By Sean Buchanan
LONDON (IDN) – As governments across the globe crack down on citizen groups, stifling their ability to speak out and hold governments to account, the role of civil society is more important now than ever.
With his in mind, activists from more than 600 civil society organisations and more than 45 countries worldwide gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from August 6 to 7 for the sixth annual Civil 20 summit. The meeting came at a critical time prior to the meeting of the Group of Twenty (G20) in November.
Civil 20 (C20) is one of the seven engagement groups of the G20, conceived as an instrument through which civil society organisations (CSOs) from different parts of the world can contribute in a structured and sustained manner to the G20, thus ensuring that world leaders listen not only to the voices representing the governmental and business sectors, but also to the proposals and demands of civil society as a whole.
Hosted by Poder Ciudadano, the Argentina chapter of Transparency International – the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption – the summit had a simple, yet critical goal: amplify the voice of civil society to ensure G20 leaders make good on their promises.
Despite more than 60 anti-corruption commitments from G20 leaders in the last few years, there is little evidence of any real progress.
A recent report from Transparency International exposing issues of money laundering and anonymous company ownership found severe weaknesses across most G20 countries, underlining the lack of action.
That report noted that many companies create what are known as ‘shell companies’ where the persons who actually benefit from and control them – hidden behind layers of lawyers, accountants and nominee shareholders are the beneficial owners.
The corruption risk that beneficial ownership secrecy poses led the G20 to adopt Beneficial Ownership Principles in 2014 to tackle the problem. Yet, in 2015, Transparency International’s analysis of how well G20 countries were implementing the Principles showed that 15 of these countries had weak or average beneficial ownership legal frameworks.
Since the Panama Papers came out in 2016, says Transparency International, it has increasingly been seen how shell companies are used either to operationalise corrupt deals or to launder stolen money. The majority of G20 countries still do not know who owns and controls shell companies and trusts in their territories because of inadequate beneficial ownership legal frameworks.
According to the anti-corruption coalition, publicly available central registers – where the details of every beneficial owner of every company are stored – would help gather this information. Only six G20 countries now have central registers, and only that of the United Kingdom is publicly available.
Even in cases where central registers exist, none of them require registry authorities to verify information and in only three countries can information be verified in suspicious cases. As things stand, no G20 country is in a strong position to investigate suspicious cases of company ownership.
“The G20 is a group of leading economies, but it seems that their leadership is slow paced when it comes to seriously cracking down on the abuse of legal entities that are incorporated or operating in their own territories,” said Maggie Murphy, senior global advocacy manager at Transparency International.
“They need to step up their efforts to create strong beneficial ownership legal frameworks and ensure that they enforce them.”
In a rare show of solidarity, Business 20 (B20), which represents the private sector, and the C20 released two historic joint statements in July highlighting the crucial role of anti-corruption in maintaining economic and financial stability.
The first statement urges G20 countries to create specific anti-corruption action plans to help combat cross-border corruption and build accountability; the second statement calls for increased integrity and transparency in state-owned enterprises, which are essential to national economic success.
With the business community and civil society speaking with one voice against corruption, the question remains: will G20 leaders finally live up to their promises?
A turning point in Argentina
In the opening session at the C20 summit, Argentine President Mauricio Macri highlighted the importance of civil society in prioritising anti-corruption and promoting transparency. Days before the summit, Macri had announced that Argentina was to develop a national anti-corruption strategy, and would invite other G20 members to do the same.
In their final communique to G20 leaders, CSOs stressed that the international community is facing a serious of common challenges, including growing inequality between and within countries (many of which lack the resources to guarantee basic human rights); growing impacts from climate change; corruption scandals; the gender gap; worrying levels of global debt; high risks towards another financial crisis, environmental degradation; health crises; lack of access to basic goods and services inequitable access to education, absence of decent employment and the impact of digitisation and technology in the world of work and education.
These shared challenges, said the CSOs, are sending a common message: world leaders need to urgently come together to find sustainable, concrete and shared solutions to today’s problems. “We know that these are not easy times for multilateralism, but there is no other option: shared problems need shared solutions”.
They went on to say that in this context the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, including the right to speak out against these major problems require legal and political space for civil society.
“In order not only to guarantee a response to the needs and interests of people and global challenges but also to reduce the distrust of citizens in their governments, it is important to prioritise participation and transparency in decision-making.
“That is why we urge G20 leaders to better communicate their discussions through G20 platforms, adopt strong and public accountability mechanisms and engage more with relevant groups, especially with CSOs.”
Addressing the C20 summit, Transparency International’s chair, Delia Ferreira Rubio, outlined what governments must do to commit to anti-corruption, saying: “What we need in the fight against corruption is AIR – action, implementation and reports.”
Transparency International and its participating chapters from Australia, Brazil, Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and Argentina, along with other C20 attendees, urged leaders to uphold their commitments on anti-corruption and other essential issues at the G20 meeting in November, and launched the #G20takeaction social media campaign.
Looking further ahead, C20 participants focused on how to maintain this momentum at future summits in Japan (2019) and Saudi Arabia (2020), with an eye toward 2030 and the deliverables outlined in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
With so many competing priorities, Transparency International stressed the importance of the G20 keeping a clear focus in order to implement their commitments, asking: “Why make new promises when the previous ones are still outstanding?” [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 August 2018]
Photo: Casa Rosada, executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina, viewed from Plaza de Mayo. CC BY-SA 3.0 nl
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