Speeches: Remarks at the Good Society and Corruption Conference

As prepared

I would like to thank the Aspen Institute Romania—and particularly Mircea Geoana—for organizing this impressive gathering of policy-makers, business leaders, thinkers, activists and citizens. In unique formats like this that convene all of society’s stakeholders, we can tackle some of the Euro-Atlantic community’s most complex and intractable challenges.

Corruption is one of these challenges. Combating corruption is as difficult as it is important. In the United States, we know this from our own history. We fight every day to live up to the immortal words written in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and as such, all Americans have the self-evident right to equal protection under the law. These ideals are also at the forefront of Romania’s democracy. Romania’s constitution opens with the declaration that this country is “governed by the rule of law, in which human dignity, citizens’ rights and freedoms, the free development of human personality, justice and political pluralism represent supreme values…” These democratic values—preserving and defending rule of law, protecting the right to free media, guaranteeing an independent judiciary and providing a clean, accountable and transparent government—are the basis of our Euro-Atlantic community.

Both Americans and Europeans know the corrosive effects that corruption can have on the ability to deliver the prosperity, security and liberty that our citizens deserve. In Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans—where so much progress has been made in the last 25 years to shore up these common values—corruption remains one of the top obstacles to reaching our dream of completing a Europe whole, free and at peace.

The reasons are simple. Corruption undermines economies, erodes democracies, and threatens security throughout the region. It drains away public resources at a time when every penny is needed to shore up Europe’s economic recovery. Every Euro, Forint, or Leu that is diverted for personal enrichment is one that is not used to help fund hospitals, improve schools, and build roads. Citizens who witness corruption lost faith in their leaders and government. Tax evasion rises. Foreign direct investment is decreases. And many of the most able-bodied and highly-educated workers—doctors, engineers, and scientists—emigrate abroad where their talents are rewarded instead of squandered. Economic growth stagnates or declines. The victims who suffer the most are the most vulnerable. The effects and influence of corruption are so dangerous to economic prosperity that the World Bank has labeled corruption “public enemy number one.”

Now more than ever, we see how corruption threatens not only the economy but security and sovereignty as well. At its worst, corruption hollows out military and border services; allows malevolent coalitions to build across borders in ways that undermine democracy; and enables criminals and hostile states to infiltrate and control strategically important sectors like energy. Today, in view of the crisis in Ukraine, the urgency could not be greater.

So we must ask ourselves: How can we marshal the full force of society, of this unique group of stakeholders—governments, the business community, civil society, the media—in this fight? How can we work together across Europe and Eurasia to root out corruption wherever it hides?

There is no “one size fits all” solution to tackle corruption across the Euro-Atlantic. But one thing is certain: the battle against corruption requires determination of all members of society—from the energy company CEO to the Member of Parliament to the police officer patrolling the night streets. The fight against corruption must rise up locally, build capacity and include citizen “buy-in.” All actors in society must focus on fundamental principles like transparency, rule of law, stable institutions, and efficient courts to enforce democratically promulgated rules. Governments, civil society, business and the media must remain vigilant responsible authorities, including police, prosecutors, and judges implement the law effectively, aggressively and impartially and enforce the principle that no one is above the law.

Our host today, Romania is a good example of a country where the development of strong, independent and impartial judicial institutions, especially organizations like the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, the Supreme Court and the National Integrity Agency, are having a strong, positive effect on rule of law. These institutions have been remarkable in their efforts and need to continue to be resourced, respected, and insulated from outside influence. Romania is poised to advance even further, as it considers ways to ensure full accountability of its elected and government officials and improves the transparency of its legislative procedures—something we are helping with through initiatives like yesterday’s Regulatory Impact Assessment Workshop, which the U.S. Government organized supported with the Romanian Government.

The United States stands ready to partner with those in Europe and Eurasia looking to strengthen public institutions, bolster rule of law, and improve the quality of governance. We are identifying the most damaging forms of corruption across the region and the best weapons to fight them. By doing this, we can establish best practices and apply them where corruption festers. Across the region, the United States is working to bring together coalitions of like-minded actors from business, civil society and leaders from the next generation. We are offering legal and technical assistance best suited to local conditions. And we are raising expectations and testing governments that their commitments to clean governance aren’t just about words, but actions.

Looking regionally, we are supporting initiatives like the South Eastern European Law Enforcement Center (SELEC) here in Bucharest and OECD Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the CEELI Institute’s Judicial Integrity Network to provide training and build networks among practitioners and enhance coordination. We are championing the Open Government Partnership and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; and advocating that all European states fully implement the UN’s Convention against Corruption.

The United States and the EU are also working together to tackle this transnational challenge. Both sides of the Atlantic have done much. We’ve passed legislation to compel companies to publicly disclose the payments they make to governments in extractive industries such as oil, gas, and minerals, sectors that are particularly vulnerable to corruption. We are working to guarantee that our aid and technical assistance programs in places like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Balkans emphasize public accountability and responsiveness. We have collaborated closely to build the international architecture to recover proceeds of corruption that kleptocrats stow abroad, through initiatives such as the Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery. But we can do more. For example, we should look at how to use the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and other trade agreements to promote anti-corruption measures and cleaner governance.

As Vice President Biden stated here in Bucharest a couple of months ago: “In the 21st century, the countries that will thrive will be the ones where citizens know their voices are heard because the institutions are transparent.” If we empower those fighting for transparency and accountability with the tools and initiatives to take the fight into their own hands; if we dedicate the political will necessary to wage this fight; if we guarantee the highest standard of governance; then I am confident that the countries of this region and beyond can reach their full potential. Together we can open the next chapter of prosperity, security and human dignity for all our citizens. Thank you.

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