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Robert Rotberg is founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and senior fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.


Corrupt dealings undercut development, distort national priorities, accentuate inequality, and enrich conniving elites. Where governance is weak, corruption enables whole populations to be deprived of educational opportunities or access to health benefits. Corruption gives rise to civil conflict and its profits fuel long internal wars such as those in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Now, a proposed International Anti-Corruption Court provides an innovative way to punish corrupt political leaders and those who feed off corrupt practices and thus to minimize the crimes of corruption globally. Canada could play a major role in creating such a court.

Mark Wolf, until recently chief judge of the Massachusetts Federal District Court and a number of international advocates are leading the charge to create such a court. It is modelled on the International Criminal Court, which aims to punish gross human-rights violators and on the several international tribunals for Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone, each of which punished people who participated in genocidal and ethnic-cleansing activity.

An International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) would, by arresting, trying and punishing corrupt officials across the globe, help to reduce impunity and thus deter grand corruption. It would bring increased attention and notoriety to the excesses of corruption and to kleptocracy more generally. It would also give the kind of international (presumably UN-supported) legitimacy to anti-corruption efforts that national court systems often lack.

The IACC would focus its energies on grand corruption – the large-scale theft or conversion of public riches to private gain; it would not focus on the equally insidious and destructive petty corruption that bedevils citizens almost everywhere, especially in the developing world. The court would be most concerned to prosecute, for example, heads of state who preside over rampant corrupt practices and reward families and friends. It would not be concerned, for example, with workers in motor vehicle offices who provide fake licences for a fee.

The World Bank estimates that the annual global costs of corruption are about $1-trillion (U.S.), or 5 per cent of world GDP. Much of that forfeited growth is in the developing world, but Russia, for example, also thrives on bribes, kickbacks, embezzlement and other forms of grand corruption. The World Bank estimates that 44 per cent of Russia's GDP comes from its shadow, illicit, economy.

Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, al-Shabaab in Somalia and other terrorist groups often feed off of political corruption at the national level. Drug lords in Mexico, Guinea-Bissau and many other trafficking countries profit because they can purchase the co-operation of security forces, jurists and politicians.

Most of all, persistent corruption erodes the social fabric of countries, alienates citizens and undermines the important democratic social contract that exists, or should exist, between a national leadership and its citizen followers.

Where executives are corrupt and where they issue directives to corrupted judges and court officials, anti-corruption initiatives at the national level are often stymied. But the IACC, composed of internationally approved jurists, would not be beholden to national political elites for appointment or their salaries.

An IACC would also have the investigative and prosecutorial staff that most developing countries lack. Fragile and poorer places, such as Liberia and Zambia, often find it difficult forensically to pursue the tortuous trails of corrupt politicians, especially those with high-placed friends.

The successful International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Responsibility to Protect initiative had much of their origins in Canada. If the IACC were supported, informally and formally, by influential Canadians, that would build the kind of momentum that could lead to backing by the UN General Assembly and approval by everyone who seeks a stronger and more effective world order. It is an idea whose time has come.

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