In the 1990s, the challenge of the fight against corruption became a major issue in international relations, in the aftermath of the “Mani pulite” operation in Italy, which led to general awareness of the threats to democracy related to corruption throughout Europe. The Council of Europe engaged itself actively in this issue, which was one of the major topics of the Strasbourg Summit in 1997, subsequently leading to the adoption of two key conventions and the creation of the “Group of states against corruption” (GRECO). This “success story” enlarged from 17 to 49 member states and celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts... perhaps the fear of a loss of power. John Steinbeck Mani pulite 17 February 1992. The Italian Police caught a manager of the publicly owned hospice Pio Albergo Trivulzio pocketing a bribe of 7 million old Italian lira (approximately €3 500). The price was fixed: 10% of the contract. This event marked the beginning of what is known as “Mani pulite”, a major, nationwide investigation against political corruption in Italy which brought down an entire political élite. A couple of years later, after graduating in law, I started working in a law firm in Naples, my hometown. The Mani pulite trials were still ongoing across the country. The law firm I worked for was representing in court a former Italian Minister of Health, eventually convicted of corruption-related offences. As a young associate, I was lucky to be involved in this major trial. It gave me a unique insight into how political corruption operates and what the mechanisms are, including the psychological ones, which trigger it. By and large, in cases of political corruption, which has at its core the exercise of “power” and of public authority, the politicians involved tend to blur the line between what is legal and what is not. Illegal and unethical behaviour becomes thus almost justified in their own eyes. But in fact, when political corruption occurs, it is the private interest that prevails over the public one. As a result, citizens lose trust in their own political institutions. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law are threatened, economies collapse and this opens the door to populists of all types, economic crisis, discrimination and injustice. The Council of Europe response to corruption I joined the Council of Europe in September 1995. A number of colleagues were already engaged in working on a programme of action against corruption called for by the European Ministers of Justice at their 19th Conference in Malta in 1994. It may be important to recall at this point that, starting in the mid-1980s and culminating in the 1990s and the early years of the new century (to some extent continuing today), the Council of Europe’s action against crime witnessed a major shift: from approaching it from the angle of traditional, horizontal rules and procedures of international co-operation applicable to all crimes to the idea that the growing complexity and specificity of certain crimes required crime-specific rules and procedures. The debate in the Secretariat and in member states was very active at the time. On the one side, there were those who felt that, no matter the crime, the same rules and procedures developed at an international level should be applicable to all of them. Others, including myself, held a different view. Crimes were becoming increasingly complex and transnational, requiring a crime-specific response. Cybercrime is probably the best example because it was, and still is, unthinkable to deal with it only through traditional investigative powers and international co-operation mechanisms: the latter would be too slow and not adapted to the “internet” environment in which cybercriminals operate. (This is why the Convention on Cybercrime was born.) The crime-specific approach was eventually pursued, while not abandoning the equally important work on “horizontal” international co-operation in criminal matters. This new, crime-specific approach explains a series of new conventions such as those against money laundering (and later, terrorism financing), corruption, cybercrime, terrorism, trafficking in human beings, sexual abuse and exploitation of children, violence against women, counterfeit medicines, offences relating to cultural properties, and so on. These (and other) treaties, many of them coupled with some form of monitoring, still today set the Council of Europe apart on the international scene and give us an edge in these areas. Soon after I arrived at the Council of Europe, I gladly joined the secretariat of the Multidisciplinary Group on Corruption (GMC). The GMC team of four staff worked across topics and administrative structures. This made it an agile structure which benefited from expertise coming from different parts of the Secretariat: a model which was subsequently followed in other areas. The early debates in the GMC revealed another dimension surrounding the topic of corruption which surprised me. This was the idea – and I simplify – some governments had the view in those days that corruption, especially political corruption, only concerned certain parts of Europe, while others were immune. Corruption, it was argued, is a matter of “culture”.
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Azerbaijan – 2001
Kosovo* – 1999
The Strasbourg Summit – October 1997
Bosnia and Herzegovina – 1997