of Iraq five years ago, she made it her top priority to systematically cut off the pathways of illicit finance. She created an online auditing system to track Iraqi banks’ internal workings; instituted rolling inspections of anti‑money-laundering safeguards; developed an electronic database of individuals who were violating banking laws. One reform at a time, she cut off those pathways.
Fifth, today’s honorees have defended the rights of underserved and marginalized communities that are disproportionally impacted by corruption. Colombian Supreme Court Justice Marco Antonio Rueda has effectively prosecuted hundreds of corruption cases over his decades of service. One involved a governor in the country’s Putumayo region who illegally lifted restrictions on gold mining and awarded the contract in exchange for bribes. The mining caused significant deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, deposited dangerous amounts of mercury, lead, and other toxins into rivers vital to indigenous communities – until the prosecution Marco led stopped it.
Sixth, the awardees have shown a bright light on how graft undermines the ability of governments to meet people’s most basic needs in times of crisis. Journalist Rozina Islam exposed how officials in Bangladesh exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to loot funding from the public health system and allowed lifesaving medical equipment to sit unused in Dhaka’s airport for months, costing countless lives. Her reporting, which landed her in jail, sparked widespread indignation and calls for justice and change.
Seventh, the awardees’ efforts have brought long overdue justice to victims and to their families. Antonio de Jesus Cervantes, a journalist for the Mexican magazine ZETA, traced a series of brutal executions in Tijuana to a drug cartel and corrupt officials. His articles led prosecutors to identify those responsible for dozens of killings and gave victims’ families a sense of closure previously denied. A close friend of one of the victims said that Antonio’s reporting gave them, and I quote, “a light of hope, a light of justice.”
The final lesson is one that’s particularly important for anti-corruption advocates tuning into this from around the world. Now, I suspect a number of you are under serious pressure because of your work. Maybe you’re feeling discouraged. Maybe you’re feeling daunted.
So I hope you’ll take heart from knowing that every one of the champions that we’re honoring today has at one point or another felt the same way. One honoree, Cynthia Gabriel, has written about an especially trying time she went through when she was leading a campaign to highlight a massive government kickback scheme in Malaysia. She and her fellow advocates were dragged in for questioning. Their offices were raided. They were being smeared on TV and all across social media. Yet at precisely the moment she was feeling most beaten down, Cynthia wrote, and I quote, “An outpouring of support from ordinary people gave me new strength to work for change so that my country could begin to chart a more open and more transparent course.”
So no matter how great the obstacles are that you face, I hope you remember the difference that your work is making for ordinary people.
And wherever you are, know that you have a committed partner in the United States.
Last year, President Biden launched our nation’s first ever U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, which recognizes corruption as a national security threat and brings an all-of-government approach to addressing the problem. Maybe most important, the strategy focuses on teaming up with partners around the world, partners – like you – to root out corruption, increase transparency, promote accountability.
You’re about to hear from the State Department’s first coordinator on global anti-corruption, Richard Nephew, about some of the ways that we’re broadening and deepening those partnerships and working to support the work of champions around the world.
So to our awardees, those here, anti-corruption champions everywhere, our message is this: count on us as partners. Learn from these innovative and dedicated awardees. Draw inspiration from organizations, from institutions, from communities that stand behind them and who show that together we can – you can – make real strides in rooting out corruption and improving the lives of our fellow citizens.
Thank you to each and every one of you.