Do We Need a War on Corruption?

Do We Need a War on Corruption?
Photo Credit:AP/達志影像

What you need to know

It used to be a question of ‘who will watch the watchdogs?’ Now it is 'what to do when the watchdogs become rabid and out of control?’

Since his inauguration, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been criticized for his controversial comments and human rights violations in his “war on drugs.” It is estimated more than 2,500 people have been killed during this bloody operation, including Rolando Espinosa Sr., mayor of Albuera, who was killed by police officers in his jail cell on Nov. 5. Espinosa is the second Philippine mayor killed by police due to unproven links to the drug trade.

In August, Duterte announced a campaign against corruption and placed a 2 million Philippine Peso (US$43,000) bounty on the heads of Philippine National Police (PNP) members who are sheltering the drug trade. Duterte earlier named over 150 officials, lawmakers, judges, police and military personnel allegedly involved in drug-related corruption. Despite public concerns over impunity and overstretched executive power, Duterte claimed that he will not relent and “will finish this war against corruption, drugs and crime.” Duterte’s turning a blind eye to or even encouraging extrajudicial killing, as a measure to “clean the government,” is a dangerous and counterproductive approach to corruption.

Duterte’s war rhetoric evokes previous campaigns against poverty, hunger, diseases and even changes in gender roles. In these cases, “war” is understood as a metaphor that highlights the severity of the problem and calls for decisive actions to mitigate the harm. It also evokes more violent pictures of military or law enforcement initiatives, such as the U.S. “war on drugs” and the global “war on terrorism.” For politicians, war rhetoric is a powerful weapon to demand united struggle against the enemy, though decisions about how the adversary is constructed are often taken behind the scenes.

By escalating the anti-corruption campaign into a war, politicians can manipulate the system to focus attacks against their opponents and facilitate the process of securitization that permits extraordinary measures to address security threats. For instance, researchers argue that the war on terror serves a function of securitizing global terrorism as a significant threat, and therefore the use of drone warfare is justified. Duterte’s “war against corruption” language suggests that corrupt officials are the enemy, and unconventional measures, such as presumptions of guilt, harsher sentencing or even extrajudicial killing, are acceptable. Thus, securitizing corruption potentially undermines rule of law and tends to attribute corruption to individual misconduct rather than institutional failure.

A similar case is Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency, the KPK. Although Indonesia does not use the “war” label, the KPK has increasing power to influence Indonesian politics due to public longing the government to be “clean” or free from corruption. Indonesians praise the KPK every time it makes an arrest, and alleged corrupt officials are subject to public judgment and media attack. The accused needs to prove his/her innocence, as opposed to being presumed innocent until proven guilty, and his/her career and life are often at risk, no matter how the allegation ends. It is a worrying trend that any corruption allegation could trigger a witch-hunt. This modifies a core question of democracy: “who will watch the watch dogs?” into something different: “what to do when the watchdogs become rabid or out of control?”

Another problem of deploying the war rhetoric is that it ignores the achievement of anti-corruption movement in studying the structural causes of corruption and how to improve governance. Civil society, academics, NGOs and intergovernmental bodies have devoted considerable efforts to researching and developing effective anti-corruption policy initiatives. For example, Transparency International, the leading anti-corruption NGO that publishes the Corruption Perception Index and Global Corruption Barometer, has identified the common forms of corruption in the Philippines: petty and bureaucratic corruption, patronage networks and clientelism, government procurement, money laundering and organized crimes.

However, Duterte’s war on drug-related corruption is unable to fix broader institutional problems, such as flawed government procurement process, campaign finance regulation and corruption in the private sector. Additionally, without addressing the problem of underfunding and deeply-rooted institutional deficiency among the Philippine police, it is almost impossible to stop widespread bribery and extortion by traffic police and other law enforcement officers. Purging or even killing corrupt officers will not automatically lead to an efficient and effective security sector and a good transparent government; an anti-corruption campaign requires long-term investment and commitment to policy reform rather than the manipulation of populism, nor the war rhetoric that fuels violence.

People hate corruption and often welcome strong political will and decisive actions to sweep away corruptors. However, do we really need a war on corruption that could undermine rule of law, commit human rights abuses and have no positive influence on improving governance? Duterte’s brutal war on drugs and corruption shows us that the mass killings and incarceration overlook the root causes of drug-related corruption and reinforce the culture of impunity. Corruption will persist as long as poor governance and a lack of accountability remain unaddressed. In this light, we need continuing political commitment, thriving civil society, international cooperation and more innovative policy initiatives to clean both the public and private sectors. This is not a war with an end; it is a constant pursuit of peace, prosperity and good governance.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang


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