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Last Updated: 10/04/2011
The Arab Spring and the revelation that corruption is a crime against humanity
Kichere Mwita

Kichere Mwita discusses the scale of corruption characterizing the ousted regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, connects the corruption of political elites with the dissatisfaction and frustration of citizens, and argues that corruption itself should be considered a crime against humanity and prosecuted by the international community.

International peace and security is in dilemma. Those in power are now shaking from the revolutionary movements occurring in the Arab world, and continuing to spread. These movements are aimed at a more even distribution of national wealth, as well as liberty and justice for the current generation. This is what has been happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The movements started at the end of 2010. No one knows when or where it may end. It is a matter of time.

According to Dr. Amr Abdallah[1], Professor and Vice Rector at the University for Peace, “the factors leading to these revolutions are numerous. They require a careful review of historical events that shaped the region for the last century, international relations which influenced the affairs of the Arab World in the last two decades, especially the war on terror and the spread of radical militants Islamic groups, and the dynamics of new media and its influence on frustrated youth with collapsed hopes for upward mobility.’’

This article focuses solely on the issue of corruption in relation to these movements, and calls on the international community to take serious and stern measures on prosecuting corruption as a serious crime against humanity, with specific reference to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, as well as the African Union and The United Nations Conventions against corruption.  


For the purpose of this discussion, “corruption” is understood as “any course of action or failure to act by individuals or organizations, public or private, in violation of law or trust for profit or gain.’’[2] According to World Bank figures, the total amount of annual bribes can be conservatively estimated at US $1 trillion.[3] The cost of corruption in Africa alone is estimated at more than US$ 148 billion a year – this is thought to represent 25% of Africa’s GDP and to increase the cost of goods by as much as 20 percent.[4]

The UN and the African Union Conventions on corruption

The preamble of the UN and the African Union conventions oblige member states to take measures to prevent and combat corruption in their countries. For the UN:

The States Parties to this Convention, concerned about the seriousness of problems and threats posed by corruption to the stability and security of societies, undermining the institutions and values of democracy, ethical, values and justice and jeopardizing sustainable development and the rule of law.[5] 

And for the AU:

concerned about the negative effects of corruption and impunity on the political, economic, social and cultural stability of African States and its devastating effects on the economic and social development of the African peoples; Acknowledging that corruption undermines accountability and transparency in the management of public affairs as well as  socio-economic development on the continent […][6]

Chapter IV, article 43 (1), (2) of UN convention against corruption addresses the need of international cooperation, in which it stresses:

States Parties shall cooperate in criminal matters in accordance with articles 44 to 50 of this Convention. Where appropriate and consistent with their domestic legal system, States Parties shall consider assisting each other in investigations of and proceedings in civil and administrative matters relating to corruption.


In matters of international cooperation, whenever dual criminality is considered a requirement, it shall be deemed fulfilled irrespective of whether the laws of the requested State Party place the offence within the same category of offence or denominate the offence by the same terminology as the requesting State Party, if the conduct underlying the offence for which assistance is sought is a criminal offence under the laws of both States Parties. 

Also, article 19(3), (5) of Africa Union Convention against corruption (2003) stresses the:

encouragement of all countries to take legislative measures to prevent corrupt public officials from enjoying ill-acquired assets by freezing their foreign accounts and facilitating the repatriation of stolen or illegally acquired monies to the countries of origin. International cooperates in conformity with relevant international instruments on international cooperation on criminal matters for purposes of investigations and procedures in offences within the jurisdiction of this convention.

The international community reveals corruption scandals in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya following revolution movements

Following the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, we witnessed the international community revealing corruption scandals and freezing of assets (funds) illicitly enriched by the corrupt leadership from these countries. The question is: will these leaders face prosecution for their crimes – particularly Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddhafi. Where are the international instruments on criminal matters including corruption?

The United States has announced that it is trying to release some of the more than $30 billion in assets seized from Libya's leader, Muammar Gadhafi, and give the money directly to the Libyan rebels.[7] Several European nations are also seeking to release funds, including Britain, France and Italy, which announced to release euro350 million ($505 million) for the rebels.[8] The daily mail reports that US has frozen $30 billion, Canada $2.4 billion, Austria $1.5 billion, and UK $1billion.[9] The U.S, The United Nations and South Africa reached a deal that will allow the release of $1.5billion in frozen assets in American banks.[10] Unconfirmed Austrian media reports have said that the Gaddafis and their close allies may have stashed $30 billion in the country.[11]

According to AFP reports, groups including Sherpa, Transparency International France, and the Arab Commission for Human Rights all accuse Mr. Ben Ali of corruption, misusing public funds and money-laundering. They estimate the wealth amassed by the former leader and his entourage at $5bn (£3bn).[12]

The former Egyptian president is accused of amassing as much as $64 billion during his 30 years in power. It is believed his wealth was tied up in foreign banks, investments, bullion and properties in London, New York, Paris, and Beverly Hills.[13]

Have the United Nations and the African Union conventions on preventing and combating corruption succeeded in reducing corruption among high ranking political leaders?

In 2004, Transparency International (TI) published a “list of shame” of high ranking corrupt head of States – at about the same time as the two international instruments were put in place for curbing corruption: the United Nations convention against corruption (2005) and the African Union convention against corruption (2003).

Since then, however, the rate of corruption among high ranking political leaders has actually increased to more shocking levels. This is an indicator of weak commitment to international community, and of many flaws in the international instruments. For instance, Hosni Mubarak is accused of amassing $64billion, a figure which is bigger than the total amount of funds/assets accused to the first ten corrupt head of States from the list of shame named by Transparency International (TI) in 2004. The figures are also alarming for Muammar Gaddafi ($35billion) and Ben Ali ($5billion). If this is any indication, who knows how much illicit enrichment we should expect from other African Political Leaders who are in power, and those who have been retired?

Most of the names on the list of shame were protected by Western governments, which turned a blind eye in exchange for support during the Cold War.[14] Bribery of local officials by Western businesses is still widespread, despite global initiatives to stamp it out. Companies from Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and Canada topped Transparency International’s list of bribe-payers. Western multinationals must take responsibility for allowing corruption to flourish, Transparency International said.[15] In most cases, the corrupt heads of States in developing countries are not prosecuted due to the questionable independence of their jurisprudence, and citizens are left horrified by the actions of their governments.

Global peace and security: corruption in revolutionary movements

Despite the presence of international instruments against corruption, the tendency of high ranking political leaders to steal public funds has increased.  A corrupt head of State is worse than a person who commits murder -- even organized, politically motivated murder. They differ in the model of killing, one is a silent killer while the other is exercising overt killing. For corruption, national resources are shifted illicitly to offshore countries. Corruption segregates people. Corruption erodes national credibility and integrity. Corruption distorts national stability and security. It propagates a sense of injustice. This is depicted in revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Libya and Tunisia. The gap between the poor and the rich were obvious. The poor suffered from the quencequence of rampant corruption. People were unable to access employment, education, health services, and food. People were demanding sustainable development, democracy, socio-economic justice, and employment for the young generation.

Conclusion: the prosecution of corruption

The revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have demontrated that the corruption of Heads of State is directly related to poverty and injustice. The existing international instruments designed to curb such corruption are obviously not working.  Hence, I appeal to international community to prosecute corruption as a serious crime against humanity in the International Criminal Court (ICC). To begin with, corruption leads to several of the offences mentioned on the Article 7(1) of crime against humanity, and war crime (Article 8) of the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court.[16] In this sense, prosecuting corruption as a serious crime against humanity means to solve many of the underlying root causes leading to crime against humanity and war crime. Furthermore, Article 7(1) states that a "crime against humanity" can refer to “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” Until corruption is effectively oulawed by the international community, it will continue to cause great suffering to citizens living under corrupt governments the world over.

[1]Abdallah, A. (2011). Arab Revolutions of 2011: Roots and Prospects-Paper submitted to UPEACE’s Africa Peace and Conflict Journal. 2011 April,1-7)

[2] Corruption Response Team. ( 2011 August,31). Retrieved

[3] Mean, J. P. The extent of corruption. Knowledge Centre on corruption and Bribery. Mindful People Meaningful Work. Retrieved.

[4] Transparency International UK. Fighting corruption worldwide Retrieve

[5] The United Nations Conventions against corruption. (Adopted 2005 December, 14). Retrieved

[6] The Africa Union convention on preventing and combating corruption. (Adopted 2003 July,12). Retrieved

[7] Donadio,R and Myser,S.L. (2011 May,6): New York Times. The US to try to release funds for rebels in Libya. Retrieved

[8] France to release frozen funds for Libya. 2011 September,1. Retrieved

[9] Daily Mail Report. (2011 March,2). Retrieved.

[10] United Nations , AP (2011 August,25): US:UN approves release of Libya funds (2011 August,25) : Retrieved

[11]Hunting down Gaddafi’s Money no easy task. Reuters. 2011 May,27. Retrieved.

[12] France Investigates Tunisia’s Zine- al-abidine Ben Ali. BBC NEWS. 2011 January, 2011. Retrieved

[13] Mendick,R.(2011 February,14). Mubarak last minute rush to hide his billion. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved.

[14] Denny, C (2004 March,27).New list ranks world leaders in corruption. Transparency International (2004). World News. London. Retrieved.

[15] Denny, C (2004 March,27).New list ranks world leaders in corruption. Transparency International (2004). World News. London. Retrieved.

[16] International Criminal Court | Po Box 19519 | 2500 CM | The Hague | The Netherlands |

The author is a student (MA) at the department of International Law and Human Rights at the United Nations mandated University (UPEACE), Costa Rica. E-mail address: