Foreign Policy Blogs

What to do with weak rule of law

In some countries, political will is not enough. This is because they don’t have the institutions to implement whatever anti-corruption political will there might be. Fighting corruption requires investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration in a prison with guards that can’t be paid off. Some countries lack some or all of these things.

Guatemala poses an interesting example in this regard. Guatemala’s problems stem from its 1960-1996 civil war, which has left a legacy of illegal forces in operation throughout the country. Rule of law in Guatemala is notoriously poor. In the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, Guatemala was in the 13th percentile for rule of law – it doesn’t get much worse than that. In 2006 the murder rate was 45 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world. Moreover, its police and judiciary are among the most corrupt, making a bad situation almost incorrigible.

In 2006, the government decided to take a new tack. It agreed to allow the UN to set up an independent investigative body, called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to assist with investigation and dismantling of violent criminal organizations. In many countries, this would be considered an infringement of national sovereignty… or maybe that would just be the excuse those in power would use to protect their criminal friends.

The CICIG began work in 2008. Since then, its work has led to the dismissal of almost 2,000 policemen, an attorney-general, 10 prosecutors, and 3 Supreme Court justices. According to the CICIG’s head, “We have sent to jail 130 individuals, the kind of people who had never been prosecuted in Guatemala before, a former president, a former defence minister, a former finance minister [and] two acting directors of the national police.” This was able to happen through cooperation with honest policemen, prosecutors, and others.

The CICIG is trying to have its mandate, which runs until September 2011, extended to specifically cover corruption and organized crime. This would be a boon for anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, as well as a remarkable example for other countries. Just imagine if such a commission were invited into Afghanistan.

But the other lesson of the CICIG is that vested interests can run deep and be entangled in the very institutions that are supposed to protect against them, and yet all it takes is the right garden trowel to dig them out.