We must never lower our guard in fighting corruption

Marin Mrčela / Jul 2019

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No country or institution is immune to corruption. As we continue to see corruption scandals erupting and unethical behaviour in public life, the need for adequate tools to prevent and combat corrupt practices becomes ever more pressing.

The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption, better known as “GRECO”, monitors compliance with, and the implementation of, Council of Europe anti-corruption standards by GRECO’s 49 member states. These include all of the countries in geographical Europe, as well as the United States of America – covering in total over one billion people.

While GRECO’s regular work is country-specific monitoring, once a year it also produces a general activity report. The report for 2018, presented on 25 June in Brussels, gives a snapshot of the trends and good practices identified by GRECO‘s country-specific monitoring reports last year. The annual report, which also shows the “state of play” concerning each country’s implementation of GRECO recommendations, highlights three main issues.

First, we must never lower our guard. The perception of low levels of corruption in some countries can be misleading and must not lead to complacency. All countries, irrespective of their position in perception indexes, have to take concrete measures to prevent and tackle corruption.

It is in every country’s interest to fully implement GRECO’s recommendations. If they don’t, it should be of no surprise to anyone that, for example, financial institutions are exposed to the risk of money laundering. Relying on positive perceptions, being self-satisfied and underestimating the importance of preventive measures leaves the door wide open to illegal or unethical behaviour.

Secondly, we still have too many countries in a situation of non-compliance, even though we have seen some encouraging signs in the first six months of 2019. At the end of 2018, 16 countries were subject to GRECO non-compliance procedures. That number is slightly lower today (14). However, in some cases – most recently in Slovenia and Greece, but also last year in Romania and Poland- – we are seeing the reversal of anti-corruption measures.

It is important to underline that GRECO is not a political body, but a technical one. Our reports are based on facts, not impressions or perceptions. Our recommendations are not optional – countries that join GRECO commit themselves to implementing them – and recommendations should be implemented regardless of political circumstances.

Thirdly, corruption erodes the protection of human rights. The potential damage is evident in a number of areas such as the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression among journalists, the protection of whistleblowers, freedom of assembly, social rights, discrimination and human trafficking. Increasingly, both the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights refer to GRECO recommendations in their work. This is a welcome development.

Independent media and whistleblowers play an essential role in preventing corruption by shedding light on dirty deals and exposing conflicts of interest and corruption. In 2018, we again saw too many journalists being harassed, beaten or killed for doing their job. We must acknowledge the contribution of journalists who risk their careers, their reputations and sometimes their lives every day to uncover corruption.

Whistleblowers can also suffer from retaliation after exposing serious malpractice, including corruption. This is an area where countries can and should do better. 44 of GRECO’s 49 member states have received at least one recommendation on whistleblower protection.

As GRECO celebrates its 20th anniversary, it is clear that a lot of progress has been made. We are in a much better place today than we were two decades ago. Bribes to foreign public officials are no longer tax-deductible, companies can be held criminally liable, corruption in the private sector has been legally recognised, whistleblowers are better protected, political party funding is more transparent, ethical rules are being implemented across the public sector and criminal legislation on corruption is, by and large, similar across GRECO’s membership.

However, while much has been achieved, much also remains to be done. The independence of the judiciary is under threat in a number of countries. Reforms that have previously been introduced are at risk of being rolled back. Political corruption weakens trust in our institutions and corruption in sport is undermining its integrity. 

GRECO will continue its monitoring work: it must remain technical, professional, even-handed and fair, whilst continuing to be flexible and reacting to problems as and when they arise. As we move forward, there is one area where further progress is crucial: GRECO must be able to respond to requests from member states for expertise. It is no longer enough for GRECO to identify where the problems are; it must also be able to indicate how to fix them.

Preventing corruption is directly connected to maintaining integrity at all levels of society. Corrupt and unethical practices may affect almost any human activity: education, public administration, different levels of government, justice, law enforcement, politics, business, the non-profit sector and sport. That is why the fight against corruption should start at “kindergarten”. There is no better way to shape a future where corruption is tackled effectively than working together with the children and young people who will be the citizens of tomorrow.


Marin Mrčela

Marin Mrčela

July 2019

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