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An epiphany at the Brookings Institution’s World Forum on Governance

I would hope that all of us have those moments when the course of our life pivots, and we suddenly find ourselves moving forward in a wonderfully new direction. Whether professional or personal, whether big and dramatic or small and subtle, these moments do much to define us. One of mine recently came at the Brookings Institution’s World Forum on Governance

The forum brings together political and corporate governance experts from around the world, including representatives from government and civil society, institutional investors, members of the business community and the media. It first convened in November 2011, then in December 2012, and again this month, each year in Prague.

I had the privilege of presenting an idea that remains in the formative stages: that we should understand freedom from corruption as a fundamental human right. I had written about it here and blogged about it here but knew that I had not yet uncovered its full power. It turned out that someone else would do it for me.

I explained to the audience that rights talk and corruption talk are today largely separate:the rights covenants don’t mention corruption, and the corruption covenants don’t posit a new right. We explored philosophical justifications, whether the strong Lockean theory of rights or the structural equivalents in cross-cultural traditions of thought. And we discussed the idea’s potential to refocus anti-bribery enforcement on the true victims – the citizens of developing countries whose governments are corrupted — and not merely on the perpetrators’ corporate governance failings.

But then an official from the Czech Republic spoke up. She explained that the idea has a greater impact. If corruption is a rights violation, then no matter how common, pervasive, or supposedly “cultural” it may be, it is wrong. It is contrary to the first principles of governance. Under a rights theory, whether governments try to curtail corruption is utterly irrelevant to whether they ought to do so. We do not let governments define our rights; our rights exist irrespective of what governments may or may not do. All citizens, in all countries, have this right.  Even if their culture widely ignores it. Even if their government routinely violates it.

That’s what I was trying to say.

And so I am reminded that the life of the mind is not solipsistic. It is collective, communal. The best ideas find their full life in synergy. The marketplace of ideas may yet exist, in the FCPA Blog, in the World Forum on Governance, and beyond. The anti-corruption space is a wonderful reminder that the marketplace transcends state and culture. Much like the right to be free of corruption.

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Andy Spalding is a senior editor of the FCPA Blog. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. He can be contacted here.

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