Most-Corrupt Nations Back Cameron's Awkward Fight on Graft

  • Cameron condemned corruption in Nigeria, Afghanistan to Queen
  • More than 40 countries represented at London summit meeting

When U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron decided to host the first international summit focused exclusively on efforts to combat corruption, he couldn’t have imagined how uncomfortable the commitment would become.

QuickTake Corruption

In April, the Panama leaks forced Cameron to admit he’d invested in an offshore fund set up by his stockbroker father. While there was no suggestion of wrongdoing, the revelation was a political embarrassment. Then on Tuesday, he was caught on camera telling Queen Elizabeth II that Nigeria and Afghanistan were “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world” days before their heads of state were due to attend the London meeting.

While the prime minister’s personal finances, and his candid remarks, have sparked interest in the build up to the event, they also highlight the awkward job Cameron has to claim the moral high ground given the tax policies of some U.K. jurisdictions, say campaigners.

“By providing a safe haven for corrupt assets, the U.K. and its overseas territories and Crown dependencies are a big part of the world’s corruption problem,” said Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International, the non-governmental organization participating in the summit. “We should not forget that.”

Representatives from more than 40 countries as well as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are converging on London for the summit. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to attend as is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, though Russia has chosen to send a deputy foreign minister, Oleg Syromolotov, who spent more than a decade heading counter intelligence at the country’s Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.

Nigerian View

While the hosts may have some work to do to smooth relations with their guests from Nigeria and Afghanistan, even those delegations may accept that Cameron had a point. Asked if his country was “fantastically corrupt” as Cameron had claimed, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari answered “yes,” and said that he wasn’t demanding an apology for the comments.

“What I am demanding is the return of assets” that are the product of corruption in Nigeria and lodged in the U.K., Buhari said. “What would I do with an apology?”

In a collection of articles on corruption that will come out on Thursday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called his homeland “one of the most corrupt countries on earth.”

‘Remarkable Steps’

“Countries like Nigeria and Afghanistan, their leaders are battling hard against very corrupt systems and countries and in both their cases they’ve made some remarkable steps forward,” Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday. “That’s why I’m so keen to welcome them to the anti-corruption conference.”

On Monday, a group of 300 leading economists called on the British government to use the anti-corruption summit to crack down on offshore tax havens like the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands.

The BVI, one of 14 British overseas territories, was thrown into the spotlight last month following the enormous leak of documents from Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm. About 113,000 out of 215,000 companies it exposed were set up on the tiny Caribbean island. BVI was not invited to the summit while the Cayman Islands is sending a three-person delegation headed by its premier, Alden McLaughlin.

Resisting Transparency

So far both the Cayman Islands and the BVI have resisted pressure from Cameron to set up public records of beneficial owners of companies registered there. They agreed to share information with the U.K. on beneficial owners but refused to make the information public. The U.K. will become the first Group of 20 nation to publish the names of companies’ ultimate owners when a new register comes into effect in June.

Perhaps more than any other world leader, Cameron has spoken out against corruption. At the Group of Seven summit in Germany last June, he called for an international effort to clean up governments and businesses. When he announced his plans for the anti-corruption summit in Singapore in July, he went further.

“My message to foreign fraudsters: London is not a place to stash your dodgy cash,” he said. “The challenge I’m laying down to every country today is to root out the rot of corruption.”

Cameron’s Risk

Cameron’s thinking was influenced by Sarah Chayes, who wrote ‘Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,’ which came out in January 2015. After reading her book, Cameron wrote to Chayes in the spring of 2015 and invited her to meet his team to discuss ways to combat corruption. Chayes spent 10 years living in Afghanistan and argues in her book that kleptocractic regimes around the world are helping to fuel terrorism. She will be on two panels chaired by Cameron on Thursday.

“It’s incredibly courageous of him to do this summit now,’’ she said. “There are so many ways he could get egg on his face.”

Cameron wants countries to sign up to specific commitments to clamp down on corruption after Thursday’s summit, including pledges to set up open registers of beneficial owners of companies. Countries are also expected to sign a final communique, the details of which are still being fine-tuned. Yet the politicians’ measure of success may not be enough to convince the skeptics.

“If Russia can sign up to the communique, it’s probably not strong enough,’’ said Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International.

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