Remarks at G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group Reception

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
National Archives
Washington, DC
June 16, 2015

I have to say that I agree with something else Bill said that’s probably true—that the people most in awe this evening are the Americans here tonight. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve lived in Washington 23 years, and this is the first time I’ve been to the National Archives.

This is a terrible omission that underscores how incredibly inspiring it is to be here this evening and to give brief remarks.

David, thank you for telling us about the extraordinary work that happens here, and it’s truly incredible for every single American, and indeed, I hope for people around the world.

And Bill, as I think all of you know, few people are more committed or more knowledgeable on issues of law enforcement and rule-of-law than Bill, and we’re deeply appreciative of his leadership and service. I’d also like to thank Assistant Secretary Danny Glaser, our partner in crime—or more accurately our partner in combatting crime at the Treasury Department.

Let me also thank Turkey’s delegation, including co-chair Mete Demerci, for their country’s leadership in this vitally important task in this vitally important working group. We’re grateful for this partnership.

I wanted to come here on behalf of the President and Secretary Kerry to welcome you to Washington and to the National Archives. And if you feel the need to explore tonight, the only suggestion I have is—if you have a glass of red wine tonight, leave it at your table. The Constitution looks fairly well protected, but some of the other documents might not benefit from spilled red wine, much like your rugs and couches.

As David mentioned, these halls hold not only our nation’s most storied documents, but also some humble and ordinary records, as well, including military records of the men and women who fought and died in World War II and the naturalization papers of those whose dreams literally helped build our nation.

But it is not only the historic records themselves that have meaning. It is the act of displaying them—of presenting them publically so that each and every citizen of this country can claim their rights and entitlements as citizens, learn the functions of our government, and hold our elected officials to account.

As members of the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group, all of you, all of us understand this imperative. We know that long-term strength, stability, and prosperity comes from nurturing free and open societies, where good governance extends opportunity for all of our citizens, not only those who can buy it.

From the massive impunity of authoritarian regimes to the petty bribery that corrodes everyday life, corruption remains one of the great challenges of our time. It impedes growth, stifles investment, denies people their dignity, and undermines national security.

In societies where systemic corruption has effectively replaced decent governance, corruption can be one of the greatest accelerants of civil unrest, popular resistance, and even violent extremism.

Over the last several years, as all of you know, virtually every popular movement—from Kiev to Tunis to right here in our own hemisphere—has echoed with the cry for greater accountability and transparency. Around the world, citizens are increasingly waking up—and standing up to corruption’s insidious and endemic presence.

They should not have to stand alone.

There are steps every nation can take to make our institutions more effective, more accountable, and more transparent. Since 2010, we have helped galvanize action around an ambitious counter-corruption agenda. And it is this common goal that brings us together in Washington and in the days ahead.

So what I’d like to do briefly this evening is offer just a few thoughts on how our individual and collective actions can make a difference in the fight against corruption around the world.

First, we need to pressure-wash government procurement systems. In some countries, funds stolen from public coffers amount to nearly a quarter of all procurement dollars. These are funds that—put to their proper use—could have built a new wing in a hospital; supplied textbooks to a primary school; or paved a road to a rural community. Every cent, every penny, every pence, every ruble, and every yuan is our responsibility.

Second, elected officials should not get a free pass. Protecting leaders from prosecution damages the integrity of the office and undermines public trust. Now, some level of immunity may be necessary. At times, it may even be required to get the job done. But total immunity is anti-democratic. We all must stand to account, whether we are private citizens or public figures or leaders.

Third, to guard against the worst abuses, governments require strong systems of asset disclosure. Government officials hold substantial power over the allocation of resources, and they should be subjected to the kind of standards that adequately ensure honesty and build trust.

And finally, we need to significantly improve how governments share information with their citizens. Free and open data informs how we distribute services, make public policy, and assess our own effectiveness. Since President Obama signed an executive order to make Federal government data open by default, we have loaded more than 130,000 datasets onto, including trade, climate, and public safety information.

Now, as has already been alluded to by my colleague Danny, corruption is not a unique malady, and the United States has dealt with our own fair share. We have seen the machine politics of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall warp our democracy for personal gain; we’ve seen government officials turn a blind eye to mobsters and bootleggers; we’ve seen the private sector pay bribes for foreign contracts; and even a President brought to justice for participating in the dark arts of corrupt politics.

But over the last several decades, our leaders made the conscientious choice to root out corruption and ground our political, economic, and social systems in the rule-of-law.

But this is not an invitation to complacency.

It is a charge to pursue a day when our nation is even more transparent, when our politics are even more just, and when our people are more confident in those they elect to public office. This is, as in most things in our country, a work in progress. One of the charges that was given to us many, many years ago was to try every single day to forge a more perfect union, and so it true in this area as well.

But it is also not America’s task alone. In the battle against corruption, we all have a responsibility to stand for integrity.

As G20 members, we have led by example when confronting great challenges in the past. Today, the menace of corruption demands similar action, similar leadership, and similar vision.

That’s why the United States is proud to work closely with you and other like-minded partners through the United Nations, OECD, and the G20, among others. And I would encourage all of you to engage in these forums and join important institutions like the OECD Working Group on Bribery.

We have our work cut out for us, but we’re grateful to have all of you as partners in this endeavor. Over the next few months, I hope we can all accelerate progress in advance of the G20 Summit in November.

So again, on behalf of the Obama Administration, thank you for everything you are doing every day in this fight that is our collective effort, and thank you for being here in Washington. Welcome. Thank you very much.