Corruption and impunity in Timor-Leste require urgent actions, not just rhetoric

Dr. Christopher Henry Samson,

Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH),

Weak institutions of the state has made the government and its members to be seen by the public as corrupt or vulnerable to corruption, this is what is jeopardizing democracy in our country, warned Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH), the national anti-corruption NGO leading the fight against corruption in Timor-Leste.

Anti-corruption efforts by both the government and civil society in Timor-Leste is not receiving as much public support as it should, Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH) Executive Director Dr. Christopher Henry Samson said today.

Samson said this is due to a mix of lack of awareness, fear of reprisal when reporting corruption, disillusionment of the system, and a grudging tolerance of graft.

"The lack of awareness on reporting corruption is the main issue here said Dr. Christopher and added that the anti-corruption commission body cannot fight corruption on its own and the public need to speak up against corruption.

"CAC is fighting a losing battle on its own, this is why we need others like LABEH and civil societies to speak up against corruption, and urge others to speak up to promote a culture against corruption," Samson said during his interview with the journalist in his office today

He said that the public should also highlight what could improve anti-corruption efforts and legislation instead of merely harping on issues without offering solutions. Samson added that the parliament is now about to discussing legislation law against corruption with the government to better combat corruption.

However, maladministration, misconduct and corruption often morph into each other. In practice, there are no clear boundaries. It is important to see the activities for what they are and for the Corruption is a real and tangible problem. It destroys good government and undermines social and economic goals and aspirations. We have seen some admirable activities by our anti-corruption commission in solid attempts to keep our politics and administration clean, transparent and built on integrity.

A politician or person in public service gets a salary. That should be the only reward for that public service. There should be no favours for a bit extra, no payments for decisions, no persuasions to do things in certain ways for extra rewards.

It should be fairly clear when officials do wrong things, when they fail to do something they should do, or when they do something permissible but purposely do it in an improper manner. This is the essence of corruption: breaching trust and improperly trading on that entrusted authority.

Among the public, there is a widespread view that corruption is increasing in Timor-Leste, and that many in politics are corrupt.

However, there is a great danger to our society if we label as corrupt those activities that involve normal decision-making and operational matters that might not be to the liking of ideological or partisan opponents, or perhaps demonstrate administrative incompetence.

So somewhere in this murky field there is real corruption: tangible and egregious examples of manipulation for private benefit, of bribery, extortion, nepotism, conflict of interest, misuse of information, cronyism. We have seen these behaviors through the work of our anti-corruption agencies, and have seen exposure, criminal prosecution and recommendations for better practice.

It is important to distinguish doing one’s job from manipulating the system. When an official is bought a cup of coffee or a modest lunch that in itself is not corruption. It is corruption, however, when that exchange leads to a change of a decision or an outcome that is bought.

Guarding against allegations of corruption requires a high level of transparency. There should be no secrecy about things that might be perceived by others as benefits, but perceived by the official as the nuts and bolts of doing one’s job different kinds of harms they might do to the community.

 Lastly, as a country, we must acknowledge that corruption has become so entrenched and institutionalized that it cannot be fought using the mechanisms we have been employing. Corruption is endemic in several institutions and new strategies are required to fight it. The focus should be on getting the public involved. 

Indeed, an empowered and informed citizen is a powerful tool against corruption. We need a strong grassroots movement against the vice. Both children and adults must be taught about the dangers of corruption. This will ensure that it becomes a people’s war rather than a fight by some institutions. 

We must also invest more in prevention strategies by integrating teaching about anti-corruption in our school curriculum right from the elementary level. Additionally, CAC should embrace technology to improve efficiency and enhance transparency in the fight against corruption. Effective use of technology will enable the public to report corruption cases.

For now there is only progress on paper, which has nothing to do with the real world. Corruption scandals destabilize countries on a daily basis and make it harder to strengthen institutions which are urgently needed to better serve citizens, eradicate poverty and strengthen democracy; corruption reinforces the opacity, impunity, insecurity and looting of states for the benefit of a few.

Corruption scandals in Timor-Leste show that the basic needs of citizens have been displaced by the selfish interests of some sectors of the political and economic classes. When institutions such as the judiciary, the attorney general's office fail to curb corruption and impunity, or worse, are involved in serious questions regarding corrupt practices, we see how little progress has been made to banish the endemic corruption from the country.

"The corrupt are finding new ways to navigate between laws and regulations that are poorly implemented, leaving the citizens at risk. Therefore, it is urgent that there is a concerted effort to strengthen capacity to allow government to deliver on their commitments to uphold the rule of law. This is a critical first step in ensuring that corruption does not destroy the agreements that keep democracy safe", said Dr. Christopher Henry Samson, Lalenok Ba Ema Hotu (LABEH),

The text of the corruption law does not require major changes when it goes to the parliament. What is required is a commitment to implement them, with guaranteed participation of citizens through autonomous and independent organizations that are protected by law and that can highlight and tackle the corruption and impunity affecting the members of the government.