Weak institutions and countries where governments are corrupt or vulnerable to corruption are jeopardising democracy in the Americas, warned Transparency International, the global anti-corruption movement, at the start of the VII Summit of the Americas which is taking place in Panama City this week.

All of the thematic areas to be covered during the summit, which are key to improving the quality of life of millions of people – education, health, energy and the environment, migration and security, democratic governance and citizen participation – are affected by corruption across the region.

“The Inter-American Convention against Corruption was signed 19 years ago and we are concerned about the slow progress in actual compliance and the dismal performance of countries in the region in the fight against corruption. For now there is only progress on paper, which has nothing to do with the real world. Corruption scandals destabilise countries on a daily basis and make it harder to strengthen institutions which are urgently needed to better serve citizens, eradicate poverty and strengthen democracy; corruption reinforces the opacity, impunity, insecurity and looting of states for the benefit of a few”, said transparency international.

Corruption scandals in Brazil, Mexico, Panama, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, United States and other countries of the Americas, show that the basic needs of citizens have been displaced by the selfish interests of some sectors of the political and economic classes. When institutions such as the judiciary in the Dominican Republic, the attorney general’s office in Peru or Colombia’s constitutional court fail to curb corruption and impunity, or worse, are involved in serious questions regarding corrupt practices, we see how little progress has been made to banish the endemic corruption from the region.

The drug violence and organised crime that plague the continent and that reached a dramatic point in Mexico with the disappearance of more than 40 students show how the security institutions have been captured by illegal groups and that corrupt authorities can be under their control. By contrast, citizens and civil society are repressed by some regimes, for example in Venezuela, when they attack fundamental rights, personal freedom and freedom of expression in the name of maintaining so-called democratic stability. Institutional weakness is a breeding ground for the emergence of grand corruption.

“The corrupt are finding new ways to navigate between laws and regulations that are poorly implemented, leaving the citizens of the Americas at risk. Therefore, it is urgent that there is a concerted effort to strengthen capacity in the region to allow countries to deliver on their commitments to uphold the Inter-American Convention against Corruption and the Inter-American System of Human Rights. This is a critical first step in ensuring that corruption does not destroy the agreements that keep democracy safe”, said Alejandro Salas, Transparency International’s Regional Director for the Americas.

The text of the conventions does not require major reforms. What is required is a commitment to implement them, with guaranteed participation of citizens through autonomous and independent organisations that are protected by law and that can highlight and tackle the corruption and impunity affecting the states in the region. To further this end:

  • Governments need to put people back at the centre of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, the Inter-American Human Rights System and Inter-American Democratic Charter, to guarantee basic rights for citizens. International best practices for citizen participation need to be guaranteed and monitored.
  • Governments must reinforce democratic processes that are under threat in some parts of the region and include citizen involvement to further regional governance and development agendas. The right of people to participate in decision-making processes should be recognised in all the region’s constitutions and relevant laws. Governments need to strengthen access to information, freedom of expression and press freedom laws because no real citizen engagement can take place in democratic societies where there is censorship.
  • All government leaders must put their political will and strength behind adopting and enforcing the mechanisms of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption that aim to punish the corrupt and support an independent judiciary. Governments must collaborate to prevent corrupt individuals from finding refuge for themselves and their stolen money anywhere in the Americas. There should be no impunity for crimes of grand corruption and large-scale abuse of power.

For this reason we call on the countries of the Americas to abandon the rhetoric and make a commitment to their people by introducing real and effective mechanisms to stop corruption at the highest levels of power, breaking the historic rule of impunity. They should agree to impose sanctions within the Organization of American States for those who violate these commitments. Only then can we avoid having another summit that has no impact nor brings transformational change.