Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
December 11, 2023
Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much, Lisa, for welcoming us all to Atlanta. I didn’t expect the cold, as I suspect that many in the audience are experiencing right now, but I did expect the warm welcome, so thank you so much. And I also want to thank Executive Director Waly and the entire UNODC team for bringing us together and for all that they do, every single day, to unite the world against corruption. Last but definitely not least, can we give another round of applause to the Newton High School Marching Band? [Applause.]
They sounded fantastic. It kind of brought to my mind the days when I was in high school, and I was in a marching band. And I played the French horn. But there’re a few of us in the marching band who only marched and carried our instruments. And I was one of those, because I could barely get a sound out of that French horn, but I noticed that all of these young people were actively engaged in the performance, and they were really extraordinary. The sound was fantastic. They woke you all up, just in time for my speech. I should have them follow me around every time I do a speech. [Laughter.]
On behalf of President Biden, it really is my privilege to welcome you to the 10th Session of the Conference of the States Parties to the UN Convention against Corruption. Here this week, we have delegations from every corner of the globe. We have an unprecedented number of anti-corruption experts from civil society and the private sector. It is a true testament to the importance – and the urgency – of our work.
This week, we celebrate two [key] moments in history: the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention against Corruption. And the 75th anniversary the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These two foundational documents are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing.
When we advance good governance, accountability, and transparency, we advance human rights, fundamental freedoms, and peace. But the opposite is also true – when we allow corruption to go unchecked, we create a culture of impunity that allows human rights violations to go unpunished.
Corruption is a cancer that metastasizes; that weakness every pillar of society; that fuels extortion and discrimination; that subverts democracy and the rule of law, and denies people their rights and freedoms and their futures; that steals funds from essential government services, and can even keep students from continuing their education, pursuing their ambitions and their dreams, particularly in developing countries, where families are sometimes forced to bribe local officials to get their kids into school.
We know corruption has the most dire consequences for the most vulnerable: women and children, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQI+ community, the poor, and the underserved; the people who most need our help and support, but who often feel that, no matter how hard they work, the system is rigged against them, who see democracy as ineffective, the justice system as inaccessible.
And here’s what is really, really dangerous: when leaders fail to take on corrupt actors and corrupt systems, they open the door to instability and conflict. When you look at Transparency International’s CPI Index, many of the countries with the highest levels of corruption, including Libya, Sudan, the DRC, and Yemen, are in the throes of conflict. This is not a coincidence, and it should set off alarm bells for us all.
This is one of many reasons the United States has made anti-corruption a centerpiece of our foreign policy. Two years ago this week, President Biden released the first-ever U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption. And today, I want to discuss four key ways we are working to live up to our commitments.
First, I am proud to announce that, just this morning, President Biden issued a Presidential Proclamation that will expand Secretary Blinken’s authority to restrict entry into the United States for those who enable corruption. This is a bold step forward, and one that will allow us to advance justice and accountability.
Second, in our Fiscal Year 2022 budget, the United States is providing $252 million in foreign assistance to counter corruption, including at least $10 million for regional anti-corruption hubs that strengthen UNCAC implementation. This year alone, we supported the launch of a new UNODC hub in Colombia, Kenya, and Thailand.
Third, the United States will continue to promote financial transparency and integrity, particularly in sectors at high risk of corruption, including government procurement. Opaque corporate structures allow bad actors to facilitate money laundering and other criminal offenses with impunity at the expense of everyone else.
Listen, I won’t shy away from the fact that this also happens in the United States. So, we have a responsibility to root out this kind of corruption. And starting on January 1st, 2024, many American companies will be required to report their true beneficial owners to the Department of Treasury.
The United States will also continue to expand cooperation between law enforcement authorities to recover and return stolen assets and ensure transparent and accountable use of these funds. Since 2010, we have worked closely with international partners to return over $1.6 billion in stolen assets. And later this week, we will share details about additional confiscated assets that will be returned to Malaysia and other countries.
Finally, our administration is developing a suite of legislative proposals that would strengthen law enforcement and visa authorities for pursuing anti-corruption cases, which we will soon share with Congress.
And you’ll notice, the three steps I just outlined are about going after bad actors. But our approach to anti-corruption is also about empowering good actors like the journalists who expose injustice, often at great personal risk, who need and deserve full protection.
This past year, the United States launched the Reporters Shield program, which works to counter the sharp increase in libel, defamation, and meritless lawsuits meant to silence independent media outlets and civil society organizations. And we continue to support journalists and civil society through the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium. I’m proud that 1,000 participants from civil society and the private sector are here this week – more than three times the number that have participated in previous conferences.
And this week, the United States held a groundbreaking Young Changemakers event, celebrating the role that young people play in countering corruption. Let’s give it up for young leaders here this week. [Applause.]
Alongside this year’s conference, we also held the first-ever Anti-Corruption Civil Society Forum, where we honored courageous activists from around the world, including Minister of Justice Veronica Mihailov-Moraru, a former public defender from Moldova, who saw the corrosive impact corruption had on her country’s justice system. She rolled up her sleeves and secured key reforms. Last week, in Washington, Secretary Blinken honored Veronica and 10 other anti-corruption champions who have fought for transparency and justice.
Today, I also want to recognize the public officials, at all levels of government, who are doing the right thing. Leaders like Bernardo Arévalo, Guatemala’s President-elect, who ran on an anti-corruption platform. Arévalo’s win seems to have sent chills down the spines of some the country’s ruling elite, who have launched a slow motion “judicial coup” to prevent him from taking office.
The United States stands with those who are determined to safeguard democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala. [Applause.] Thank you for that applause. And we are prepared to utilize all available tools against individuals who are determined to undermine the smooth transition of power, including through visa restrictions.
Friends, we are at an inflection point. Twenty years after we adopted the Convention against Corruption, we must celebrate the progress we’ve made together. But we must also own up to our shortcomings. After all, like any treaty, the Convention against Corruption is only as impactful as its implementation. So, we must take action at the national level to ensure our laws align with our stated commitments.
And make no mistake: our international institutions, including the United Nations, also have work to do. The UN must have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse; procurement fraud; bribery and kickbacks; conflicts of interest; and fraudulent invoicing. The UN’s credibility, and effectiveness, depends on this.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. Actually, it’s a story. And it’s one that I’ve never shared publicly. It’s a story about keeping ourselves honest as individuals. Because all of us at one time or another have seen what corruption looks like up close. And I know I have.
So, this was a long time ago. I won’t tell you how long because I might tell my age. I was in college. And I was working as a summer hire in a state government office – I was responsible for copying documents. So, I wasn’t advising on policy. I wasn’t writing policy. I was the chief, professional copier. People would hand me policy papers and receipts and anything that needed to be copied. And I would run them through the machine, and collate them, and distribute them.
You got to start somewhere. So, that’s where I started. Job wasn’t too difficult. Unless the copier broke down at a critical moment. And that happened all the time. And so, my manager asked me to look into switching to a different company’s machine. Of course, the sales rep who sold us the original copier got wind of this and became really, really worried. So, he invited me to go out to lunch, which was the first warning sign. And after making his best case, he did something that took me by surprise. He offered me a bribe. He said that if I promised to quietly call him when the copy machine broke and didn’t alert my manager, he would send me a $100 a month. Now, that doesn’t seem like a lot to all of you guys, but to a college student who came from humble means, it was a lot of money.
But honestly, no amount of money would have won me over. And here’s why: it was wrong. It was wrong. At the end of the day, everything we’re doing here – whether its resisting cash bribes made over lunch or rooting out grift at the highest levels of government – boils down to the simple truth: corruption is wrong. It’s wrong to its core.
But here’s the good news: while corruption is a cancer, it is also a treatable cancer. The Convention against Corruption has given us the framework we need to take on this national and transnational threat. And so, it’s on us. It’s on us to make the next 20 years more just, accountable, and transparent. And by doing so, we can advance the prosperity, the dignity, the human rights of all people. And we can advance peace and security around the world.
Thank you and have a great rest of the Conference. [Applause.]