The UN Must Combat Authoritarian Power Grabs Under the Guise of Anti-Corruption Campaigns Commentary
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The UN Must Combat Authoritarian Power Grabs Under the Guise of Anti-Corruption Campaigns
Edited by: JURIST Staff

To what extent can the United Nations (UN) prevent and control so-called anti-corruption campaigns that serve only to bolster the power of authoritarian regimes? As authoritarian power spreads, this is an increasingly urgent question. If the UN does not take measures to track and curtail illegitimate anti-corruption campaigns, it is the people whom these campaigns falsely purport to support who stand to suffer the most.

How do authoritarian rulers use anti-corruption campaigns to strengthen their grip on power?

Stated simply, authoritarian rulers want to stay in power. One way that they maintain power is by cultivating corruption with the ultimate aim of consolidating control. In doing so, they create an inner circle in which all members can benefit if they show loyalty. The ruler incentivizes elite and lower-level officials to join the inner circle by offering state resources, financial deals, rents, bribes, or other privileges if they perpetuate the status quo. However, authoritarian rulers sometimes subvert this norm and undertake anti-corruption campaigns as well. Just as authoritarian rulers use corrupt money to reward loyalists, they can use anti-corruption campaigns to discipline dissenters. Moreover, dictators might target only dissenters, even if loyalists also engage in corrupt activities; hence, only the inner circle has the privilege of benefitting from corruption. Curiously, dictators have expressed support for crackdowns on dissent in various countries.

For example, the Chinese and Russian governments have praised Arab dictators’ anti-corruption campaigns for helping to maintain stability in their nations, especially after the failed Arab Spring uprisings. Arab authoritarians used the power of their office(s) to extend their presidential term limits, under the auspices of prioritizing the elimination of government corruption. For instance, The Egyptian president ostensibly fights corruption via a state agency that reports directly to him — the Administrative Control Authority (ACA). The ACA primarily gathers information on administrative and financial violations in government and relays those cases to prosecutors. However, it also has the power to arrest, detain, and interrogate suspects. It investigates and arrests dozens of officials at all levels of government, as well as parts of the public and private sectors that receive state funds.

Notably, the Egyptian ACA does not cover corruption within the military, Egypt’s most powerful institution. In the Middle East, military officers protect their military allies and their economic interests by shielding them from criminal investigations. Moreover, the ACA monitors military-run projects which helps to project an image to the public that the military is free from corruption. However, that is not to say that there are no exceptions more akin to how the Chinese government ousts military officials; the Egyptian regime also uses anti-corruption to maintain influence within the military.

The similarities between the two authoritarian rulers also extend to how the Egyptian government weaponizes anti-corruption against political opponents. Recently, the Middle Eastern regimes targeted several public officials on grounds of corruption, bribery, and profiteering, as well as the squandering of public funds. The ACA arrested them and a criminal court(s) ultimately tried and sentenced them to several years in jail. Although these officials are not clear political rivals to the dictatorial regimes, that these governments ousted them indicates that anti-corruption helps autocrats consolidate power because they are not members of their inner circle.

Consider that Arab leaders can still tout these corruption sentences to the public as victories, particularly those of lesser-known officials, thereby increasing the perceived legitimacy of their regimes. However, it is unclear how many of these victories involve legitimate corruption, particularly given they mostly involve technocrats who are not widely known by the public. Generally speaking, Middle Eastern leaders do not rely on civilian technocrats to run the state, but rather a small inner circle of military aides and security men.

Given this dichotomy, those authoritarians may crack down on these lesser-known civilian bureaucrats to deter them from opposing this rule. Whereas China’s anti-corruption campaign is a force against the allies of predecessors, al-Sisi’s campaign more broadly targets the civilian officials outside his inner circle and may do so even in the absence of corruption.

Using an anti-corruption campaign to target those not guilty of any crime can be termed “illegitimate anti-corruption,” a dangerous weapon and a threat to the rule of law that the international community must be prepared to address.

The Rise of Illegitimate Anti-Corruption

The international community’s adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003 was meant to prevent and control corruption globally. However, since the UNCAC entered into force in 2005, honesty, respect for the rule of law, accountability, and transparency seem to have taken a backseat as authoritarianism gathers strength worldwide — a worrying trend that has carried on over the past three decades.

The UNCAC makes no mention of the use of anti-corruption campaigns by authoritarian regimes as a veil to secure their power rather than uphold values of honesty, respect for the rule of law, accountability, or transparency. Although the urgency to include a provision that addresses this problem may not have existed in 2005 when the UNCAC entered into full effect, the rapid rise of totalitarianism since then presents a new danger.

The international community must enter into a new treaty aimed at tackling illegitimate anti-corruption. And to make this treaty effective, the UN will need to incentivize compliance. For ease, we will refer to this theoretical anti-corruption treaty throughout the rest of this argument as the UN Convention on Authoritarian Illegitimate Anti-Corruption (UNCAIA).

Shārīeā (Islamic) Law as an Incentive Against Illegitimate Anti-Corruption

Given the ubiquity of corruption in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in particular, Islam can play a significant role in incentivizing authoritarians in the Muslim world to willingly relinquish themselves to the UNCAIA.

The UN should include an Islamic code of ethics in the UNCAIA, thereby forcing authoritarians in the Arab world to reckon with their own behavior. If these rulers refuse to sign on to the convention, they must respond to the Muslim populations they serve as to why they have forsaken certain tenets of Islam.

Consider that Muslims believe that God holds people accountable for their actions by punishing them in the next life. God includes acts of corruption as punishable, and corruption is even mentioned in the Qurān several times. The Qurān alludes to corruption as a sin in verse (ArRum, 30:41): “Corruption has spread on land and sea as a result of what people’s hands have done, so that Allāh may cause them to taste the consequences of some of their deeds and perhaps they might return to the Right Path.” The Qurān also explicitly defines instances of corruption as sins in verse (AlBaqarah, 2:188), which states: “Do not consume one’s wealth unjustly, nor deliberately bribe authorities in order to devour a portion of others’ property, knowing that it is a sin.”

Although this verse is a rebuke of certain forms of corruption, not illegitimate anti-corruption, the language can be used in a convention to shame authoritarian rulers who enable members of their inner circle to engage in such practices. The UNCAIA should emphasize that an authoritarian ruler who does not hold their inner circle accountable for corruption imputes the sin of that corruption onto themselves. The Sunnāh (Prophet Mohammad’s traditions/practices), even emphasizes the duty of Muslims to hold others accountable for their actions. In particular, he says: “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.” The UNCAIA can invoke such language to directly emphasize to authoritarians that they must hold members of their inner circle liable for corrupt behavior if they wish to meet the minimum standard of being a pious Muslim. If authoritarian leaders fail to meet this standard, they not only violate international law but more significantly, they violate an Islamic directive from the Prophet himself. The UN should try to use an Islamic code of morals in a new international convention to dissuade authoritarians in the Muslim world from engaging in illegitimate anti-corruption.

Illegitimate Anti-corruption Index, UN Sanctions, and ICC Trials

Undoubtedly, the Islamic argument will likely not change the behavior of all authoritarian rulers in the MENA region, let alone those outside the Muslim world. Unless the UN takes action to reveal how these authoritarians exploit anti-corruption, it will remain complicit in the rise of dictatorship. Thus, it is highly recommended (I propose) that in cases where global corruption takes place, the UN must require members to agree to international investigations to verify that actual corruption exists. If the UN gathers these data, it can share the data with an organization like Transparency International (TI), which already maintains a global corruption perceptions index. TI can use the data to establish a new Illegitimate Anti-corruption Index which similarly scores countries based on the legitimacy of their anti-corruption campaigns. Although the UN may not have the power to directly stop military and political purges under the veil of anti-corruption, the UN and nation-states on their own can rely on the index to punish countries that engage in illegitimate anti-corruption. By doing so, the international community may apply pressure such that authoritarians hesitate to use anti-corruption campaigns as a means of maintaining power. In particular, the UN has increasingly used targeted sanctions to protect civilians and support democracy. Targeted sanctions focus measures on leaders, decision-makers, and their principal supporters, rather than the general population, or focus on a single sector, rather than the entire economy. Without sanctions and other punishments, the international community will be complicit in maintaining the status quo. Authoritarian rulers can continue to imprison opponents on false corruption claims while simultaneously strengthening their position of power within their respective regimes.

However, even sanctions may be insufficient if illegitimate anti-corruption rises to the level of a “crime against humanity” as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Authoritarian rulers are subject to the jurisdiction of the ICC — even if their countries are not parties to the Statute — if the UN Security Council refers them to the ICC Prosecutor. Much of the MENA region, including Egypt, are UN member states and thus can be subject to the ICC’s jurisdiction. Illegitimate anti-corruption may be a crime against humanity because it can involve “imprisonment” or “persecution against an identifiable group or collectively on political…grounds.” Here, the “identifiable group” could be the allies of authoritarian rulers’ political rivals who did not commit any legitimate act of corruption. The ICC Prosecutor, after initiating an investigation, can issue an arrest warrant for an authoritarian ruler who engages in illegitimate anti-corruption. Unfortunately, the number of authoritarian rulers who can appear before the ICC will be limited because State Parties to the Statute have the burden of arresting the authoritarian ruler and extraditing them to the ICC. However, if the ICC finds an authoritarian ruler guilty following a trial, the leader faces up to 30 years in prison, or a life sentence if the ICC finds the illegitimate anti-corruption campaign to be sufficiently grave. Although a precedent has yet to be established, one might imagine that mass imprisonment or forced labor of political rivals and their loyalists would increase the sentence of imprisonment. More importantly, however, is that if the ICC and UN collaborate to hold authoritarian rulers accountable for illegitimate anti-corruption, they will send a strong message to dictators that they cannot circumvent international law norms.

Global Implications of Illegitimate Anti-corruption

Anti-corruption campaigns led by authoritarian rulers should make us skeptical, not only of the legitimacy of the campaigns in any one country but also of how we understand the function of anti-corruption campaigns in general. First, if we only look at individuals who are targeted by campaigns because of their alleged corrupt activities, we may miss that their position within the military or civilian bureaucracy is what truly motivates authoritarian rulers to target them. Legal scholars and political scientists might consider tracking individuals whose anti-corruption campaigns in China, Egypt, or elsewhere probe to further determine if there is a strong correlation between the factions of authoritarian rulers and the factions of those they target. Second, if the UN misunderstands a fundamental need for not just tracking corruption, but also tracking anti-corruption, authoritarian rulers will continue to unleash anti-corruption campaigns onto those who are innocent. Finally, if the UN fails to consider who is conducting anti-corruption campaigns, they will also fail the people living under authoritarian regimes and those most in need of democratic liberation. In other words, an alarm should ring in the minds of the international community any time an authoritarian ruler appears to endorse anti-corruption efforts in their own country. It will be a rare sight when a ruler enabled by a system of corruption willingly turns his back on that system. Unless, of course, he can do so in a way that feeds his hunger for even more power.


Mohamed Arafa, LL.M., SJD, is a Professor of Law at the Alexandria University Faculty of Law (Egypt) and an Adjunct Professor of Law and the Clarke Initiative Visiting Scholar at Cornell Law School. Currently, he serves as a Visitor–in–Law and the ELEOS Justice Visiting Scholar at Monash Law School (Australia)

Suggested citation: Mohamed ‘Arafa, The UN Must Combat Authoritarian Power Grabs Under the Guise of Anti-Corruption Campaigns, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 13, 2023,

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