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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary > 2004 Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary

Promoting a Culture of Lawfulness

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
Remarks at Georgetown University
Washington, DC
September 13, 2004

Thank you Steve for that introduction. I would like to commend you for your work as Director of the Center for Democracy and the Third Sector. I would also like to recognize and thank Roy Godson and Jeff Berman of the National Strategy Information Center. And I am grateful to my alma mater, Georgetown University--to the Government Department and to the Center for Democracy and the Third Sector- for hosting this event.

This spring, the World Bank estimated that each year, over $1 trillion is paid worldwide in bribes. To put this in perspective, that is roughly the size of an economy like Russia or Spain--a huge amount of resources sapped each year by corruption.

As Tacitus said in the days of the Roman Empire, "The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws." Frequently, bribery is in part a result of red tape and other obstacles, like excessively complex legal codes and regulations. The cost is not limited strictly to the amount spent on bribes; it is magnified through discouraged private investment and erosion of the rule of law.

Corruption and broader lawlessness also impose tremendous social, political, and human costs. Victims of crime pay its most tangible cost; others must bear the hopelessness of lost or nonexistent opportunities.

Corruption can drag down entire societies. The World Bank links corruption with poverty and inequality. It diminishes public services vital to the poor such as education, health, and public utilities as well, undermining development.

Finally, corruption is politically corrosive, damaging trust in public officials and in government in general. It weakens democracy (or the prospects for democracy), by short-circuiting institutions meant to uphold the law and protect the weak. Absent faith that government serves all rather than just a select few, democracy cannot succeed.

There is no shortage of examples of the cost of corruption and lawlessness to democracy, including in the recent past. In Russia in the mid-1990s, pervasive and systematic corruption dimmed hopes for expeditious stabilization and growth after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lawlessness and outright plunder set the course of development back by nearly a decade and discredited democratic reform. Lawlessness also took a heavy toll on Colombia in the 1990s as drug and crime syndicates were poised to gain an upper hand over government and even claimed major tracts of the country. In each case, the consequence was not merely an unimpressive growth figure on an economist’s spreadsheet. There was a tragic human toll in terms of misery and violence. Confidence in democratic government plummeted, and instability loomed.

The United States has a strong interest in fighting corruption and lawlessness around the globe. As the nations of our world become more and more intertwined, once far-away corruption and its local consequences affect us more directly. We have not lost sight of this as we fight the War on Terror. In fact, it is part of the fight. Corrupt states attract terrorist operatives, just as they attract money launderers, drug and human traffickers, and other international criminals. In weakening people’s faith in government and limiting economic opportunities, corruption also breeds resentment that can, at times, provide a fertile recruiting ground for violent extremist ideologies. This resentment and the ensuing political instability can create other dangerous security problems even in the absence of a specific terrorist threat. Democracy is consequently undermined.

Developments like these bode ill for our interests, and we have been active in promoting efforts to combat them. A variety of noteworthy anti-corruption efforts are under way. One example is this Administration’s innovative Millennium Challenge Account, which will provide foreign assistance in a manner that encourages democracy and good government. Specifically, the program provides opportunities for additional U.S. aid to countries that check corruption--countries that govern justly, invest in their people, and open their economies to economic reform and entrepreneurship. Our aid will be an incentive to develop the good governance that sets people free to realize their full potential. President Bush launched this initiative in 2002, and the Board of Directors of the new Millennium Challenge Corporation announced the first 16 countries eligible for assistance this spring.

The Community of Democracies is another useful tool in the fight against corruption. The Community is an international network in which young and old democracies of every variety join to strengthen representative government, to share experiences, to help one another, and to coordinate policies in areas of common interest. It is not a multilateral bureaucracy, but an enabling tool for those democracies that choose to participate. The Community has focused most of its efforts on strengthening civil society and the institutions that enhance the rule of law. Participants in the Community of Democracies share similar legal principles and can collaborate and examine different approaches to a problem each member has faced at some point in its history.

The Community places a strong emphasis on fighting corruption because its members realize that without the rule of law, representative governments are barely distinguishable from dictatorships. At a UN congress on crime in Vienna in 2000, then-UN Under Secretary Pino Arlacchi noted:

"Without the rule of law democracies, too, can be unjust. Recent history is full of examples of well-entrenched ethnic, political or religious groups with automatic majorities ruling for decades over minorities, disregarding their rights. It is the rule of law, not majority-based democracy, that protects the weaker group, and the individual members of society, against the vicissitudes of political life."

Aside from the Community of Democracies, several other multilateral efforts are also under way to fight corruption and to help people realize the benefits of fair, open, and transparent systems. These include a number of international conventions and agreements through institutions like the UN, the Organization of American States, and the European Union.

The efforts I have described so far generally address structural factors--they improve coordination among governments, strengthen legislation, and build institutions. But corruption is not just a government problem, it is also a social problem, and complementary work to help societies resist and reject it is also essential.

This brings me to the idea of a culture of lawfulness. Government efforts to enforce the law are insufficient in and of themselves to establish the rule of law in a country. This is a result of the fact that lawlessness and corruption often stem from social norms and historic practices. Because corruption may in some cases be the only way that businesses or individuals can pursue otherwise legitimate activities, it can become widely accepted. Thus, to promote the rule of law, a country must also build a culture of lawfulness. This is, of course, the very thing that Roy Godson and his colleagues are doing. They are helping countries promote a culture of lawfulness--societal support for the rule of law--at the grassroots level.

The importance of a culture of lawfulness--and the role individuals can play in promoting it--is not always inherently obvious. Most people in the course of everyday life have little reason to become involved in promoting such a culture. They are going about their business, working, and raising families. Many have a tendency to believe that government alone is responsible for enforcing the law. In reality, both law enforcement authorities and the general public must work together to bring about a situation where corruption is minimized and lawfulness is pervasive.

A culture of lawfulness makes two major contributions to society: it fundamentally changes the dynamics of law enforcement, and it empowers individuals. Each of these contributions can play an essential role in strengthening democracy.

A culture of lawfulness changes the dynamics of law enforcement--and builds the rule of law--by marginalizing lawless behavior. Instead of accepting corruption as legitimate or a necessary evil, individuals and societies reject it--and the organized crime and other illicit activities that it feeds and facilitates. Ordinary people are thus engaged as allies and stakeholders in law enforcement rather than neutral observers or worse.

A culture of lawfulness can also be empowering. In a society governed by the rule of law, citizens have the ability to participate in the creation and implementation of laws and see that no person or institution is above the law--not even the government. The rights of the minority and the individual are protected through the law. This protection contributes to a society in which the average person believes that the legal system provides the means to attain justice and that a strong legal system enhances the quality of life for everyone. Citizens exercise self-control even when breaking a law would be temporarily advantageous. When the overwhelming majority of citizens are convinced that the rule of law offers them the best chance to secure their rights and achieve their goals, the law is stronger, and individuals are stronger.

These two components--marginalizing illegality and binding citizens to common rules--are as essential to democracy as giving citizens a voice in government through elections. Together with the notion of inalienable rights, these elements are key to our own democracy, as is summed up most succinctly in the second verse of America the Beautiful, which ends: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!"

Alexis de Tocqueville also recognized the importance of the culture of lawfulness in comparing the young American republic to European states. He said:

"To the European, a public officer represents a superior force; to an American, he represents a right. In America, then, it may be said that no one renders obedience to man, but to justice and to law…. I believe that in no country does crime more rarely elude punishment. The reason is that everyone conceives himself to be interested in furnishing evidence of the crime and in seizing the delinquent…. In Europe a criminal is an unhappy man who is struggling for his life against the agents of power, while the people are merely a spectator of the conflict; in America he is looked upon as an enemy of the human race, and the whole of mankind is against him."

Theorists and practitioners often speak of three pillars in building a culture of lawfulness. They are 1) civic and school-based education; 2) centers of moral authority (be they religious institutions or civil society); and 3) mass media and popular culture. When these institutions send out a message that promotes lawfulness, it is possible to achieve measurable improvement within years, and lasting change within a generation.

We know this approach works because we have seen it succeed. Efforts begun in the 1980s in Hong Kong and Sicily have yielded a marked decline in corruption. More recently, Medellin and Bogotá in Colombia have seen improvements in civic consciousness and empowerment--and in some cases, a sharp decline in crime and violence, though this also reflects the work of law enforcement against drug cartels. These successes strengthen hope that a culture of lawfulness can grow even in areas with historic poverty and corruption. Interest in the movement recently has spread to Lebanon, the Caucasus and elsewhere in the Americas.

The Culture of Lawfulness Project, an international effort fostered by the National Strategy Information Center, has worked aggressively to advance this cause. An NGO that uses public and private funding, the Project has helped a growing number of governments, school systems and civil society leaders to improve public knowledge and attitudes about the rule of law. In culture of lawfulness education, the goal is to reach the next generation of students, and through them their parents and communities. Project staff and consultants help teachers develop a lawfulness education program, integrate it into the curriculum, and involve parents and the community in complementary activities.

The Project also works with other critical sectors of society, often by offering training. The Project engages representatives from business and labor groups, religious institutions, local non-governmental organizations, and the media.

The idea of actively building a culture of lawfulness is alive in many countries including Colombia, El Salvador, Georgia, Lebanon, Peru and Mexico. In Georgia, the Ministry of Education has decided to incorporate a rule of law course into its new national curriculum for the eighth grade. In addition, local media are helping to publicize the effort. The Tbilisi daily newspaper 24 Hours has begun publishing a supplement containing letters between students and senior Georgian officials about the problems in their society and the need for greater civic responsibility in solving them.

In Lebanon, in March, leaders in education, executive and legislative government, and civil society rallied together to explore ways to enhance rule of law education in the classroom.

And in Colombia, we see the work of Paca Zuleta, the director of President Uribe’s Presidential Program to Fight Corruption. I met with Paca in Washington recently, and we discussed Colombia’s new Transparency Pacts. These are agreements between the national government and municipal administrations that commit the local government to make public all information related to the governance of the city, such as planning and spending. The municipal administration also agrees to comply with all aspects of national anti-corruption policy, including the promotion of a culture of lawfulness in the society as a whole.

The importance of fostering a culture of lawfulness is now being recognized by the United Nations, the OAS and many leaders around the world and is becoming part of the political discourse. Mexican President Vicente Fox stated last December that,

"Eliminating corruption is not an impossibility, but it is without doubt difficult work. It is work that requires firmness in order to attack not just the crime, but its causes, and the perseverance to construct a new culture of lawfulness based on trust, accountability and the certainty of obeying the law."

The former education minister of Peru and the former mayor of Bogotá have also worked to foster a culture of lawfulness in their countries. I have met with others who have championed a culture of lawfulness including the mayor of Sicily and governmental leaders from Colombian cities. They have seen tangible results in their communities.

We share with them the understanding that fostering a culture of lawfulness must be a policy priority in building democracy and the rule of law. The U.S. Government is proud to join with other governments and private foundations in supporting the Culture of Lawfulness Project. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs contributed over $1 million in this last fiscal year. This has helped finance projects throughout Central and South America, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, and we expect our support to expand further.

These Culture of Lawfulness efforts together represent a low-cost, high-impact initiative that is not exclusively a government program, but a partnership between the public and private sectors. In these projects, local and national leaders, expert project staff, community groups and financial supporters work toward a common goal. They do so in a manner that leverages the unique skills of each and builds a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Results do not come overnight. However, significant progress can be achieved in just a few years, and once the basic components of a culture of lawfulness take root, its principles become ingrained and self-perpetuating. This makes a real difference in fighting corruption and promoting the rule of law. And a declining number of corrupt and lawless places means fewer safe harbors for international criminals and terrorists. It also means increasingly stable and prosperous nations whose people see their governments as legitimate. The countries where this happens will benefit enormously, and so will the United States and the rest of the world.

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