Vol. 4 Num 259 Wed. February 18, 2004  

Bottom line
A crucial link between corruption and violation of human rights

Many human rights activists, lawyers, jurists and almost everyone with any sense of justice consider that the fight for human rights and the fight of corruption share a great deal of common ground. As the sun cannot be separated from sunshine, corruption cannot be detached from violation of human rights. It is also argued that a corrupt government which rejects both transparency and accountability is not likely to be a respector of human rights.

A catalogue of human rights has been enumerated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the UN. These rights have now become a part of common law by their usage and practice over more than five decades. Many constitutions of countries reiterate these human rights for their enforcement and the 1972 Bangladesh Constitution is an instance (Part III of the Constitution -- titled Fundamental Rights).

The term "corruption" is being used for many purposes. The dictionary definition of corruption is "lacking in integrity or dishonest practices". The most agreed common definition of corruption is "the misuse of public power for private profit".

Corruption occurs when a public official demands or expects a bribe or gift for doing an act which that public official is ordinarily required to do by law. If politicians or administrators or civil servants misuse their powers to enrich themselves, they will be designated as corrupt persons. The bottomline is that any decision by corrupted person is flawed or immoral because it is determined by extraneous considerations.

Corruption and violation of human right

Let me cite a few hypothetical instances to illustrate how corruption leads to gross violation of human rights.

Violation of equality of treatment: Every citizen is entitled to equality of treatment from public officials in the exercise of their powers, duties and functions. Any distinction that is made between persons must be based on a rational or reasonable basis. For instance, a blind person may not be provided a driving licence.

But when a distinction is made by a public official for a person without any reasonable ground or on the basis of irrelevant considerations and a public official confers a privilege on that person to the exclusion of others, that involves discrimination.

That means that the person who was denied the privilege has not received equal treatment and that amounts to gross violation of human rights.

Violation of the right to access to water: Every citizen has a right to access to water for a living. A shallow hand pump that was installed three years ago in a village to provide supply of fresh water is no longer in use because the technician installing it sold a key part of the pump in collusion with a public official. The result in effect denies access to water to individuals that in turn is a violation of basic human rights.

Violation of the right to shelter: If a minister or a top bureaucrat allows to purchase inferior materials for the construction of a government housing complex and after a few years one of the houses collapses, the person who was allotted the house is being denied a basic right to shelter. The inferior materials that were allowed for purchase would have never been chosen in a fair competition but was permitted because of underhand dealings.

Violation of the right to work for livelihood: If a municipality, for reasons of personal profit of its members of governing council, were to forcibly evict a group of slum dwellers without providing alternative accommodation in order to enable a private entrepreneur to construct a shopping complex, slum dwellers who had migrated to the city in search of employment and chosen to live in a slum are deprived of their right to livelihood which is a violation of basic right to life.

Violation of freedom of information: Freedom of information is a part of freedom of expression. So where a proprietor of a newspaper or a private TV makes an unethical deal with a government for commercial reasons ( say for near monopoly of government-funded advertisement) and decides to censor unpalatable news relating to certain activities of government, it is gross violation of freedom of information for people

Impact of corruption

Plato and Aristotle consider justice as the master virtue from which other virtues flow. In that fair society, justice gives everyone his/her due. But if one's due is denied because of corruption, it demoralises the community and frustration sets in.

Corruption undermines both economic and political bases for development. It deters flow of foreign investment in a country. Corruption is vicious and symbolises of a decadent society. The whole society suffers from corrupt practices of public officials. Gradually the society loses its confidence and trust in the government. This may give rise to "people's power" -- a combination of protest by civil society and political parties to create a " rose revolution" that recently occurred in Georgia.

According to the World Bank, every year corruption costs about US$ 1.5 trillion and this figure is only an approximate calculation because corruption is largely secret.

UN efforts to curb corruption

Last December a World Conference was held in Mexico and 128 countries participated in it. A draft UN Convention Against Corruption was agreed upon. The document is a comprehensive framework for domestic and international corruption. The Convention treats corruption as something more than a simple crime because it distorts justice; 87 countries have signed it.

The signatory countries are required to enact appropriate laws against corruption, and assist other countries in detecting illicit funds. They are also obliged to open up money-laundering investigations, expedite extradition of corrupt persons and prevent the establishment of bogus banks used for money-laundering. The UN has distributed a Manual with 44-legal, economic and political recommendations for countries to fight against corruption.

Corruption at an international level

It seems that the present definition of corruption is too narrow and does not include events at an international level. Many argue that many policy decisions at the highest political level involving other countries are not decided in a bona fide manner. The very fact that extraneous or hidden considerations motivate a particular decision may be morally categorised as "grand corruption" that has been ignored until this date.

Many of the policy-decisions of big powers towards weak countries are not straightforward and are not executed for publicly stated reasons. It has been argued that oil, defence and politics are not mutually exclusive interests. There is a saying that the hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist. For instance, when you need millions of dollars to get into the White House that is hardly likely to be free of corporate influence of profiteering.

One of the recent examples is arguably the invasion of Iraq. The publicly stated reason of the attack was to destroy the weapons of mass destruction. Now after nine months of extensive investigation in Iraq, on 23 January, the US chief arms inspector Dr.

David Kay resigned saying that he had concluded there was no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He categorically stated to the media: " I don't think they existed." US Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded that Iraq's feared weapons capability might not have ever existed.

It has been further argued in many quarters that the real motive of the armed attack against Iraq was to lay hands on its oil resources and thereby enriching certain oil companies in the US, besides meeting increasing demands for oil in the US in coming years. It has been widely reported that Vice President Dick Cheney's former company Halliburton obtained lucrative contracts in Iraq. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut reportedly said : " Some of our worst fears about corporate profiteering run amok in Iraq have been confirmed."

The bottomline, however, is that penalty of the unwanted Iraqi war was directed to ordinary Iraqi people and during the war thousands of innocent civilians were killed. Consequently they were denied the right to life, a fundamental human right. Therefore one may argue that a malafide decision ( grand corruption at an international level) on Iraq has ended with gross violation of human rights.


When a government of a country fails or neglects to curb spread of corruption, one may conclude that government also fails to fulfil its obligation to promote and protect the fundamental human rights of the people of the country. The same also applies when a powerful country misrepresents its publicly-stated policy towards another country for hidden reasons, thus grossly violating human rights.

The fight for political, social, economic and cultural rights is often inextricably linked with the fight against corruption. The elimination of corruption and the protection of human rights are interdependent. This brings to mind what the great theologian and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1940: " We must work for the greatest possible justice in human society and yet we know that sinful self-interest will corrupt every scheme of justice that we elaborate."

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.