The COVID-19 pandemic has been used in many countries as an excuse to curtail basic freedoms and sidestep important checks and balances, according to a new report that stresses the need to accelerate the fight against corruption to uphold human rights and democracy.
The annual Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International warns that “human rights and democracy across the world are under assault.”
The Berlin-based nongovernmental organisation surveys business leaders and experts to assign scores to 180 countries and territories on their perceived levels of public sector corruption.
Using a scale from 0 to 100 (with 100 being very clean and 0 ranking as highly corrupt), the 10th annual report found that two-thirds of countries scored below 50. The average score was 43 out of 100. Overall, the fight against corruption is having mixed results – with some nations making gains and others falling behind.
“Since 2012, 25 countries significantly improved their scores, but in the same period 23 countries significantly declined,” the report said.
It also found that despite increased momentum to end the abuse of anonymous shell companies, many high-scoring countries with relatively clean public sectors continue to enable corruption. A shell company does not have a physical location, employees, products or revenue. It is used to store money, help facilitate tax avoidance and, in some cases, deal in illegal activity such as money laundering. Some high-ranking countries such as Switzerland have been called tax havens in part due to their tolerance of shell companies.
But corruption is not merely measured in dollars and cents, the report notes. Financial corruption spills over into law enforcement and the judiciary, which could lead to impunity for serious crimes.
Human rights suffer as a result. This year, highly corrupt countries accounted for almost all murders of human rights defenders around the world.
Western Europe and the European Union came in as the highest-scoring, least corrupt region with a score of 66 out of 100. Sub-Saharan Africa had the lowest score, with 33 out of 100.
Ranking in the top tier with a score of 88 were Denmark, Finland and New Zealand. Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany rounded out the top 10.
Still, despite pledges and promises on paper to fight corruption, Transparency International found that 131 countries out of 180 made no progress towards combating corruption over the last decade.
South Sudan, Syria and Somalia ranked at the bottom of the index. Countries in the grips of conflict or under authoritarian rule scored near the bottom, including Venezuela, Yemen, North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, Equatorial Guinea and Turkmenistan.
The Middle East and North Africa region, which got a score of 39 out of 100 for the fourth consecutive year, is struggling to fight corruption, according to the report.
“Systemic political misconduct and private interests overtaking the common good have allowed the region – already devastated by various conflicts – to be ravaged by corruption and human rights abuses during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said.
Transparency International is urging people everywhere to demand that their governments do more to hold power to account.
Since the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020, governments around the world have either spent or earmarked trillions of dollars to stimulate their economies and keep struggling businesses and households afloat.
The report stressed that governments must be as transparent as possible in showing how and where the funds are spent.
Transparency International also stressed that governments, in developed and developing countries alike, must roll back disproportionate restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly introduced since the beginning of the pandemic.
The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse for corrupt activities, the report added, while agencies and institutions that hold power to account must operate independently and be empowered to detect corruption and do something about it.
Moreover, governments in rich nations must be held accountable for their role in fostering transnational crime, the report said, which requires closing legal loopholes and ensuring that the corrupt do not escape justice.