The deposed Niger government’s efforts fighting corruption contrast markedly with the neglect shown in neighbouring Burkina Faso ahead of the previous coups which rocked the region. Transparency International Defence and Security’s Mohamed Bennour, Michael Ofori-Mensah and Denitsa Zhelyazkova compare the collapse of the two nations and show how ECOWAS can reinforce democracy in the region.
Upon his election as chair of the West African regional bloc ECOWAS last month, Nigeria’s new president Bola Tinubu made plain his intentions to champion democracy in efforts to arrest the spate of military uprisings that have disrupted the region in recent years.
It wasn’t long however before another arrived, this time in Niger. ECOWAS swiftly threatened military intervention. ECOWAS and other power brokers traditionally tend to respond to events of this kind with talk of zero tolerance and sanctions – tough words but sentiment that, too often, is accompanied by minimal analysis of the root causes.
Transparency International in Niger are among the civil society groups that have observed a trend leading to coups in their country: the discovery of lucrative natural resources. In November, the Niger-Benin pipeline, the largest in Africa, is due to start exporting crude petroleum for the first time. This will multiply Niger’s crude exports by five, with an expected GDP increase of 24 per cent. Before this, the discovery of uranium in 1974 coincided with the overthrow of Niger’s leadership. Then an oil boom in 2010 was swiftly followed by another coup.
The resources vary but the outcomes follow a pattern.
The removal of Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum has been lamented by our colleagues on the ground. This is because he had been showing willingness to step up to the long-ignored challenge of confronting corruption in the country.
Supporters of Bazoum protested in the street against the coup, together with CSOs and unions. Some have expressed their scepticism about the military being able to solve the governance challenges and issues of insecurity faced in the country.
The scepticism is driven by the fact that Niger’s security had been progressing better than in neighbouring countries, with fewer terror fatalities than those recorded in Mali and Burkina Faso.
There have been counter protests in Niger. Yet Bazoum had only been in power for two years. ANLC, (Transparency International’s chapter in Niger) had enjoyed political support from the president and parliament for the adoption of an anti-corruption law, central to addressing risks in defence and security and other sectors. This law, if and when implemented, will protect informants, witnesses, experts and whistleblowers. It will also criminalise bad practices common in Niger, such as the over-invoicing of public contracts and refusing to declare assets of civil and military figures.
Contrasting situation in Burkina Faso – decline and lost trust
The strides that had been made in Niger contrast with the decline seen in Burkina Faso, which until last week had been the nation that had suffered a coup most recently. There, a failure to secure enough resources for the army put paid to its elected leaders. Endemic corruption within the security forces contributed to the eroding of the perceived legitimacy of authorities. Public trust in government was lost. Several reports from Transparency International Defence and Security have shown how this creates dynamics for the expansion of non-state and extremist groups.
Corruption is not a victimless crime. In April, 44 civilians were killed by terrorist groups in north-eastern Burkina Faso. Later that month, a further 60 were killed by men in national military uniform in the northern village of Karma.
Ironically, Burkina Faso was considered immune to the regional spread of violence until relatively recently. Almost overnight, the land-locked state found itself a focal point in the expansion strategies of various extremist groups when a Romanian citizen was abducted in Tambao on Burkina Faso’s north-east border with Mali and Niger in 2015.
Ever since, terrorist groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and the Burkinabe-founded Ansarul Islam have been exploiting an unresolved socio-economic crisis amid endemic corruption.
At a summit in February, the African Union announced that Burkina Faso and Mali will remain suspended from the continental bloc. Adding more pressure to the countries’ leadership, ECOWAS also extended existing sanctions on both countries, “reaffirming zero tolerance against unconstitutional change of government“.
Sanctions can be a useful tool. They deliver a clear stance against illegal and undemocratic change of power. However they do not offer lasting solutions to some of the core issues behind the takeovers. And they can risk exacerbating grievances and harming the most vulnerable groups.
In order to build a democratic and secure future in Burkina Faso, corruption in the defence sector must be tackled. There must be a focus on pragmatic reforms to ensure, and safeguard, transparency, accountability and efficacy. And civil society must be involved in the process. Our Government Defence Integrity Index provides evidence supporting arguments that the more open to civil participation and transparent a government is, the higher the level of institutional resilience to corruption.
Until last month, Niger had what Burkina has needed. National civil society was engaged with both government and the military, working for greater transparency and tackling defence sector corruption.
Now, our colleagues in Niger have called for “the immediate restoration of a civil regime supported by inclusive governance and the preservation of civic space. These measures are essential to maintain the principles of transparency and accountability that we defend.”
Not for the first time, as the international community scrambles to respond to events in the country, and watches as they continue to unfold, we have been reminded that corruption is a fundamental threat to security. Access to and control over natural resources drives power struggles that extend beyond country borders. Only driving out corruption will suffice to break the cycle for all those suffering in the Sahel.
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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Corruption can be a determining factor in the success or failure of a military operation. It can also exacerbate insecurity in the operating environment by inadvertently strengthening corrupt networks. Rather than being treated as a secondary issue by militaries, identifying and countering corruption risks should be treated as a strategic priority.
Transparency International Defence and Security Director Josie Stewart said:
We welcome the report of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry on private military and security companies (PMSCs), to which we gave evidence. We are particularly pleased to see the recommendation that the UK should include, as a key criteria for assessing UK security partnerships, “the level of willingness on both sides to uphold transparency and standards of good governance”.
This is essential to mitigate risks of corruption, conflict, and insecurity. We are disappointed however not to see more focus on addressing regulatory oversight of the global PMSC industry. A draft UN Convention on Regulating PMSC Activities has been the subject of international debate since 2011, yet no meaningful progress has been made. As a minimum, the UK should adopt our recommendations on PMSC beneficial ownership, contract and export transparency. This would help set a standard for PMSC oversight and accountability, as well as protect the UK’s domestic PMSCs from being tarred with the same brush as malign groups like Wagner.
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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.
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.
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.
A working group of the United Nations assembled in Geneva, Switzerland on April 17, 2023 to evaluate and negotiate regulation of private military and security security companies (PMSCs).
Transparency International Defence and Security Head of Advocacy Ara Marcen Naval joined and delivered the following statement:
Mr. Chairperson rapporteur, distinguished delegates,
I stand before you today at this crucial discussion to bring to your attention, and consideration, the corruption risks linked to the activities of Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) with a sense of urgency and resolve. PMSCs can play an important role in government efforts to enhance security, but they often operate in secret and outside standard transparency and accountability structures. This dynamic provides a permissive environment for corruption and conflict to thrive and deprives governments and its citizens of financial resources and security.
The Defence and Security Programme of Transparency International welcomes the progress made in the revised draft and the changes made to include references to the Convention Against Corruption and Convention against transnational crime. These references are important steps towards policy and legal coherence and to ensure that the efforts to regulate the activities of PMSCs align with the international legal obligations in relation to corruption and transnational organised crime.
Corruption and the unchecked actions of PMSCs have far-reaching consequences, eroding the rule of law, undermining human rights and security, and threatening the legitimacy of governments. It corrodes public trust, undermines democratic institutions, and creates a culture of impunity that breeds more corruption. It can also weaken the fabric of societies, divert resources meant for development, and perpetuate inequality and injustice.
Transparency International has identified dozens of cases in which PMSCs are suspected of involvement in corruption and fraud. Some of the most concerning cases involve PMSCs colluding with government officials to inflate threat perceptions to win or sustain contracts. In one case, this action led to excessive use of force against protesters resulting in unnecessary injuries to civilians and security forces.
Transparency International has also raised concerns about some of the practices of PMSCs failing to disclose conflict of interests that could undermine government decisions, or even threaten national security.
In some cases multinational PMSCs have fuelled corruption by requiring local partners to pay kickbacks for participating in government funded contracts.
In these cases, the opaque arrangements prevalent in the sector make it extremely difficult to ascertain chains of command, responsibilities and levels of coordination among the different security actors, and undermine monitoring efforts and accountability. Furthermore, it is usually difficult to find public confirmation of the nature of the contract and the identity of subcontractors in the event that they are hired.
We hope that during the discussions on the potential instrument, the distinguished delegates will confront the implications corruption has and the abuses of PMSCs head-on and work together to prevent, detect, and punish corruption in all its forms. Transparency and reporting are the greatest steps that states can take to allow for effective monitoring and oversight of private military and security companies and other actors providing security services in order to effectively prevent, address and remedy any abuses committed.
Distinguished delegates, the stakes are high. The impact of corruption and the actions of PMSCs are felt by communities around the world, often with dire consequences for the most vulnerable among us. The fight against corruption and the responsible use of PMSCs requires our unwavering commitment and concerted and holistic action. Thank you.
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The victims of human rights abuses associated with private military companies (PMCs) are often left with no access to justice because of the lack of transparency in PMC contracts.
At the latest International Anti-Corruption Conference in Washington, the UN’s independent expert on mercenary groups, Dr Jelena Aparac, elaborated in this short video why action is needed.
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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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.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has made slow progress amid a catalogue of corruption-related blows to the morale of its military. Josie Stewart and Joseph Moore chart the stalling of long-standing attempts to control Ukraine.
When Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of that cold February morning a year ago, his plan represented a shock and awe offensive, aimed at encircling the capital Kyiv until the capitulation of the Ukrainian army and, eventually, the annexation of Ukraine. Even amongst Western observers, there was scepticism that Ukraine could effectively counter Russia.
This was the next step in a strategy which had already seen Putin spend two decades trying to control Kyiv through weaponised strategic corruption: enriching pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine such as Dmytro Firtash or Viktor Medvedchuk, who in turn bought up news channels, bankrolled political parties, and steadily built up Ukraine’s political and economic dependence on Russia.
But when corruption is used as a weapon, it can backfire.
Up until recently, the Russian army was praised as one of the world’s most powerful militaries. Today, one year on from the escalated invasion, having already suffered staggering loses with an estimated 200,000 dead and wounded soldiers, Russia’s ill-predicted quick victory seems a long way away.
There is no question that the war has not gone as Putin hoped. How much of this is because a reliance on corruption has come back to bite him?
Back in 2008, Russia embarked on the task of modernising its military forces. This process entailed a rapid increase in defence spending: 175 per cent growth from 2000-2019, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. This peaked in 2016 at 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). That’s a lot of spending in a context where public sector corruption is rife.
Our most recent Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Russia 137th out of 180 countries and Russia’s military is not immune. Our Government Defence Integrity Index 2020 assessed Russia’s defence sector as being at high risk of corruption, due to the extremely limited oversight of defence-related policies, budgets, activities and acquisitions, in conjunction with high levels of opacity in defence procurement.
As a result, bribe money intended to buy a Ukrainian coup was stolen before it could leave Russian hands, soldiers on the front line were provided with ration packs seven years out of date, crowdsourcing for body armour was required for troops not properly equipped for the war, fuel was sold on the black market before it could power Russian tanks and supply chains failed. Ultimately as a result of this all – Russian morale suffered.
The UK Ministry of Defence’s intelligence updates further supported this and flagged ‘corruption amongst commanders’, with the “Russian military… consistently [failing] to provide basic entitlements to troops deployed in Ukraine… almost certainly contributing to the continued fragile morale of much of the force.” The Head of Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention of Ukraine (NACP) also expressed his “sincere gratitude” to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – who is alleged to own property worth at least $18 million (somehow reportedly acquired on his official annual salary of $120,000) – for the “invaluable contribution” Russian embezzlement had provided in better enabling the defence of Ukraine.
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, action initiated following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Our colleagues at the Independent Defence Anti-Corruption Committee (NAKO) have been working closely with the Ukrainian Government on this since 2016. 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.
At Transparency International Defence and Security we have long argued that a failure to strengthen defence governance together with increases in defence spending increases the risk of corruption – and that corruption in defence undermines military effectiveness. In other words: it’s not just how much you spend that determines the outcome. Russia’s challenges in Ukraine only reinforce this argument.
As the Munich Security Conference begins today, Josie Stewart, Director of Transparency International Defence and Security, said:
“If Russia’s war in Ukraine has taught us anything, it should be that raising the stakes in the fight against corruption should be high on the agenda at the Munich Security Conference (MSC).
“Energy supply disruptions, Russia, and an economic or financial crisis have been flagged as the top three security risks for leading democracies in 2023. But almost a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we can expect the MSC, beginning today, to shift its focus back to traditional concepts of security and defence.
“In this context, it has never been more important for leading democracies to take on the fight against corruption as a global security imperative. If the enemy of democracy is corruption, the Western military industry needs to cleanse itself at home before fighting it abroad.
“We look forward to hearing the outcomes of a panel discussion at the MSC organised by Transparency International and the Basel Institute on Governance.”