The worldwide fight against corruption has focused on corruption within countries. In Canada, a long-running scandal involving the diversion of public money to party-affiliated public-relations firms has contributed to an early election in the middle of a Canadian winter and led to a significant drop in support for the ruling Liberal Party.
In India, the federal parliament has taken the unprecedented step of expelling 11 legislators for having taken cash in order to raise questions in parliament (the incident came to light as a result of an investigative journalistic scam, with the 11 being filmed on camera). In the United States, the guilty plea by lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be a prelude to one of the biggest congressional corruption scandals in decades.
The list could go on, with comparable examples from around the world. And if governments engage in questionable activities or outright corruption, we should not be surprised that international organizations made up mainly of governments should also be caught in compromising activities.
The United Nations is more than an international bureaucracy and an intergovernmental forum. It is the symbol of an imagined and constructed community of strangers who have banded together to tackle the world's problems collectively and to work together co-operatively in the pursuit of shared goals. Values are central to the UN's identity and must inform all of its activities and operations. That is why allegations of corruption, fraud or sexual misconduct by UN personnel are so damaging. More than an abuse of power, they constitute a failure to use the power to advance the values the UN stands for and imperil its legitimacy.
This highlights the importance of going beyond the negative goal of curbing corruption to the linked but positive goal of promoting "integrity." Corruption is the abuse of public power for personal or political gain; integrity is the use of public power for officially validated and publicly justified purposes.
When a corruption scandal strikes, the most common responses are to punish and dismiss the perpetrators, toughen laws, and promote institutional reforms to make wrongdoing more difficult and detection more likely.
Good governance systems rely on a combination of these approaches. Finding out how such "integrity systems" work at a national and provincial level and how they can be improved has generated much international interest and produced pioneering work on "national integrity-systems assessments" by the Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law (IEGL, a joint initiative of the UN University in Tokyo and Griffith University in Brisbane) in partnership with Transparency International.
The key insight is that the answer to the linked issues of curbing corruption and promoting integrity does not lie in any single law or institution, no matter how powerful. Indeed, a single powerful institution can be a threat in itself. Rather, the solution lies in the institutionalization of integrity through a number of agencies, laws, practices and codes that are mutually supportive in promoting integrity but can check those individuals and agencies who abuse or misdirect their power. Effective integrity systems involve ethical standard-setting (including detailed codes for public agencies), legal regulation, and institutional supports (including legislative oversight, an independent and effective judiciary, independent prosecutors, well-resourced watchdogs such as auditors-general and ombudsmen, and a free press).
Regardless of the results in Ottawa on Monday, the new government, if it is to restore public trust in the integrity of the Canadian political process, should consider a national integrity-systems assessment. For the UN, the Volcker report offers a start, not an end. Reforms under way include a stronger remit for the internal oversight office, whistle-blower protection for UN employees bringing instances of corruption to light, and the creation of an ethics office.
There might be a case for a UN integrity-systems assessment building on the above-mentioned work - analyzing the UN "integrity system," how it operates, what its weaknesses are and how the integrity system can be improved. Such an assessment could start with the UN headquarters in New York but ultimately needs to examine the relational powers and roles of the different major political organs: the Security Council, the General Assembly and the other organs of the UN system, including its wide array of funds, programs and specialized agencies. Building on Kofi Annan's reforms, the next secretary-general will need to champion changes to the UN integrity system so that good leadership can be effective in furthering the values the UN stands for.
Ramesh Thakur is senior vice-rector of the UN University in Tokyo. Charles Sampford is director of IEGL and Foundation Professor of Law at Griffith University in Brisbane. These are their personal views.