The Centrality of the Battle Against Corruption in the Democracy Summit

The Centrality of the Battle Against Corruption in the Democracy Summit

Senator
Ben Cardin
Washington, DC
United States
Senate
117th Congress
First Session
Congressional Record, Vol. 167
No. 213
Thursday, December 09, 2021

Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise today--on International Anti-Corruption Day, as declared by the United Nations--to speak about the Democracy Summit that President Biden is convening today and tomorrow, to which government leaders from 110 countries have been invited. It will also include a range of leading civil society actors, business and labor leaders, civic educators and investigative journalists, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders as speakers and participants.

Undeterred by the Coronavirus pandemic, the Biden administration has organized a global virtual gathering with participants tuning in from six continents. It is an ambitious, even audacious, undertaking.

And it comes at a critical time, as the world is now 15 years into a global democratic recession, according to the well-respected watchdog organization Freedom House. In its widely cited annual survey of freedom, it has reported that, in each of the past 15 years, more countries have seen their democracy scores decline than the number of countries whose scores have improved. And last year, during the height of the global pandemic, nearly 75 percent of the world's population lived in a country that saw its democracy score deteriorate last year.

For a President who has pledged to put democratic values at the heart of American foreign policy, it is fitting and proper that he should convene the democratic leaders of the world and other relevant parties to plan the revitalization of global democracy.

Of course, readers of the annual Freedom House assessment will know that there are not 110 well-functioning, effective democracies in the world and that way too many poorly performing nominal democracies have been invited to this gathering, thus diluting its character.

While some conspicuously back-sliding countries, like Hungary and Turkey, have not been invited, there are numerous back-sliding pseudo-democracies, including the current governments of the Philippines and Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, Bolsinaro's Brazil among others, that unfortunately have been included.

Then there is India, which dropped from Free to Partly Free status in Freedom in the World 2021, which contributes significantly to the fact that 75 percent of the world's people last year resided in countries moving away from democracy. Yet the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after its sustained crack down on critics during the past 2 years and the atrocious scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs, has been invited to the Democracy Summit.

Members of the Senate will also know that there has been precious little information sharing with this body about the contours of the summit. There has been no discussion with us about the invitation list or the way forward from this week's summit, which I see as a missed opportunity for the Biden administration.

On the other hand, I was proud to be able to participate in a side event convened last Friday morning by the House Democracy Partnership for a discussion with legislators from other countries about the important role that parliaments can and do play in leading their governments to address the enduring and universal problem of corruption. I want to congratulate Representative David Price of North Carolina for his leadership of that important initiative and for convening a productive international exchange of views last week in the run up to the President's gathering. One of the main take-aways from that webinar was that it is always incumbent on the legislatures of the world to press forward with laws that instruct and enable executive branch officials to elevate their work to combat corruption.

This is the main topic of my intervention today, to discuss one of the hopeful aspects of the President's Democracy Summit, which is the central role that the battle against corruption is playing in the proceedings and to underscore the leading role that we in the Congress must take to compel further action from our colleagues in the executive branch.

History tells us that they will likely not do so on their own. In fact, the history of anti-corruption laws in the United States is replete with fervent opposition from the executive branch, whether during Democratic administrations or Republican, to virtually every measure proposed in the Congress. This was true of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, which barred U.S. companies and their officials from paying bribes in foreign countries. The executive and the business community declared that this would end the ability of American corporations to do business around the world, which turned out not to be true, of course.

Indeed, it became in due course a foundational element in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption--UNCAC--and other elements of the international architecture of the battle against corruption.

Yet the executive has continued to oppose every measure introduced in Congress to address kleptocrats and human rights abusers, including the original Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 and its successor, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016.

This is especially ironic because, since the enactment of the 2016 law, both Republican and Democratic administrations have been utilizing the law frequently and to good effect. Indeed, today, Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced that--on the occasion of International anti-Corruption Day--the Department of State has designated 12 individuals from 7 countries for significant corruption and also named another 18 family members. In five of the designations, the Treasury Department has invoked Global Magnitsky sanctions for their roles in corruption.

The Democracy Summit is being built around three principal themes: defending against authoritarianism, promoting respect for human rights, and fighting corruption. Corruption is the means and the method for kleptocratic rulers around the world to steal from their own people and to stash their wealth in safe havens, most often in the democratic Western world. This is directly and intimately connected to the undermining of the rule of law and the repression of human rights in these same countries--which is why I was so pleased to see that, on June 3 of this year, President Biden declared the fight against corruption to be “a core national security interest.” And he directed his National Security Advisor to develop a comprehensive strategy to address the problem.

Accordingly, earlier this week, in the run-up to the Democracy Summit, the White House published the first “United States Strategy on Countering Corruption.”

The strategy is a 38-page document that describes several major lines of effort in the new strategy. Among the document's commitments are pledges to crack down on dirty money in U.S. real estate, to require certain gatekeepers to the U.S. financial system such as attorneys, accountants, and investment advisers to perform greater due diligence on their prospective clients, and to make it a crime for foreign officials to solicit or accept bribes from U.S. companies.

If this strategy is matched with appropriate resources, it has the power to fundamentally change the calculus for kleptocrats and redirect stolen funds back to the original problems they were meant to fund such as fighting the pandemic, countering the effects of climate change, funding economic development and opportunity.

We in the Congress can do our part by passing pending legislation that would further strengthen the hand of the U.S. Government in this effort. While there are a number of valuable proposals pending, there are two that I suggest would be the most impactful and necessary.

The first is the Combating Global Corruption Act, S. 14, which I introduced and was cosponsored by my Republican friend from Indiana, Mr. Young, which would create an annual global report, modeled in some ways on the Trafficking-in-Persons report, in which the State Department would assess how earnestly and effectively the governments of the world are living up to the commitments they have made in international treaties and covenants. The report would also place the countries of the world in 3 tiers, according to how well they are doing. And for those in the lowest performing tier, likely the governments that are actually kleptocracies, the bill asks that the executive branch assess government officials in those places for possible designation for Global Magnitsky sanctions.

The second is the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, S. 93, which I introduced and was cosponsored by my Republican friend from Mississippi, Mr. Wicker, which would permanently reauthorize the existing Global Magnitsky framework and to widen the aperture of the law to encompass more bad actors and actions.

Both these measures have been reported favorably and unanimously by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and both are ready for final action by the Senate. As President Biden convenes the Democracy Summit today, with its major focus on the battle against corruption, it would be timely for the Senate to demonstrate our resolve as well.

So I hope that my colleagues here in the Senate will agree in the coming days to adopt these two bills, so that we may take them to the House of Representatives, where they also enjoy bipartisan support, and get them onto the desk of President Biden during the coming year. Participating governments in the Democracy Summit, including the United States, are making commitments to strengthen their own democracies in the next 12 months, in advance of a second summit that is envisioned for next December.

The American position will be enhanced if we have enacted these laws before then.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that selected excerpts of the “United States Strategy on Countering Corruption” be printed in the Congressional Record.

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