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Corruption blew the lid off North Africa

By Huguette Labelle, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Huguette Labelle: Vibrant civil society keeps governmental corruption at bay
  • When people take to the streets, corruption often their top grievance, Labelle says
  • Research shows given the chance, people will stand up to corruption, she writes
  • Labelle: Access to information, whistleblower protection, anti-fraud laws needed

Editor's note: Huguette Labelle is the chair of Transparency International, a global civil society organization that fights corruption.

(CNN) -- When people take to the streets to protest against their governments, the list of grievances is usually long and complex, but corruption is always at the top.

We see this now in the wave of protests spreading across Tunisia and Egypt. We saw it in Ivory Coast where stolen elections threaten a return to civil war. We saw it in Haiti where years of corruption have taken their toll. And the list can go on around the world.

But to be free of corruption, people need leaders who act with integrity and transparency; leaders who are responsive to the needs of all citizens so that the management of public goods benefits everyone not just the elites.

Independent oversight institutions and a vibrant civil society play a key role in holding governments to account. In many parts of the world, both are lacking.

The protests we are witnessing now are in countries where democracy is weak or nonexistent and civil society has a muted voice. People fear repression if they speak out. Anti-corruption and other activists are limited by legal restrictions and, as we have seen, often subjected to government harassment and intimidation.

Not surprisingly, on January 27, when 2,200 Arab academics, politicians and activists from more than 20 Arab countries issued the Casablanca Call to protect human rights and democracy, they demanded civil society organizations be allowed "to perform their advocacy roles freely and effectively."

So far, 148 countries have ratified the U.N. Convention Against Corruption, which outlines a comprehensive anti-corruption framework.

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This includes a commitment to implement access to information and whistleblower-protection legislation. It also requires laws to prevent money laundering and mechanisms to identify and return stolen assets.

Unfortunately, in many countries it is largely disregarded.

In November, the Group of 20 said it would lead by example and called on all its members to implement the U.N. Convention Against Corruption as part of its Anti-Corruption Action Plan. At Transparency International, we welcomed this strong statement and are following its implementation across the globe.

That is a role that civil society can and should play. Independent assessment of government provides an important check on power. It is a foundation stone of a strong democracy.

Clearly, it would be naïve to assume that just giving people a greater say in government will end official corruption overnight, but it is an important, necessary starting point.

Our latest research shows that given the chance, ordinary people will stand up to corruption. Two-thirds of the 91,000 people questioned in 86 countries for our 2010 Global Corruption Barometer said they would support their friends or colleagues if they fought against corruption.

Today, people see freedom from corruption as a basic human right. They are right to do so. No one should have to live under a regime where corruption is endemic.

For Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, corruption defeated hope, and he set himself alight, becoming the catalyst to the protests that are holding the world's attention. The image of his family throwing coins at the local government office gate, money he was allegedly asked to pay as a bribe, is a poignant reminder that corruption kills.

What followed took the world by surprise. It should not have. Nor should the scenes of people filling the streets to protest against their governments, demanding greater accountability and an end to corruption.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Huguette Labelle.

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