OECD commits to curb bribery among public officials

By Lucy Komisar
Earth Times News Service, May 14, 2001

PARIS — OECD Secretary General Donald Johnston says he is pleased about the OECD commitment to try to stop companies from its own member states from bribing public officials in other countries. But, he added, that effort needs to be extended to cover bribery of corporate officials as well.

The Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions entered into force in February 1999. It commits 34 signatory countries, including all the world’s biggest economies, to adopt common rules to punish companies and individuals who engage in bribery.

However, Johnston told The Earth Times, he is troubled because, with the massive privatization of state enterprises — utilities, railway lines, airlines — a lot of international procurement is not covered by the convention. Since the whole raison d’ªtre of this is for trade reasons, for competitive reasons — we all like to think there are moral reasons, but there are good commercial reasons — aren’t those reasons valid with regard to a much greater universe, private bribery? The answer is, clearly, yes. I hope we can convince member states to move forward.

But, he added, There’s a sense among many countries: ‘Don’t push the envelope too quickly.‘ Do we have to visit this again? I think we do. He noted that it was initially thought that the convention would contain a section on the corruption of political parties, but it was seen as a step too far at the present time and ‘not necessary,’ as some might say.

He smiled when asked whether that was before the revelations that Germany‘s Christian Democrats had used secret offshore companies and bank accounts in Liechtenstein and Switzerland to hide at least $21.5 million in illegal contributions for three decades.

Johnston said it had taken years to get the convention against bribery of officials. For years,” he explained, “there was an effort by the US to have other countries within the OECD adopt legislation similar to the [US] Foreign Corrupt Practice Act, which was put into effect in 1977 following the Lockheed [bribery] issues. The Americans put a ball and chain around their own corporations, because they could not bribe officials — it was illegal — and other countries could take deductions [of bribes] for income tax purposes. Finally, the Americans convinced the members of the OECD to adopt a declaration or guidelines and, to the surprise of everyone, other countries said, ‘Why don’t we have a legally binding convention?’ That was in 1997, and the convention was negotiated and signed within six months.” He called it a major breakthrough.

Now, Johnston said, every country has to adopt laws compatible with the convention on bribery of public officials or amend laws that are incompatible. The OECD will examine the laws and monitor enforcement. So far, 21 countries have been subjected to close monitoring to determine the adequacy of their implementing legislation. For each country reviewed, the Working Group on Bribery has adopted a report, including an evaluation, which has been made available to the public.

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