Editor’s Note: Nikki Haley is the United States ambassador to the United Nations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On December 17, 2010, one young man took a stand against corruption, and changed the course of history. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest the harassment he faced from government officials, who confiscated his products and kept him from making a living.
Bouazizi’s tragic act of desperation touched a deep chord. People were fed up living under a dictator who treated his country’s treasury like his own personal bank account. A month later, Tunisia had risen up, and the reign of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was over. Shortly thereafter, protests broke out across the Middle East, and the Arab Spring had begun.
All too often, we think of corruption as a low-level problem – like the cop that demands a bribe to let someone off, or the bureaucrat who demands an extra “tip” before granting a permit.
But corruption goes far beyond a few individual bad actors. In too many places, the state exists mostly to enrich the ruler and a tiny circle of cronies at the top. When that happens, just like Tunisia in 2010, the effects can be dramatic.
Regimes that appeared stable can suddenly crumble when corruption fuels popular uprisings. That was true for Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, who stole billions of dollars before the people declared enough was enough. The same sentiment toppled regimes in Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
In all of these cases, protests took the world by surprise. They grew faster and had far more powerful consequences than anyone expected.
In other places, corruption allows extremist groups to expand and find new recruits. Boko Haram, a terrorist organization that has committed unspeakable atrocities, especially against women and children, began in part because of popular frustration against widespread corruption in Nigeria. The Taliban have exploited similar frustrations in Afghanistan. Both countries have made important strides against corruption, but once again, corruption was a key factor contributing to violence.
The scale and sophistication of these corrupt networks is staggering. South Sudan is one of the world’s poorest countries, where the government has completely failed its people. I visited South Sudan and met with some of the victims of the country’s horrific civil war. I heard from mothers who had been raped by soldiers, and even from children who had been forced at gunpoint to murder their parents. The war in South Sudan has displaced 1.7 million people and caused nearly 2.5 million people to flee the country.
Amid all this suffering, you might wonder how the government gets the money to pay all these troops and keep the war going. Once again, it comes back to corruption.
According to a detailed report from The Sentry, a groundbreaking initiative to track the money that funds atrocities in Africa, South Sudan’s leaders misuse the nation’s oil to fund this barbaric violence. One document showed that the government’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mining spent more than $80 million to pay off politicians and military leaders involved in the war. This money flowed straight to militias that carried out atrocities on the ground.
The pattern is plain for anyone to see. Corruption spurs revolutions, enables extremist groups and fuels civil wars. Combating corruption is not just about good governance, it’s about maintaining peace and security.
When people come together to protest corruption in their countries, we need to pay special attention. That’s because as we have seen, the ramifications can be vast, and change can come faster than anyone expected.
Consider what is happening in Iran, Venezuela and Nicaragua today. In all three countries, people have taken to the streets to condemn their leaders’ squandering of resources that should belong to the people.
The officials who run Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also run their own businesses, abusing their official positions to enrich themselves. In Venezuela, cronies of President Maduro systematically loot their country’s oil wealth, depriving ordinary Venezuelans of the most basic food and medicine. In Nicaragua, students infuriated with abuses of power committed by President Daniel Ortega have spent months standing up to demand change. Corruption is the driving force that is bringing people out into the streets.
The United States is determined to shine a spotlight on these connections between corruption and international peace and security. On September 10, as part of the US presidency of the UN Security Council, I will convene the first-ever Security Council meeting that will focus on corruption and its consequences for conflict around the world. Later that day, I will also convene a meeting dedicated to corruption in Venezuela, where Security Council members will hear firsthand about how Venezuela’s leaders have profited at the expense of their people.
Corruption isn’t an easy subject to bring to the UN. For self-protecting reasons, many governments would prefer not to discuss it. But as a country that leads the way in uncovering corrupt networks and holding those responsible to account, we want to ensure this issue gets the attention it deserves. The sooner we recognize that corruption and insecurity go hand in hand, the more effective we will be both at ending conflict and stopping it before violence breaks out in the first place.