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'Fantastically corrupt': Guess who decides?

Roslyn Fuller

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May 15, 2016

The recent anti-corruption summit hosted by David Cameron in London has sparked a debate about just what corruption is, but hasn’t come up with any viable solutions.

Law is like a spider’s web…

It all started with this awkward bit of small-talk captured on video in which an elected official (that would be Mr. Cameron) - who turned out to be involved in some dodgy offshore investments himself - appeared to promise his appointed-by-birth Head of State (that would be Queen Elizabeth II) that the "fantastically corrupt" countries of Nigeria and Afghanistan would be served up at the conference, while the Archbishop of Canterbury looked on.

It was an odd scenario on many levels. There was a hint that Cameron deserved a pat on the head for procuring the attendance of seriously corrupt countries, as opposed to merely moderately corrupt ones, mingled with the depressing insight that no matter how high you rise in the British hierarchy, you apparently never get past the point where have to stand around clutching your drink, trying to shoot the breeze.

But certainly the most infuriating aspect of the video was the disturbingly colonial image of very rich Brits having a little chuckle about what ‘the natives’ get up to while the hors d’oeuvres are served beneath their tinkling chandeliers. Slap on a sepia-filter, alter the cut of the clothes, and you could believe them Victorian-era gentlefolk just about to sit down and carve up a map of Africa.

In fairness, the Archbishop tried to put a good word in for Nigeria, assuring his fellow elites that current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is "not corrupt". Which is quite the resurrection for Buhari, who was once, not to put too fine a point upon things here, dictator of Nigeria.

But generally the overall impression was that Cameron et al tend to perceive corruption as something only other people do. The truly civilized would never be caught doing something as gauche as handing over money in a brown envelope, and not just because you’d never find a big enough envelope.

Mercifully, this hypocritical stance has not escaped comment, with excellent opinion pieces on the Panama Papers, and the failure of Western governments to act on information provided by financial whistle-blowers, and the proliferation of American and European tax havens being penned by some of the Britain’s finest remaining journalists.

They, however, failed to comment on the perfectly legal bribery that goes on between nations, which, considering the context, is definitely worth a mention. Wealthier countries routinely shell out foreign aid, military aid and debt forgiveness to anyone not particularly well off until they ‘achieve consensus’ on whatever the topic of the day is. To give but one minor example: When Australia suddenly decided that it wanted a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-2014 so that it could influence decisions on East Timor, Afghanistan and Indonesia, it simply restructured its aid program to give more to African nations in order to get their votes. A seat was duly delivered. Well-off nations from the USA to Japan have a habit of cracking open their wallets when they need developing countries to do something for them.

In the case of Japan, this often involves joining the International Whaling Commission, while the US has a predilection for bombing places. Incidents where particularly tough negotiators from developing countries have been personally harassed into compliance with developed country wishes are not unknown. This means that while calling on people like President Buhari to stop corruption in their own countries, leaders of developed nations simultaneously reserve the right to buy off the entire country on international issues if it seems expedient to do so. Now that’s hypocrisy. The strong break through, but the weak are caught.

So, we have outright vote buying on an international level and we have often quite flagrant and surface-level corruption in certain countries like Nigeria, where, I am reliably informed, culpability for traffic accidents rests solely on the wad of cash you can produce on short notice.

What do these two systems have in common? Severe economic disparities.



Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at