Telephonic Press Briefing Hosted by the Brussels Media Hub
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
MODERATOR: Greetings to everyone from the U.S.-European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe and thank all of you for joining
this discussion today. We look forward to your questions.
Today we are pleased once again to be joined by Ambassador Luis Arreaga, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. He’s calling us from St. Petersburg, Russia, where he is attending the UN’s Convention Against Corruption Parties Conference. He’s with us today to discuss U.S. and international anti-corruption efforts.
We’ll begin with brief remarks from Ambassador Arreaga and then we will turn your questions. Today’s call is on the record and we will try to get to as many of your questions as possible during the time we have.
With that, I now turn it over to the Ambassador. Sir, over to you.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: Thank you very much, Elizabeth. It is a pleasure to be here, and I also would like to welcome our journalist friends who have taken the time to join this phone call.
I just have a few remarks. First of all, I would like to say that I am very pleased to represent the United States at a gathering of nations interested in rooting out corruption. I think one of the things that should be made clear from the start is that these nations, 177 of them, understand that corruption stunts economic growth, undermines the rule of law, hurts the most needy, destroys confidence in public institutions, and facilitates crime. So this gathering of nations, these nations have joined the United Nations Convention Against Corruption which fundamentally has two basic functions.
One is to establish a set of standards that everyone agrees to where nations commit themselves to prevent corruption and to halt graft.
The most interesting part of the Convention is that there is a peer review mechanism where nations scrutinize each other’s adherence to the standards, and they use this review process as a way to encourage nations to change their laws if they need to change their laws, and to more importantly, to implement their laws.
One of the principal objectives of the gathering here in St. Petersburg, at least from the United States perspective, is to try to find a way to increase the participation of civil society into the working of the Convention and its subsidiary bodies. We believe that any effective effort to deal with corruption requires the participation of government and civil society. Civil society plays a very important role in holding government accountable.
Another one of the objectives that we have for this gathering is to try to promote the notion that we need to work together to improve asset recovery. We want to support and increase the capabilities of our partner countries to work to bring the proceeds of corruption back to the victims. And we have also undertaken to highlight some issues that we believe are important, such as wildlife trafficking, which we believe is an existential threat to natural resources and to highlight the intersection between wildlife trafficking as a crime and corruption.
Those are the overall objectives that we are trying to accomplish, and we believe that we are moving in the right direction. We still have a few days left, but the sense that we get from talking to our partner nations and the sense that we get from the conversations around the room is that we anticipate moving forward fairly well.
I’m ready to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Ambassador, thank you so much for providing an overview.
We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
We’ll go to the line of Kostas Mavraganis, Huffington Post.
HUFFINGTON POST: Hello from Greece.
My question is regarding the situation in Greece. Regarding corruption in Greece. Corruption is considered to be one of the main reasons behind the Greek crisis. How would you evaluate the condition in Greece? To your knowledge, of course. And if you would like to point out some things that have to be done, what level is, and the cooperation from the Greek government. What is its level? What kind of cooperation are we talking about?
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: I am not in a position to pass judgment on what is happening in Greece. In fact, that is the precise purpose of the peer review mechanism in which several nations are chosen to go to Greece and to assess Greece’s compliance with the elements of the Convention. This will result in a report, and this is where it’s important to note that we are encouraging all nations to publish the report. The United States was assessed and the results of that assessment have been published on the internet. So I would invite you to ask the Greek authorities to share with you where they are in the peer review process and if possible, if they’re willing to publish the report.
MODERATOR: Our next question will come from Vladislav Velev. Bulgarian National TV.
BULGARIAN NATIONAL TV: Hello. I’m Vladislav Velev from Bulgarian National Television. Thank you for this opportunity for interview.
I would like to ask about Bulgaria, of course. How do you evaluate the situation in Bulgaria? Probably you know that that it is actually each year criticized by the European Commission for insufficient fighting of corruption and organized crime. Is this your view too? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: Again, I think I would have to give you the same answer that I gave your colleague from Greece. I don’t know exactly where Bulgaria is in the peer review mechanism, but that is precisely the purpose. Produce a report that assesses Bulgaria’s compliance with the commitment it has made to the Convention, and this is a good way for both the country that has been reviewed as well as those who are reviewing the countries to have a conversation and to produce a document that can be helpful to the countries that were reviewed to undertake measures, to implement measures, to reduce corruption.
MODERATOR: Our next question will come from Iryna Somer, the head of [UNIAN] Brussels.
UNIAN: Thank you very much.
Ambassador, I would like to know your assessment for the Ukrainian authority activities in the present time in the field of fighting corruption. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: Thank you so much. My understanding is that of course prior to Maidan corruption was absolutely rampant in Ukraine but ever since the democratically-elected government of Ukraine came into office they have been thoroughly committed to rooting out corruption. And I can tell you that my office is very proud to be a part of the efforts that are trying to help root out corruption in Ukraine. We’ve helped establish a brand new police force. We are working with the Prosecutor General to assist him in how to deal with corruption cases.
So I think that, the story coming out of Ukraine is a good story.
Naturally rooting out corruption is a very difficult challenge, but if you have the political will and you’re willing to commit resources to do it, then some very important progress has been made, and I can tell you that from our point of view Ukraine is moving in a very good direction.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Matteo Bosco Bortolaso, LaPresse.
LAPRESSE: Yes, hello.
I wanted to ask about the situation in Italy, but if the answer is going to be similar to the ones given for Bulgaria and Greece, I’d rather know about the need for evolvement of the civil society. Do you have any examples of NGOs that are working hard and in a successful way inside, in corruption?
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: In general, you mean. I cannot speak to the Italian case.
LAPRESSE: In general, NGOs. Yes.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: In general, yes.
I think one of the most well-known NGOs out there is [Inaudible] International. They have been very active throughout the world in trying to get governments to be more accountable and also in teaching civil society how to demand accountability from their own government. I think this is the one case, and there are many others. There is in fact a coalition of NGOs that are working together throughout the world to stamp out corruption. And of course you find different degrees of success in different countries, but it’s a good news story. Because the moment you empower civil society, you begin to see some results. And we ourselves have some bilateral programs in a number of different countries where our objective is to teach civil society how to get information from the internet, how to demand accountability. That has had some results in some places. Good results.
MODERATOR: Our next question will come from Alex Costache with TVR Romania. Go ahead.
TVR: Mr. Ambassador, I’m Alex Costache from Romanian National Television.
In Romania 32 people died and 180 were injured in a fire and stampede in a night club in Bucharest last Friday. The night club was approved by the Mayor of a district of Bucharest, although the club hadn’t had approval from the firemen, from the fire department. It is a classic case of corruption. In Romania we have so many problems with corruption and honest people are desperate, are exasperated.
From your angle, from your perspective, what do we have to do to combat and left behind this endless nightmare which is corruption? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: First of all, let me convey my sincere condolences for the tragic loss of so many young lives. It was absolutely terrible and we felt very very sad to hear about that.
I really am not in a position to make any specific recommendations about what you can do in Romania. I think a good place to start, again I go back to the same answer that I have been giving some of your other colleagues, is to look at the assessment that has been made. I’m not entirely sure where Romania’s assessment is, but my understanding is that most countries have completed. To look at the assessment and to see what are the results and whether there are things there that can be implemented right away.
As I said at the very beginning, having a legal structure that is established to root out corruption is one thing. But the other element that’s very important is actually to proceed with the implementation. So I would suggest that you look at that and see whether you can work with this report to try to promote some changes.
MODERATOR: Our next question will be follow-up from Kostas Mavraganis, Huffington Post. Please go ahead.
HUFFINGTON POST: Hello again.
I would like to ask about corruption in relation to two main burning points, let’s say. International stance right now, I’m talking about the immigration crisis and terrorism. What is
the status? What is the relation between international corruption -- not especially in Greece, in general, in Europe let’s say -- and the migration crisis and the problems caused by the presence of ISIS in the Middle East? Corruption in relation to the migrant crisis and the terrorism crisis in the Middle East.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: I can tell you that in the context of our conversation today, that did not come up in terms of finding some kind of relationship. I believe the issue of terrorism is discussed in different forums as is the issue of criminal behavior, international professional organized crime.
So in the context of corruption it has not come up. It doesn’t mean there are not linkages, but it’s not an issue that has come to the front in the context of the conversations that we’ve been having on this issue.
HUFFINGTON POST: And the migrant crisis? Would you comment on that?
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: The same. I mean I think I can speak with some certainty with respect to the United States and what we see in the United States is more of a criminal enterprise, people who make money out of trafficking with people. To some extent there may be a connection to corruption. But the angle that I think most people discuss that issue with, in terms of the movement of, the illegal movement of people, is because there is some sort of criminal element involved.
MODERATOR: Our next question in line will come from Carmen Gavrila with Radio Romania. Please go ahead.
RADIO ROMANIA: Hello. Thank you for the briefing. Actually I have two questions, if possible.
The first one is, how do you see the institution of the European prosecutor, in future to consolidate or pursue people who do crimes both in Europe and U.S.? Do you think that this institution will help the cooperation between the U.S. and the European Union? This is the first question.
My second question is, do you perceive corruption as inside EU countries and NATO countries as a vulnerability, that these two organizations as a whole who may become vulnerable to actions from outside actors such as Russia, for instance?
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: I am not entirely certain I understand your first question. I think it has something to do with some sort of agreement. I’m not sure I understood it.
On the second question you say whether European institutions are vulnerable. I can tell you in general that no single country is exempt from corruption. You find this in different levels. We have corruption in the United States. And I think that the whole point of this gathering is that we’re all getting together to discuss a problem that is present all over the world to different degrees. And nobody claims that there is not corruption in their own countries, just at different degrees, different levels, and that’s the whole point of the discussion.
And I think the other element that I wanted to mention is that when we get together in these gatherings, the point is not to criticize or to admonish other member states. The point is to actually sit down, have a conversation, and try to work with each other to address these issues.
MODERATOR: We have a few more minutes for questions. While we’re waiting for the questions, Ambassador, I’m wondering if you could go back to one of the comments you made in your introduction, saying that at the conference you’re focusing on success stories for asset recovery and also on wildlife trafficking. I’m wondering if you have any success stories that you can share with us as examples where different governments or different organizations have been able to really make progress on those two issues?
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: Certainly. And of course I can speak with some authority about the United States. The United States has an initiative which is the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, which is a team of specialized prosecutors that attempt to recover the assets that are the product of corruption. Since 2004 we have returned over $134 million to the victims of corruption. And right now they’re working on a set of cases that could recover as much as $1 billion in assets.
Now these are complicated cases. These cases take time. But our hope is that we can work with these initiatives and work with other countries. To do this sort of work you need the cooperation of other countries. So this is one case where we have been able to show some results and we’re moving in a direction to bring even more results.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Again, we have time for one or two more questions.
We can go to the line of Kostas Mavraganis with Huffington Post. Please go ahead.
HUFFINGTON POST: Hello again. Sorry for the third question in a row.
How effective are the European institutions regarding fighting corruption? What is your evaluation of that? I’m talking about the European Commission, EUROPOL, et cetera.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: I don’t have any, I’m sorry I’m really not in a position to answer that question because my sense is that this is a country by country assessment. I don’t believe we are assessing the European Union. The group ….is essentially the European Union, so I am not in a position to tell you about that.
HUFFINGTON POST: Then any countries have found out positively or negatively speaking?
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: Again, I would refer you to the individual reports that are being produced to that effect, and I think you can get a sense there of how each country is doing. It would probably be inappropriate for me to pass judgment on any individual country because this is a process that is fair and balance, and that’s why countries allow themselves to be assessed.
So if you can look for those reports I think you can get a pretty good idea of how they’re doing with respect to the commitments they made when the joined the Convention.
MODERATOR: Our next question will come from Alex Costache, TVR Romania.
TVR: Hello again, Mr. Ambassador.
What do you think, what could be the consequences, the effects of corruption here in Romania, in Europe or elsewhere? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: As I mentioned in my opening remarks, there is a broad consensus that corruption has a number of very negative effects. One, it stunts economic growth. Number two, it undermines the rule of law. Number three, it undermines the confidence that should exist between the public and public institutions. And I think one of the saddest aspects of corruption, particularly in some of the developing countries, is that it tends to affect the most needy.
You have to take all of these elements as a whole, and depending on where you are it could affect in different ways.
The other impact is that it facilitates crime.
So I could not make any specific judgment about Europe, but I think if you look at some of these effects, you can see where it could affect the public [noticeably].
MODERATOR: Iryna Somer, the head of Brussels [UNIAN].
UNIAN: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Ambassador, I do believe that you are aware about complicated situation in Ukraine. Just to explain a little bit. The previous regime [of Viktor Yanukovych] was accused of using political repression, the famous case of Yulia Tymoshenko. Right now, there is a situation, when one politician was arrested, and again, Ukrainian authorities [are] being accused to use political repression.
My question is: how to fight the corruption without being accused of the political repression? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: Well this is one of the challenges that, and I think it’s one of the, when we get together with this group we make it very very, a very deliberate effort not to bring politics into the mix. It’s strictly a legal, strictly an issue of technical issues, so we try not to bring politics. And if you participate in our deliberations you will not hear, sometimes some countries will make references to politics, but in terms of the actual working of the Convention, there are no politics involved. And of course I cannot comment on the specific case that you mentioned, as I’m not aware of what the details are.
I would refer you to our embassy in Kyiv to address that question.
UNIAN: My question was a little bit different. In general, how to fight corruption without being accused of using a repression machine? In general.
AMBASSADOR ARREAGA: I think as long as you use legal instruments that are considered to meet a certain standard, the politics are taken out of it. I mean by definition. And that’s what this Convention tries to do. Tries to establish standards that everyone adheres to and there is no politics in those standards. Those are the standards that all of the nations as a whole have decided to adopt.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, I think our time has come to the end. I want to thank the Ambassador for joining us and thank all of you for participating and for your questions.
We will circulate to all of you a transcript of today’s call and a digital recording will be available for 24 hours.
Ambassador, thank you again for taking the time to talk with us, and I thank all of our participants.
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