Why the Anti-Corruption Movement Is the New Human Rights Movement

It’s about justice, fairness, and the rule of law—and it’s universal.

Protesters, activists of nationalist groups, hold the Russian Empire's black-yellow-white flags and a poster depicting Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Protesters hold the Russian Empire’s flags and a poster depicting Vladimir Putin during a rally against the parliamentary elections in 2011

Photo by Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images.

Riots across Tunisia, December 2010. Demonstrations in Moscow, December 2011. Fasts and street marches in New Delhi, March 2012—plus street movements in Slovenia, Quebec, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Wukan in southern China, among others, throughout the past two years. What do they all have in common? The answer is corruption, or rather the desire to end corruption, which is now the primary motivating factor for dozens of political movements around the world. 

Of course, many of the riots, strikes, street demonstrations, and much of the political turmoil we’ve witnessed in the past two years have other sources, too. Many, most notably those in Tunisia and Russia, were anti-authoritarian, and in Tunisia they overthrew the regime. But even there, political anger was fuelled by stories of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife, and their relatives, particularly after an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described “The Family” and their hotels, factories, and real estate, sometimes expropriated from other people, and usually exploited with connections and outright extortion. The riots which followed were anti-regime, anti-corruption, and anti-repression, all at once.

In Russia, last winter’s protesters likewise made no distinction between their repressive political system and the corruption of their political class: On the contrary, as their leaders have argued, the one exists in order to feed the other. On a website he created, dedicated to the investigation of local and municipal corruption, Alexei Navalny, the most prominent member of this new generation of Russian “dissidents,” explains bluntly: “Why is all of this necessary? Because pensioners, doctors, and teachers are practically starving while the thieves in power buy ever more villas, yachts, and the devil knows what else.” Although Russians still allude to the ideals of the past—last December, one Moscow demonstrator carried a “We need a Havel” placard—Navalny still doesn’t talk much about human rights or democracy. Instead, he talks about money: who has it, who stole it, who misspent it, who smuggled it out of the country.

In that sense, he has much in common with the Chinese communists who officially expelled the provincial leader Bo Xilai a few weeks ago—Bo’s wife stands accused of murder, and Bo himself of taking large bribes—as well as Liu Zhizhun, a former minister accused of taking some $100 million in kickbacks during the construction of China’s overpriced high-speed railways. “Reform,” in Russia and China, isn’t about human rights, or not only about human rights: It’s about getting people to stop stealing. As China’s new anti-corruption chief told his colleagues, the party’s survival depends upon it.

Corruption is hardly a new issue, in China, Russia, India, Slovenia, Azerbaijan, or anywhere else. Why has it come to the forefront of so many political struggles right now? As the Economist argues this week, the internationalization of the anti-corruption movement might explain some of the change. Pressure on corrupt politicians and businessmen now comes not only from within their own societies, but also from authorities enforcing America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or Britain’s Anti-Bribery Act; from voluntary but rapidly growing industry groups, including the International Corporate Governance Network and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; from activists such as Global Witness or Open Oil; and from campaigners in the mold of Bill Browder, the businessman who persuaded the Senate last week to pass the Magnitsky Act, a law which denies U.S. visas to Russian officials responsible for the torture and murder of the Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a massive tax fraud. Transparency International, once a small, quixotic organization, publishes a corruption index which is now scoured anxiously by leaders around the globe.

Of course, Amnesty International was once a small, quixotic organization, too. But as the international human rights movement has grown in stature, authoritarian leaders have got better at fighting it. The human rights movement has been variously derided as “Western,” and thus alien to Chinese or perhaps “Asian” values, or else as “hypocritical,” originating in societies which have plenty of problems of their own. The Iranian regime has welcomed “persecuted” historians who deny the Holocaust to conferences in Tehran, for example.

 Still in its infancy, the international anti-corruption movement has the potential to enhance and augment human-rights rhetoric enormously. Both rely on arguments about justice, fairness, and the rule of law. Though it probably won’t be long before someone finds a way to cast “anti-corruption” as another form of Western imperialism, for the moment the movement’s other strength is its universalism: Its arguments and tactics work in democracies as well as dictatorships. Indeed, they are more effective in societies where the public can at least vote the thieves out of office. One wonders whether their neighbors who can’t do so might not soon feel jealous.