On Thursday 12th May, Prime Minister David Cameron will host the Anti-Corruption Summit in London. On Wednesday 11th May the Commonwealth will host its own anti-corruption conference, with the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari among those attending both events. The conferences come just weeks after the Panama Papers – an unprecedented leak of over 11 million files from an offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca – sent shockwaves around the world. The Panama Papers revealed the ways in which companies and individuals, including 12 national leaders, take advantage of offshore tax regimes. The most high profile consequence of the leak so far has been the resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister, although Cameron faced an intense period of questioning surrounding his late father’s use of an offshore investment.
The most important revelation from the Panama Papers – and what makes the situation more complicated – is that much of the activity the leaks show is legal, and with creative accounting companies and individuals have been able to avoid financial transparency or paying vast amounts of taxes. This is particularly concerning in the cases involving poor states, especially those in Africa as highlighted by articles at the Overseas Development Institute and African Arguments. Resource-rich African countries have missed out on billions of dollars with money being funnelled – legally and illegally – away from the continent.
The Panama Papers revealed what many commentators have long known – corruption is a global phenomenon. However, the offshore centres reveal the Commonwealth dimension to the problem: African member states may be suffering heavily, but on the other hand, several member states are home to a number of the financial institutions where money moves around. Furthermore, the UK itself is being held partially responsible for the continued existence of these tax havens.
While the issue of financial transparency is an important one, new information released by the Commonwealth highlights the institution’s focus on a number of different anti-corruption measures. These include legal and technical guidance, reducing corruption in the public sector and governance and championing transparency and integrity in natural resources and sport respectively. While much of this work has been ongoing for a number of years, the global focus on anti-corruption and release of the Panama Papers mean it is imperative for the Commonwealth – and indeed for General Secretary Baroness Patricia Scotland – to demonstrate exactly how the institution is approaching issues that affect so many member states.
The back-to-back anti-corruption conferences will offer Baroness Scotland an opportunity to begin shaping Commonwealth trajectory. In addition, pursuing this work on the international scene will go some way towards increasing the visibility of the institution, something the former secretary general, Sir Don McKinnon referred to as a necessary development. Alongside a number of media appearances, Baroness Scotland was quoted in an article for The Guardian: ‘The idea is to make it positively advantageous to be a compliant, transparent non-corrupt entity in the Commonwealth.’ Baroness Scotland, like all secretary generals before her, will make her mark on the Commonwealth. Just over a month into her leadership it is clear she plans to take on some of the biggest problems facing member states.