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Category: Conflict & Insecurity

By Josie Stewart, Programme Director

As the sun set behind rugged mountains, casting a warm glow over the bustling streets of Kabul, whispers of fear filled the air. A generation of Afghans raised with dreams of a peaceful and prosperous homeland found themselves caught in the crosshairs of political upheaval. Also in these crosshairs, the Afghan national security and defence forces. Instead of protecting these dreams, they dissolved into thin air – a ghost army made up of ghost soldiers. They made way for the return of the Taliban, who cast a shadow not just over the city but over two decades of turmoil, military intervention, international investment, and hope. Hope that Afghanistan could become secure and stable – for its people, and for the world.

That was 2021 – only two years ago. The world’s attention has moved on but the consequences of what transpired continue for millions of Afghans.

How was this able to happen, after so much effort, by so many? There is a one-word answer. Corruption.

Failure to prioritise fighting corruption as highly as fighting the Taliban, and worse, willingness to turn a blind eye, thinking that ‘we can’t afford to do anything about corruption while we’re fighting the Taliban’, helped the Taliban win.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard that line in the couple of years I spent working in Kabul, nor how much it infuriated and worried me every time I did.

Fast forward a little, and I’ve now been at the helm of Transparency International Defence & Security for a little over a year. I’m privileged to be leading a team which has already made major contributions to advancing understanding of the true nature of corruption as a security threat, the relationships between corruption and conflict, and the need to integrate anti-corruption into defence and security sectors, agendas, and approaches.

Many others have walked –are running – along this same path towards securing integrity and fostering peace. From the work of Transparency International national chapters across our global movement, through the efforts of NGO partners around the world, to the growing commitment of multilateral institutions and even, in some places, the official designation by states of corruption as a threat to their national security – the world is moving towards an understanding, at last, of corruption as a fundamental threat to the safety and security of us all.

Yet, global military spending reached $2240 billion in 2022, and conflict-related deaths around the world are at a 28-year high. These are high stakes.

And of course there is the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which shifted attention away from what happened in Afghanistan while also exemplifying the threat that corrupt authoritarian regimes pose to international peace and security and demonstrating the impact that corruption can have on military effectiveness.

Faced with all this, it’s time to raise the bar. To push beyond agenda-setting, to come together with others to lock in progress, and to ensure real change in policy and in practice.

Our new strategy, Securing Integrity, Fostering Peace, identifies the opportunities, pathways and partnerships that will help us advance peace and stability by reducing corruption in defence and security. It sets out three global themes, for three years of action:

  1. Corruption as a security threat. We are going to champion this global agenda, joining forces with all those already on this path, and mobilising others to join the cause. Together, we are going to get this issue onto international and multilateral agendas. And as a part of this, we are going to make sure the role of corruption within defence and security sectors is not overlooked or ignored.
  2. Anti-corruption in defence, security, and arms trade decision-making. With our national chapter partners, we are going to target specific issues and risks in specific countries whose policies and practice affect security outcomes beyond their own borders. We will evidence these issues and risks, we will use our evidence to inform our advocacy, and we will influence change.
  3. Informed and active citizens driving integrity in defence and security. Corruption in defence and security isn’t a battle for a select few; it’s a cause for all who care about stability and justice. To bring corruption in defence and security out of the shadows, civil society at national level, media organisations, and communities need to be aware of the issues at stake. They need to know how they can engage, and be able to push for change. We will work with and support them to help make this happen.

We’re going to be bolder, more targeted, and more ambitious in what we do. And as we do, we want and need more allies, more partners, and more support. Will you join us in this pursuit of a more transparent, accountable, and secure future? Please get in touch with me or my team:

The UN Secretary-General’s New Agenda for Peace, released in July, makes twelve modest but achievable recommendations on how we can prevent conflict and build peace better. None of them mention fighting corruption, but that doesn’t mean it is completely off the cards. Marking United Nations Day, our evidence and advocacy officer Emily Wegener looks at how corruption can – and indeed must – be embedded in its implementation.

“Wars do end!”, Scott Straus wrote in 2012, reflecting on the fact that the number of civil wars in Africa halved between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s. A decade on, things are looking much less positive. The number of state-based conflicts in Africa nearly doubled in the ten years following 2012, with even higher numbers of non-state-based conflicts. Globally, we saw the highest number of state-based battle-related deaths since 1984 in the last year (figures from the Peace Research Institute Oslo).

It’s clear that new approaches to peacebuilding and conflict prevention are needed. The New Agenda for Peace, one of a series of eleven policy briefs published by the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres in preparation for his ambitious Summit of the Future in 2024, outlines the UN’s vision for a collective security system.

Transparency International Defence & Security (TI-DS) welcomes this New Agenda for Peace and embraces its strong emphasis on conflict prevention and national ownership. Moreover, TI-DS appreciates that trust, solidarity and universality have been made the three core principles for an effective collective security system. is closely linked to countering corruption, an aspect surprisingly absent from the New Agenda for Peace, prompting us to question why.

Corruption is a fundamental threat to human security. All of the ten lowest-ranking countries in the 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) exhibit low to very low states of peace in the 2023 Global Peace Index (GPI), with four of them being amongst the lowest-ranking countries in the GPI too.

This trend continues in the defence and security sectors, which are often directly linked to conflict and insecurity, and closely connected with instability such as coups. 62% of the countries ranked in the  ) indicate high to critical levels of corruption risks across their defence sectors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, five of the ten lowest-ranking countries on the GDI also show low to very low levels of peace according to the GPI.

Connecting recommendations with anti-corruption efforts

The core of the New Agenda for Peace consists of twelve recommendations for action. These recommendations provide significant opportunities for the integration of anti-corruption measures, by:

  • Integrating anti-corruption measures into national conflict prevention strategies, to “shift the prevention and sustaining peace paradigm within countries”.
  • Reinforcing commitments to SDG 16 and SDG 16.5, the Goal on peace, justice and strong institutions and its target on substantially reducing corruption and bribery, as part of accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda (Agenda for Peace Action 4).
  • Encouraging International Financial Institutions (IFIs) to support anti-corruption programmes as part of funding for conflict prevention, stabilization, and peacebuilding (Agenda for Peace Action 4), and advising IFIs on funding anti-corruption activities to “build a stronger collective security machinery” (Agenda for Peace Action 12).
  • Empowering the Peacebuilding Commission to lead thematic discussions on integrating anti-corruption into peacebuilding as an issue affecting both peace and development (Agenda for Peace Action 12).
  • Addressing the diversion of small arms and light weapons (SALW) by strengthening anti-corruption measures (Agenda for Peace Action 7).
  • Including the social and economic costs of defence sector corruption in the proposed study on the social and economic impact of military spending (Agenda for Peace Action 7).  

Not explicit, but a starting point

Although it fails to offer the strong language on anti-corruption, the New Agenda for Peace nonetheless offers multiple entry points for integrating anti-corruption into conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The extent to which this is done in practice will play a key part in determining the Agenda’s ultimate success.












Responding to reports of corruption in Ukraine military recruitment centres, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:

Reports of “unfit to serve” certificates being sold from Ukraine’s regional military recruitment centres demonstrate once again how corruption can potentially undermine military systems.

This case affirms the role free media can play in holding officials to account while it has been good to see swift action taken by the government since the findings were published.

In contrast to the corruption-related problems that have plagued the effectiveness of Russia’s Army from the start, Ukraine has invested in improving oversight and accountability.

Ukraine is continuing to fight corruption at the same time as fighting on the battlefield. With the stakes this high, they know they must win on both fronts.
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Responding to the launch of the United Nation’s New Agenda for Peace, Emily Wegener, Evidence and Advocacy Officer, Transparency International Defence and Security said:

“This week, the UN’s Secretary General, António Guterres, launched the New Agenda for Peace. Transparency International Defence & Security embraces its emphasis on building trust and solidarity among states. They are essential for fostering lasting peace and cooperation. Fighting corruption in all forms is a fundamental part of building trust, as Our Common Agenda acknowledges. However, it did not receive a mention in the New Agenda for Peace.

“Going forward, we recommend that the implementation of the agenda and its proposed actions actively incorporates anti-corruption measures at all levels. It is only through collective and comprehensive efforts that we can pave the way toward a more peaceful and sustainable world for all.”
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Ed Storey and Sabrina White reflect on the recently marked ‘UN peacekeeper day’.

The United Nations (UN) must continue to reform to address ongoing concerns related to sexual exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, in the interests of strengthening prevention efforts and supporting justice, we strongly believe that some forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse should be recognised and approached as sexual forms of corruption.

Defined simply, sexual extortion is a sexual form of corruption that refers to the abuse of entrusted power through psychological rather than physical coercion to obtain a sexual advantage or favour. For example, the exchange of sex for food or basic goods required for survival or sex for a salary constitute a sexual form of corruption. Acknowledging that some forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse are sexual forms of corruption would allow for a fresh perspective on corruption evident in peacekeeping operations and present an opportunity for improving integrity and accountability of peacekeeping.

Since their first mission in 1948 to the Middle East, UN peacekeepers, the blue helmets, have come to be a symbol of hope and human cooperation across the globe. UN peacekeepers have embarked on some 72 missions since their formation in which over 1 million men and women have served. Their interventions have undoubtedly saved countless lives, and the international community owes the approximately 3,500 peacekeepers who have laid down their lives in services a great debt of gratitude. However, these peacekeeping missions have left numerous stories and scandals of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in their wake. From individual cases of rape, to running a child sex ring in Haiti, and peacekeepers exchanging food for sex, it has grown obvious that U.N peacekeeping operations face a systemic problem of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and sexual forms of corruption.

Harrowing stories 

The victims’ stories often follow a tragically similar pattern. Peacekeepers are typically deployed to war-torn regions of the world inhabited by people who may be struggling to meet their basic survival needs. Furthermore, amidst an often-unstable security situation and due to the financial resources and demand for services accompanying missions, civilians often congregate around peacekeeper bases. Peacekeepers have a position of authority, access to shelter, food, and financial resources. They are in a prime position to prey upon those they should be protecting. Victims are often very young, sometimes prepubescent, typically out of school, and with a family struggling or unable to support them. Many victims are led to believe that they are cared for by their abuser and come to hope that by submitting to abuse they may be able to escape to a better life elsewhere. Such cases are well documented by the UN itself, and some victims have been left with children fathered and abandoned by peacekeepers which places a significant financial burden on survivors who may already struggling.

Many of these cases of sexual assault are well illustrated in the harrowing story of Sarah, as reported by the Economist. However, a significant number of the crimes of peacekeepers should be classified as acts of sexual extortion, and therefore both sexual violence and corruption. These acts are distinct from rape as they involve a person in a position of authority psychologically rather than physically coercing a victim to engage in survival sex, defined as sexual acts performed in return for the basic necessities to support life such as food or shelter. There are numerous cases of young victims coerced into survival sex with peacekeepers documented by multiple organisations for a significant amount of time.

As long ago as 2001, Save the Children reported many cases of vulnerable, very young girls, being forced to remove their clothing for peacekeepers cameras in exchange for biscuits. In many cases, rape and survival sex are closely linked, and often initial sexual assault may later necessitate a survivor engaging to survival sex to provide for a child a peacekeeper has fathered then abandoned.

These circumstances that may force victims into survival sex are clearly represented in the story of Grace and Emma. In Grace’s case, sexual relations with a Uruguayan peacekeeper left her pregnant. Grace was unable to cover the costs of pregnancy, childbirth and raising Emma, and was therefore forced to engage in survival sex. Grace would meet with peacekeepers in a nearby UN base where she would receive a little money, food or hygiene products in exchange for sex to support Emma. There are numerous stories like Grace’s, in a study on peacekeeper abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was found that survival sex in exchange for basic essential goods was the most prominently recurring motivation for engaging sexually with peacekeepers.

Viewing these crimes as corrupt acts, as well as sexual violence, opens new avenues for prevention, response, and potential prosecution. This goes for all incidences of sexual corruption, including survival sex and sex for jobs in the humanitarian sector. These cases illustrate that corruption is not solely an issue of good governance, but also individual abuses of power are powerful reminders of how destructive of an impact corruption has on the lives on individuals. Often by necessity, policy discussions remain at the abstract level, focusing on good governance. However, we strongly believe that the stories of victims and survivors must be acknowledged and at the policy-making table, to keep discussions grounded and the stakes at play in mind.

The United Nations has taken steps in the right direction in response to these issues, especially since António Guterres’ election as Secretary-General. But, there remains much to be done, and the UN must commit to tackling this systemic corruption issue head-on and aggressively to ensure that UN peacekeepers are successful in their role of ensuring rather than undermining human security. It is strongly recommended that some forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse are acknowledged as sexual forms of corruption and that anti-corruption training be provided alongside training on the zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and sexual abuse and gender. We owe it to the victims and survivors to pursue justice, and to ensure that the matter is not shelved until the next media storm brings it to light.


Ed Storey is a Transparency International Defence and Security Intern and a University of Sussex Corruption and Governance postgraduate student. Sabrina White is Transparency International Defence and Security’s Gender Specialist and a PhD researcher in victim-centred approach to sexual exploitation and sexual abuse in UN peacekeeping.

In response to heavy fighting that has seen the loss of over 400 lives in Sudan in recent days, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security Director, said:

What we are seeing in Sudan is an example of what can happen when security sector reform fails.

Following a coup in 2021, the Sudanese army shared power with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an independent paramilitary force with significant political and fighting power.

In December, all parties agreed to transition to a democratically elected government and integrate the RSF into the regular army. But tensions arose around the timeline for integration and the chain of command.

Without this critical agreement on reform of the country’s security sector which would build and strengthen the accountability and governance of the Sudanese armed forces, Sudan and its people are now facing civil war.
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Negotiations have been taking place in Geneva this month around the control and accountability of private military and security companies (PMSCs). Transparency International Defence and Security’s Ara Marcen Naval contributed to the discussions in Switzerland. Here she delivers a call to action to other civil society organisations.

As an NGO committed to promoting transparency and accountability in the defence and security sector, Transparency International Defence and Security (TI-DS) is deeply concerned about the corruption risks associated with the activities of PMSCs. These groups, while playing a role in enhancing security in some cases, often operate in secrecy, outside standard transparency and accountability structures. This permissive environment creates opportunities for corruption and conflict to thrive, deprives governments and citizens of financial resources, and undermines security and human rights.

I write having participated last week in the discussions of the Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on PMSCs. This fourth session was convened to discuss a new draft of an international instrument to regulate the activities of PMSCs. This is a critical platform for addressing these concerns and others related to companies’ human rights obligations. There are various questions: how to ensure their activities comply with international humanitarian law? Should these companies be allowed to participate directly in hostilities?

The PMSC industry is a rapidly evolving and intrinsically international one, with a well-documented link to global conflict. The lack of regulatory oversight has led to heightened global risks of fraud, corruption, and violence, with little in the way of accountability mechanisms at both the national and international levels, so progress at a global level is key.

Current initiatives to try and regulate the market, such as the Montreux Document and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, are a step in the right direction. However, these initiatives have limited support among states around the world. They do not cover some key military and intelligence services and exclude some important anticorruption measures. TI-DS thinks these initiatives don’t go far enough to address the risks posed. We are hopeful that the efforts of the working group will provide a much-needed stronger set of enforceable standards.

TI-DS welcomes the progress made in the revised draft discussed last week, including references to the UN Convention Against Corruption and the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. These references are essential steps towards policy and legal coherence, aligning efforts to regulate PMSCs with international legal obligations related to corruption and transnational organised crime.

While in Geneva I continued to propose ways that the text of the draft instrument can better incorporate anticorruption standards, including transparency of contracts and beneficial ownership, and through the recognition of corruption-related crimes as well as human rights abuses.

But we are deeply concerned about the overall lack of engagement. The room was almost empty, with many states not attending the discussions and a general lack of civil society actors actively following this critical process – prospective changes that could significantly impact conflict dynamics, international security, human rights and respect for international humanitarian law.

This is the Geneva Paradox. Other similar processes, like those related to business and human rights or others trying to get a grasp of new types of weapons systems, are filling the rooms of the United Nations, with both states and civil society in attendance. We feel that this process – which is attempting to regulate the activities of PMSCs to stop the trend of these corporate actors becoming rogue actors in wars and conflicts around the world – deserves equal attention.

In September, the Human Rights Council will set the agenda for this issue going forward. We hope that more states and civil society organisations join efforts in the coming period to give this issue the critical attention and scrutiny it deserves.

Responding to the recently published US Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:

The new strategy suggests that American policymakers are increasingly recognising the importance of anti-corruption approaches in confronting conflicts around the world.

With the long history of corruption fuelling conflicts, US and global policymakers must treat corruption as an urgent and permeating concern.

The path to peace and stability can only be built on concrete foundations. These should begin with anti-corruption efforts in defence – the sector most fundamental to safeguarding security.
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Responding to United Nations Security Council statements on security sector reform, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:

There’s a lot to like about statements on security sector reform made by members of the UN Security Council last week.

Security sector reform is at least as much political as it is a technical process – governance and integrity are key.

And security sector reform is successful when it is inclusive – the participation of local communities is essential. Civil society has a key role to play in addressing corruption in defence and security.
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Responding to the latest annual data on global arms transfers, published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) this month, Sara Bandali, Transparency International Defence and Security Director of International Engagement, said:

While international arms sales have decreased over the last decade, the bloody legacies of corruption in arms transfers linger.

Across Africa’s Sahel region, national weapon stockpiles have been depleted, with the corrupt diversion of arms bolstering groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram. Killing of civilians and sexual and gender-based violence perpetuates, with the people of countries such as Nigeria and Mali left no safer by the arms that have entered their nations.

These risks are not constrained to the Sahel. Our latest Government Defence Integrity index shows almost half (49 per cent) of global arms imports are going to countries facing a high to critical risk of defence corruption.

Governments should strengthen transparency and accountability in arms transfer decision making to meet the reporting obligations of the Arms Trade Treaty. The scrutiny of lawmakers, auditors and civil society can deliver arms deals that truly enhance security.
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Responding to the new US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:

America’s new arms transfer policy represents the first full acknowledgement of the role corruption plays in undermining US efforts to enhance partners’ military performance.

This is a significant step forward. The US has committed to assess both the accountability mechanisms of partner security sector institutions and the risk of US arms transfers fuelling corruption. The effectiveness of these new provisions will hinge on the steps the US takes to obtain and use information on corruption risks associated with arms transfers.

Transparency International’s Government Defence Integrity index should provide a starting point. We look forward to advising the US Government on implementation, supporting a safer America, and a safer world.
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We know that corruption can be gender-specific in both form and impact. We know that it can perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence and gender inequality, and we know that the risks of this are highest in conflict, defence and security realms.

Sexual forms of corruption – often labelled as ‘survival sex’ – are commonplace in conflict, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian crises, with security and humanitarian individuals and groups among the main perpetrators.

Women’s exclusion from peace processes also undermine efforts to promote anti-corruption.

In response, we are leading the development of new approaches to integrate a gender-perspective across our work and the work of others at the intersection of conflict, defence and security, and corruption.