The Devastating Humanitarian Toll of Corruption: The Declaration of Human Rights Reaches 70

By Frank Vogl

Corruption – the abuse of public office for private gain – rages across most countries and for every crime of corruption there is a victim – now the number of victims is multiplying.

This should not have been the case – following World War Two we were promised a better world. After the suffering of tens of millions of people in two world wars, the leaders of the new United Nations felt compelled on December 10, 1948, to ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the most important public statement made in my lifetime. It is an aspirational document that calls on the governments of all to do good.

As we approach the 70thanniversary of that U.N. action we need to be still bolder in recognizing that its objectives have been insufficiently attained. Yes, more people have been lifted out of poverty in these last 70 years than in all of history. Yes, more people in more countries than ever before participate in elections, enjoy freedom of speech and assembly. And, it is also true that more people currently enjoy greater wealth than could previously have been imagined.

The Declaration begins (Article 1): “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

But hundreds of millions of people now are being robbed of their dignity and self-respect. Not because of natural disasters, but because of the criminal actions of predators. Instead of brotherhood, we find ourselves in our own countries in the midst of bitter confrontational political divides, we fear terrorist attacks, and we are acutely aware that violence takes a vast daily toll.

The UN Declaration notes that (Article 3): “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” And, (Article 6): “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” And, (Article 7) “All are equal before the law…” But there are few countries where this is the case.

Around 25 million people, mostly women and children, are the victims of human trafficking. Many are slaves. They are treated as the private property of criminal organizations. They have no rights. They have no recourse to the law. Large numbers of young women in many countries are repeatedly subjected to sexual extortion – they live in countries where they risk even greater danger by going public, by seeking legal redress, or by even recounting their experiences within their own families.

In most countries money influences the legal system, providing the opportunity for those with means to engage the most successful lawyers to work the system, while the poor must hurl themselves on the mercy of the court – the scale of incarceration in scores of countries shows that the courts are not merciful to those who neither enjoy power, nor have the means to exert influence.

The most powerful nations on the planet, each with a seat in the UN Security Council, lock up the most people: about 2.3 million in the United States; about 1.6 million in China; and over 590,000 in Russia.

The UN Declaration stresses (Article 13): “1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. 2. Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country.” And (Article 14): “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution in their own country.”

But today the very opposite is abundant, from the horror of drowning migrants turned away from southern Mediterranean shores, to the nightmares of parents whose children are snatched from them on the southern border of the United States. The tens of millions of refugees today have left their homes because of violence and threats of violence. But today’s refugees are not welcome. Their rights to asylum are ignored. They are punished because they have sought to save their own lives and those of their families.

The governments of the most powerful and wealthiest nations have not done nearly enough to address the root causes of the refugee crises that mount daily from the borders of Myanmar, Syria, Congo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Central America, Venezuela and many more countries. Today’s crises are not only devastating the lives of the victims, but disrupting national politics in many ugly ways in many nations. The failure to resolve these crises may contribute to the destruction of several democracies.

And, the UN Declaration underscores that (Article 25): “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” And, (Article 26) “Everyone has the right to education.”

Yet, in a number of African countries, including Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, as well as Yemen in the Middle East, a total of more than 20 million people now face death from starvation. This is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two. It is not a crisis created by natural disasters, but by the greed and the violence of government leaders and their armies. And there is every indication that coming years may see the total continue to rise, irrespective of the fact that 70 years ago the leaders of the world gathered in New York to jointly sign a document that pledged to create a better world.

Corruption contributes to many of the critical conditions described in this article. It is not always the prime cause, but it is constantly present. Only fundamental changes in understanding and public policy can reverse today’s bitter trends and open the doors to brighter prospects of ensuring, as explicit in the Declaration of Human Rights, that every person on this planet can live a life of dignity.

Frank Vogl is an adjunct lecturer teaching a course on ‘Corruption, Conflict and Security.’ He is the co-founder of both Transparency International and the Partnership for Transparency Fund, and the author of “Waging War on Corruption – Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power”(paperback 2016, Roman & Littlefield).