Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the Anti-Corruption Champions Award Ceremony

Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the Anti-Corruption Champions Award Ceremony

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROBINSON:  Good morning, everybody.  Before we get started this morning, I’d like to acknowledge the tragedy in the Seychelles.  Commissioner De Silva, our thoughts are with you and your country, your people, at this time.

It’s an honor to welcome this year’s Anti-Corruption Champions Award honorees.  Thank you for joining us here today and from across the globe.  My name is Todd Robinson, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL as it’s better known.  And let me give you just a little bit of an overview of what we’re going to do this morning.

We have, as you see, a high-powered lineup for you today – (laughter) – starting with Secretary Antony Blinken, who has made it his business since day one to place the fight against corruption at the center of our foreign policy.  We also have here from – we will also hear from Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya, a diplomat with three decades of experience around the world, and my boss.  (Laughter.)  And Richard Nephew, our global anti-corruption coordinator, is going to introduce our honorees today.  We will also have an opportunity to hear from one of our inspiring award recipients.

As I mentioned, the fight against corruption is front and center in our U.S. foreign policy.  As I’m sure our honorees can attest, this fight is a difficult one, but from Europe to Africa to Central America, we have seen remarkable wins in 2023.

In Guatemala, there was an election victory by a presidential candidate, Bernardo Arévalo from the Semilla party, who ran on a platform of weeding out corruption.

In Ukraine, INL works closely with anti-corruption investigators and prosecutors, who this year alone have opened cases against over 20 high-level government officials, including the former chief justice of the supreme court.  Since the summer, Ukraine has advanced significant reform measures, including requiring government officials to declare their assets and adding judges to the High Anti-Corruption Court.

In Liberia, our embassy’s stalwart support for action against corruption has put compromised officials on the defensive and is fueling the Liberian public’s desire for increased accountability and sanctions.

As you’ll see shortly, the tenacious men and women with us here today are responsible for successes like these.  Tenacious, but also – let’s not forget – fearless.  Corruption is silent, secret, and corrosive.  People know it’s out there but it’s difficult to root out.  That has not deterred our honorees, who have joined this fight at great personal and professional risk, but not without recognition.  To today’s honorees, we see what you are doing and we applaud it.

With that, I would like to invite Under Secretary Zeya.  (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY ZEYA:  Thank you to my dear friend, Assistant Secretary Robinson.  Your leadership on this issue set has been indispensable.  Secretary Blinken, Coordinator Nephew, colleagues and friends, I am delighted to be here today to celebrate these courageous honorees.

This weekend, we will commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the first and only global anti-corruption instrument, the UN Convention Against Corruption, or UNCAC.  This distinguished group, through their advocacy and actions, embodies the central message of that consequential document:  The betrayal of the public trust will no longer be tolerated.

The drafters of UNCAC, which included the United States, understood the corrosive impact of corruption and recognized it as a transnational challenge.  It affects all countries, regardless of the level of development, political system, or history.  Thus, preventing and countering corruption is a shared responsibility among all countries.

UNCAC responded to these threats by providing governments with the tools to counter this scourge at the global level.  The convention endures.  Its comprehensive set of standards, measures, and rules are even more relevant today than they were 20 years ago.  What we’ve learned since the UNCAC’s adoption is that while corruption is a cross-cutting global challenge, every country experiences it in different ways, which requires tailored solutions.

For example, in Moldova, through the courageous work of President Sandu’s administration, the country is countering Russia’s interference and the actions of other corrupt actors by fortifying its democracy, modernizing its economy, and aligning its institutions with its European neighbors.  I myself had the privilege of visiting Moldova last week, and I was honored to meet with Minister of Justice Veronica Mihailov-Moraru, who is on the front lines of these efforts and is one of the champions that we are celebrating here today.

For our part, President Biden has elevated anti-corruption as a core national security interest.  We’re actively implementing the first-ever U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption that the President issued two years ago.  Now, this strategy has domestic and international components, acknowledging that we must combat corruption here at home as well as prioritize it in our foreign policy.  We’re also committed to working with all of you, the honorees here today and all of those who stand with us across the globe, dedicated to shining a light on corrupt behavior.

When Secretary Blinken launched the Anti-Corruption Champions Award in 2021, we not only wanted to celebrate you, but we also want to learn from your invaluable expertise and experience.  The fight against corruption is a collective effort, and thus we must foster critical engagement across public and private institutions and across borders.  This will bolster our policies and advance the unshakable principles of accountability and integrity ingrained in the UNCAC.

So thank you all for joining us here today, and congratulations again to our honorees.

I now have the immense honor of introducing an admired friend and a phenomenal boss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  (Applause.)

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Good morning, everyone.

AUDIENCE:  Good morning.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So this is a day, a moment I’ve been looking forward to.  And we’ll share the reasons why in just a minute.  But first, let me say to Under Secretary Zeya, to Assistant Secretary Robinson, to our Coordinator Nephew:  Thank you not just for today, but for the extraordinary work you’re doing every day, including and notably on taking the fight to corruption.

In public service – whether in government or in civil society – I know it can feel at times like the challenges are just too big; the forces arrayed against change too strong, too entrenched to make meaningful progress.

One of the things that I love most about this ceremony each year is that every one of our awardees has proved that idea wrong.  There is no force against progress that is actually immovable.  You’ve demonstrated with your work, with your courage, with your commitment that it can be done.  Even in places where impunity is the rule, you’ve shown how determined individuals can tip the balance, make the difference toward justice.

Today, we gather not only to honor these extraordinary champions, but to learn from them.  Corrupt officials and their partners are constantly borrowing from each other’s playbooks.  Well, governments, organizations, citizens committed to fighting corruption need to do the same thing, because in so many different ways, in so many different places, each of you has found a particular angle, a particular way of being effective in combatting corruption.  And so the more we’re talking to each other, the more we’re listening and learning from you, the more effective we are going to be.

Now, before speaking to the accomplishments of the awardees, let me underscore that no matter who they are or where they work, none of them does this alone – and I know you would be the first to say that.

Indeed, one of the reasons that these leaders are so effective is because they inspire others to join them.  So today, we’re honoring not only these 11 champions, but all of their partners.

Including their teammates here at the State Department.  Every awardee was nominated by American diplomats around the world, most of whom work side-by-side with all of our champions to advance our shared priorities.

Take any goal of our foreign policy, anything that we really care about – expanding economic opportunity, empowering underserved communities, enhancing security, defending human rights – all of them are served by building more accountable institutions, more accountable societies, more transparency.

So we have an abiding interest in rooting out corruption – both to improve lives in local communities and to build more prosperous, more secure, more rights-respecting partners for the American people.

As we were looking at the awardees and learning from their stories, I think what’s powerful is you can really draw lessons from each of their work.  And I’ve seen, as we’ve been talking about this together, maybe five things that really jump out.  So let me share those with you in talking about the awardees.

First, a key part of combatting corruption is working to reform corrupt institutions from within wherever possible.  That’s a very powerful thing.

You heard reference to Veronica Mihailov-Moraru and what she’s done in the Republic of Moldova.  Having worked as a public defender, she knew firsthand how broken her country’s justice system was, but that didn’t stop her from working to overhaul the justice ministry when offered the chance to lead it.  That’s change from within.  Veronica designed and implemented a rigorous vetting process to root out corrupt judges, corrupt prosecutors; she helped reform the country’s anticorruption agencies.  She’s made a point of pursuing these reforms out in the open, not a secret, modeling the transparency she’s trying to foster, and that in turn has allowed her to build broad public support for this work.

Vladimir Novovic made a similar leap when he left his post as a judge to become Montenegro’s chief prosecutor for organized crime, corruption, war crimes, terrorism, and money laundering.  That’s a portfolio.  He inherited an ineffective and an infiltrated institution, in a country where citizens were disillusioned by graft that they were experiencing every single day in their institutions.  By pursuing investigations of corrupt judges, of national security officials, senior police, Vladimir showed citizens that even the most powerful people are not above the law.  Since he took office, public trust in the corruption prosecutor’s office has doubled.

As Liberia’s anti-corruption commissioner, Marc Kollie led a series of investigations that uncovered bribery of powerful politicians in exchange for favors.  Despite being threatened, Marc pursued his work.  He testified in the case, and then went on to lead other groundbreaking investigations, including one in which he froze bank accounts being used by organized crime to launder money.  His efforts demonstrated how a few committed individuals can turn government institutions from sources of corruption into sources of accountability.

Second broad lesson that I’m drawing from our awardees:  When they’re informed, when they’re empowered, citizens – citizens – are our most effective anti-corruption allies.

So Nikhil Dey has spent more than four decades in India working with and for those harmed by corruption, and those particularly who are harmed most by it: underserved, marginalized populations.  Nikhil has helped communities in Rajasthan demand access to essential services and rights – education, health care, fair wages, better working conditions.  His organization pioneered the practice of public audits, in which local officials have to report to communities how and where they spend the resources, and citizens have a chance themselves to ask probing questions of these officials.  As these public audits spread across India, more citizens started taking the lead in holding officials to account.  And that, at its heart, is how democracy needs to work.

After decades of writing about corruption and organized crime for Ecuador’s newspapers, Arturo Torres founded an independent media site to report on these issues.  In a series of articles, Arturo and his team combined rigorous analysis of publicly available information with deep investigations to uncover the corrupt ties of candidates for judges, for mayors, and other important public offices.  In a country of 16 million people, the website’s reporting garnered 18 million views in just a couple of months – 16 million people in the country, 18 million views in a couple of months.  That showed the public hunger for this information and for the incredibly powerful role it can play in informing voters.

Third, more than ever, if we’re going to address corruption effectively, we also have to address forces outside our countries that are looking to weaponize corruption for their gain.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Claude Mputu has helped lead “Congo is Not for Sale.”  That’s a civil society coalition that uncovers the way mining deals have benefitted foreign companies, governments, and corrupt officials at the expense of the people.  By exposing the bribes that were used to win these contracts and the billions in lost revenue to the state, the investigations led the DRC Government to try to recover funds for the Congolese people, and has resulted in international sanctions against corrupt businesses and corrupt investors.

In Timor-Leste, reporting by Francisco Belo Simoes da Costa showed the way a Beijing-based company used bribes to win a contract to digitize the country’s national television broadcast corporation.  Francisco uncovered the way a corrupt official profited by awarding the contract with no competition.  His reporting also showed the way the agreement would have allowed the Chinese Government to disseminate propaganda throughout the Timorese nation.  Francisco’s reporting prevented the tainted deal from going forward, it sparked an investigation by Timor-Leste’s anti-corruption commission, which is ongoing.

For advocate Stanislau Ivashekvich, fighting for accountability, for transparency, for space for civil society in Belarus has long meant taking on the country – excuse me, he’s taking on the country working with Belarus’s dictator to try to quash it, and that is Russia.  Stanislau’s organization, the Belarus Investigative Center, has shone a spotlight on the ways that Russia and Belarus collaborate to try to evade sanctions, to enrich oligarchs, to fuel Moscow’s war of aggression against Ukraine.  His organization’s reporting has been critical to closing sanctions loopholes, seizing the illicit assets of Russian officials and oligarchs.

Fourth broad lesson:  Every individual that we’re honoring today has made educating, inspiring, and mentoring young people a key part of their work.

With Anette Plannells leading civil society campaigns resulting in the first-ever prosecution of high-ranking officials in Panama – even as she was doing that, she also helped build a youth wing of the nation’s anti-corruption movement.  Thanks to her trainings, thanks to her workshops, not only are countless Panamanians more engaged citizens, but scores of young people have now been inspired to pursue careers in advocacy and in elective office.  And so a whole new generation is coming up at the same time thanks to her work that she was engaged in, the work of the of the moment.

As the Seychelles anti-corruption commissioner, May De Silva – you already heard reference to her before – has built an unprecedented case against businesses and former officials for international tax evasion.  At the same time, she’s designed and implemented seminars, conferences, workshops, an anti-corruption curriculum – all of this for students in schools and for colleges across the country.  She says her goal is to show how corruption eats away at societies, but also what every citizen can do to fight it.

In Kyrgyzstan, Ali Toktakunov leads MediaHub.  This is an independent news outlet that exposes corruption and shows corrupt actors and how they’re using social media to try to hide, to obfuscate their crimes.  A key part of MediaHub’s efforts is building greater digital literacy among young people, something that they’re doing by holding workshops across the country’s universities, so that individuals are better prepared, better equipped to detect and call out online disinformation.

Fifth and finally, every one of these champions – every one – has in some fashion been subject to repression, to threats, to persecution for their work.  Several had been forced into exile.  Many are subject to ongoing legal proceedings.  Some had been locked up.  Their families have also been threatened.  One of our awardees said that his small children can no longer play in public playgrounds and parks because of targeted threats.

And yet, each and every one of them persists.  They continue to do the work.  As awardee Arturo Torres said, “It’s part of the job.”

To all of today’s awardees, your bravery, your commitment to truth, to justice – it humbles us, it inspires us to do more, and it adds even greater urgency to the enduring effort to strengthen protections for advocates, for human rights defenders, for journalists, for educators around the world who are threatened and attacked for the work they’re doing to fight corruption and to better their societies.

As you’ve heard from Under Secretary Zeya, Assistant Secretary Robinson, this has been a top priority for President Biden, for this administration, for this department from day one.  We’ll keep working to build effective ways to have the backs of those who are at risk and to hold perpetrators to account.

I know that there are folks watching today who are leading hard fights for transparency and good governance in hard places.  And I know there have to be days when you feel disillusioned, when you feel isolated, when you feel fearful.

So I hope, if nothing else, you’ll take heart from today, you’ll take heart from the stories of your colleagues around the world who are doing such remarkable work in the ways that you are – doing it a great cost, at great risk, but doing it.

And I hope that today’s ceremony reminds us that, again, the actions of determined individuals can make a difference, are making a difference.  They can puncture the seemingly impenetrable walls of impunity.  They can rekindle citizens’ faith in their own capacity to make governments and institutions work for them.

Indeed, they and you are often the only way that change effectively happens.

To all the anti-corruption champions far beyond this room, please know you have a partner in the United States.

With that, it is my honor to give the floor to one of our awardees so deserving who can speak most effectively for all of our awardees, Minister Mihailov-Moraru.

Minister, congratulations.  The floor is yours.  (Applause.)

JUSTICE MINISTER MIHAILOV-MORARU:  Good morning.  Honorable Secretary Blinken, colleagues and new friends, ladies and gentlemen, I am very honored to be with you here and be among of this group of all about – with all remarkable activists, journalists, and public officials you have brought together from all around the world.  Thank you very much for all the appreciation.  I am not sure I actually deserve this recognition or to be in the company of this inspiring group of people, but I am very grateful for the honor and I will use it as a reminder and motivation when I need it to persist and to press forward against the resistance we encounter every day in fighting corruption in Moldova and around all the world.

The Republic of Moldova is currently undergoing broad reform in its justice sector, addressing challenges relating to integrity, accessibility, efficiency, and widespread lack of trust.  Corruption remains, unfortunately, a central obstacle to the formation of trust in government in Moldova.  But one of our main goals in my country is to improve living standards, to change society’s perception of the independence of the judicial system in order to ensure transparency, but also their responsibility, and ultimately to increase trust in the acts of justice.  And this can only be happen by fighting everywhere and with increasing success against corruption.

Corruption, of course, is not unique to Moldova.  It is a global problem that affects us all.  Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gains, and it undermines the rule of law, the legitimacy of government, and the trust of citizens.  Corruption is a threat to the realization of the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to create a better and more sustainable future for all.

But I am sure that corruption is not inevitable.  It can be prevented and combated through effective anti-corruption policies, practices, and a lot of courage.  Anti-corruption efforts vary in scope and strategy and include both preventive and reactive measures – preventive measures to reduce the opportunities for – of corruption actions, but reactive measures – detect, investigate, prosecute, and sanction corruption and return stolen assets.

In Moldova, we have committed to implement de-oligarchization measures to eliminate excessive influence of powerful and at times dangerous vested interest in economic, political, and public life.  We have taken action to fortify our agencies charged with responsibility for investigation and prosecution of high corruption act cases.  We have modernized our legislation for combating money laundering and terrorism financing, and also we are in the process to improve our asset recovery mechanism.

But this is only the beginning, and we in Moldova cannot do this alone, of course.  None of us can.  So we are committed to increasing our mutual legal cooperation, including on financial investigations, international and organized crime cases, to identify and to recover criminal assets.  But we also need, as do anti-corruption fighters in every country, the commitment and collaboration of all stakeholders, including the international community, the private sector, civil society, journalists, and academia.

So I really believe that every effort counts.  Only together we can make a difference and create a more transparent, accountable, and inclusive society for ourselves and for future generations.

During IVLP meetings throughout this week, I was inspired by some quotes.  Finding and fighting corruption – your anti-corruption fight is our fight.  And I want to thank to the American people for the inspiration and all the support toward rule of law.

Let me please on behalf of all the IVLP group to receive our gratitude to all of you for your attention, and for the honor you bestow, and the kindness, and the continuing support you have shown to all of us.  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

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