Will New Anti-Corruption Efforts Strengthen the Fight Against Violent Extremism?

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a luncheon with Nordic leaders at the US Department of State on May 13, 2016 in
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives for a luncheon with Nordic leaders at the US Department of State on May 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John Kerry and dozens of heads of state attended yesterday's London Anti-Corruption Summit, which revealed tensions in the multilateral approach to combating corruption Secretary Kerry and other leaders in London put forward.

Corruption has come into the spotlight in recent months as governments are focusing on it as a driver of violent extremism. The United States launched a global initiative to counter violent extremism at a summit in Washington in February 2015 stressing the importance of a broader approach to preventing extremism, not solely military or security focused.

Combating corruption is appropriately part of that broader approach. Addressing the London Summit, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said that corruption lies "at the heart of the most urgent problems we face," including what he called "the ever-present threat of radicalization and extremism." Secretary Kerry, in his remarks, stated that corruption is "a contributor to terrorism."

Researchers have studied the link between corruption and terrorism, publishing a collection of essays to coincide with the summit. Sarah Chayes, a leading voice in recognizing that combating corruption must be part of counterterrorism strategy, put forward an essay exploring the "causal link" between corruption and terrorism. She provides examples from Nigeria and Afghanistan, where she lived for ten years, of how the "violation of a person's basic humanity" produced by corruption fuels support for violent extremist groups like Boko Haram or the Taliban.

Chayes also pointed to a central problem in global efforts to combat corruption: "Of all the competing priorities, the one that most swiftly trumps anti-corruption is security," she writes, noting that the corrupt practices of those seen as allies in the fight against terrorism are too often overlooked. As she observes, corrupt governments that claim to be fighting against terror "may actually be generating more terrorism than they curb."

In an article published before the London Summit, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and former Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, call for security cooperation and arms sales to be conditioned on recipient governments not engaging in widespread systematic corruption.

Such conditions set a good aspirational target, but are too easily trumped in practice by invoking security considerations as a greater priority. But as Chayes points out, "the purported trade-off between security and corruption is a false dichotomy."

Secretary Kerry has emphasized the need to prevent corruption from taking root and identified the importance of empowering citizens to hold governments and security forces accountable and deterring corrupt practices through oversight.

Strong independent civil society organizations are essential in promoting transparency and preventing corruption. They serve as a counterweight to state-controlled vested interests. In Ukraine, the International Monetary Fund has suspended lending programs to the Kiev government over concerns about corruption and governance issues and is demanding the inclusion of independent civil society groups as part of an anti-corruption bureau to curb these problems.

However, in too many countries viewed as partners in global CVE efforts, governments are cracking down on independent civil society organizations. Such policies facilitate corruption and thereby fuel the grievances that terrorists exploit. In countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia the U.S response to severe repression of civil society organizations has been weak. U.S leaders failed to speak out clearly in support of threatened and persecuted activists in recent visits to Cairo and Riyadh.

It is good that the international community is increasingly paying attention to the ways that restrictions on basic freedoms of association and expression exacerbate problems like corruption that in turn fuel terrorism. At the London Summit, Secretary Kerry proclaimed that the new multilateral effort to combat corruption "is the beginning of something different." For that to be the case, the U.S. government will have to be more consistent in urging its allies to enable independent civil society organizations, including those who monitor and expose abuses and corrupt practices by government officials, to function free from restrictions that undermine their ability to function or even to exist.