Why Not an Honesty International?

JONATHAN POWER

October 09, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- After Amnesty International, why not Honesty International, a group of citizens like you and me, to monitor those who are corrupt, whom they, in turn, corrupt, and the banks which hide the proceeds?

Corruption has probably never been so rife in so many places. The voters and parliamentarians of Brazil have just unseated their president, Fernando Collor de Mello, because his own brother, not for the best of motives, blew the whistle on how the president took bribes from businessmen seeking government contracts.

The scandal over the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the greatest bank swindle of all time, is now swirling around the austere porticos of the Bank of England. Why did it keep the lid on what it knew for so long, allowing hundreds of thousands of ordinary depositors to lose most of their life savings?

Was it, as is now being alleged, because some Bank of England officials were given bribes of suitcases stuffed with $100 bills, or was it, as others suggest, out of too high regard for the security services of Britain and the U.S., which used the bank as a convenient spy point to watch the financial transactions of the drug barons? But then, if the latter, surely the British and U.S. governments have a moral responsibility to give full compensation to the ordinary savers?

Senator John Kerry has just blown a whistle, but after most of the BCCI train has gone. His 800-page Senate report is a damning indictment of both the Bank of England and the international accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, who were paid to watch but did not see.

In Japan the powerful supremo of the smoke-filled rooms of the governing Liberal Party, Shin Kanemaru, last week was fined a derisory 200,000 yen (about $1,700), not much more than a parking ticket in parts of Tokyo, for channeling an illicit $4 million (probably from Japan's gangsters) to his political faction.

Would the old-time voters of America, Britain and Japan be as passionate about probity as the relatively newly enfranchised Brazilians!

Until that starts to happen, we are in dire need of a new citizens' group, with affiliates all over the world, that would monitor the corruption scene and blow the whistle whenever it has a suspicion that something untoward is afoot -- in a company, bank, parliament, even in the presidential palace.

Amnesty International, which has taken human rights out of the bottom drawer and put it on the front desk, is nothing more than groups of students, housewives, lawyers -- people of nearly every walk of life, running small groups in this town and that, in Canada, Pakistan, America, Thailand -- in 68 countries around the world. All they do is take a list of political prisoners provided by headquarters and badger, by letter and fax, the authorities in the country concerned, until the torture and rough treatment stops and, better still, until the prisoner is released.

Headquarters is an obscure building in London. Only 30 years ago it housed one man and a secretary. Today a couple of hundred hard-driven, poorly paid, rather young people, mainly women, work there, combing the newspapers, sitting on the phone, writing hundreds of letters every week in search of tiny slices of information. Thus they assemble the facts, usually devastatingly accurate, to make their accusatory press releases and the prisoner lists for their local groups of unpaid agitators.

Imagine an Honesty International. To get off the ground it needs only a small office, a fax and phone -- somewhere for people to call when they know something, and where they can expect their confidences to be kept.

Wouldn't some junior accountant in Price Waterhouse, troubled by the BCCI's bookkeeping, have made such a call? Or a doubting financial adviser to Robert Maxwell? Or a board member of Sweden's arms manufacturer, Bofors, who couldn't sleep at night because he feared there was a connection between the bribes Bofors paid to top Indian politicians and the murder of Sweden's prime minister, Olof Palme? Or the Atlanta lawyers who knew how the Bush administration funneled agricultural loans to Saddam Hussein's war machine but were (and still are) being heavily leaned on by Washington to keep quiet?

The list grows all the time, and there's enough evidence to persuade one that big-time corruption is more epidemic today than it was a generation ago.

Prof. Paul Streeten of Boston University and the former finance minister of Pakistan, Mahbub ul Haq, who first suggested the idea of an Honesty International in a United Nations report, argue that it should be supplemented by a world-wide newspaper effort to use the best investigative reporters to zero in on common targets. It would mean 50 of the world's top papers pooling their resources and reporters to go after scams that these days depend on world-wide networks, usually beyond the reach of a single national newspaper. ''Just the existence of such a body,'' says Dr. Haq ''would send shivers down the spines of those who are corrupt.''

Corruption, Dr. Haq reckons, is a $200-billion-a-year business. It is a cancer on civil society the world over. If the authorities are too careless or indifferent, then isn't it up to us, the people, to say, as they've just done in Brazil, enough is enough?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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