Shifting Anti-Corruption Global Legal Policy: The Case for International Human Rights Law

Corruption is known to undermine democracy, erode the rule of law and hinder human development, inter alia, through the violation of human rights. Yet, recognition of these links has not manged to permeate the international anti-corruption toolkit. Efforts to curb corruption have culminated with the enactment of a few international treaties, amongst which the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) stands out as the only norm with true global reach. Despite its significant membership, UNCAC has often been described as ‘toothless’ for its faulty implementation worldwide. The model it embraces, primarily based on criminal liability, has not been successful in combatting corruption precisely where it is most aggressive and ingrained. This paper sets out to explore whether a shift in global legal policy from a model anchored in criminal law to another based on international human rights law would be desirable for the anti-corruption agenda of highly corrupt countries. Employing a legal external normative approach and a qualitative review of selected reports, our analysis suggests that an anti-corruption framework based on criminal law is ill-suited for the reality of countries where the rule of law is weak or inexistent. It also indicates that international human rights law provides an adequate theoretical basis for the establishment of a direct link between individuals who are most affected by the consequences of corruption and the international legal order. It further sheds light on how a rights-based approach could potentially address the gaps left by the criminal law model. Finally, it engages in an argumentative effort to conceive an individual claims mechanism rooted on the recognition of an emerging (human) right to freedom from corruption in customary international law. Our main contribution to the literature lies in providing a structured argument for how criminal law could never be adequate to satisfactorily address corruption in highly corrupt countries in the first place, and in exploring the feasibility and desirability of a framework underpinned by international human rights law.