The anti-corruption law, due to come into force on June 1, is one of the most long-awaited pieces of legislation in Vietnam. Christoph Wiesner, counsellor at the Delegation of the European Commission to Vietnam talks about the law and how it can be implemented effectively and what the government should do to close the avenues for corruption.
The anti-corruption law indicates the government is getting more serious than ever about addressing the increasingly complicated corruption problems in Vietnam. What are the most positive elements you see in this law?
Firstly, we highly appreciate the transparency of the drafting process of the law. The Vietnamese government very much encouraged the submission of ideas and comments by local interested parties and also by the international, especially the donor, community. Sweden, particularly, contributed to drafting the text. We feel that this is a very positive model of openness and transparency in legislating.
The law itself constitutes an important step towards a comprehensive legal framework for the prevention of public sector corruption. However, some provisions could have been strengthened to make the fight against corruption more effective., Also, much defends on the implementing decrees and what comes afterwards in terms of a comprehensive and multidisciplinary national strategy against corruption, action plans and so on. As the law concentrates on tackling corruption within the state sector, it will have to be complemented by legislation addressing corruption also in the rapidly growing private sector.
You said some points of the law need to be strengthened. Can you elaborate?
Declaration of assets is one of the key points of the law. International experience shows that asset declaration potentially is a very useful tool against corruption. But of course it depends on how the system of declaring assets and then checking up on the declarations is implemented. Declarations have to be processed in an effective way, and also in a uniform manner across the country.
International experience shows that this is best ensured by setting up a single central authority in charge of checking declarations. Decentralisation of the administration of collecting and checking declarations of officials not only creates the danger that the application will not be as uniform as one could wish, but also creates potential conflicts of interest as senior officials in a given authority have to supervise their own direct colleagues.
There are comments that the rule on asset declarations is words rather than substance. Do you agree?
The fact that this is now on the statute books is already an important step. But it will be a big challenge to implement the rule effectively. I would like to mention another practical aspect. The cash-based nature of the Vietnamese economy makes it very difficult to follow the flow of funds and verify declarations. This facilitates covering up corruption. Measures are therefore needed to further reduce the circulation of cash in the country, in order to ensure that the asset declaration provision is effective. This will also help in detecting and investigating corruption in general.
As you might know, there were many calls for the National Assembly to set up an independent anti-corruption agency. But the now there is to be a steering committee with staff seconded from key existing agencies. Does this means that the ‘independence’ of such a committee is in doubt?
Certainly, empirical evidence -shows that that the fight against corruption is best led by a single agency with wide-ranging powers and operational independence, which enables it to effectively investigate allegations of corruption, bring prosecutions, and heighten public awareness. This is the model chosen in the region notably by Singapore and Hong Kong, where it has had excellent results. These are relatively small jurisdictions, which make it easier to have a comprehensive impact. Also, let’s look at the UN anti-corruption convention that Vietnam signed in 2003. The convention stresses that there should be an agency which has the necessary independence to do its job.
Once again, we have to see how the present system under the new law will work out. On the one hand, it is of course easier to start with an agency with members from existing concerned units such as the government Inspectorate and the Supreme People’s Court. The major problem is coordination among those units when working on this mission. The question is whether the National Steering I
Committee can impose strict disciplines on the agencies involved and effectively coordinate all government action.
Does the electorate’s proposal signal that it does not believe in the efficiency, fairness and transparency of those existing agencies?
I believe it was the deputy head of the government Inspectorate himself who pointed out that the Inspectorate is dealing with a large range of issues and does not focus on corruption specifically. I see this as indicating the need to have a specific agency to fight corruption, with all the relevant specialisation and expertise.
What is the key problem that Vietnam should address first and foremost to crack down on corruption: the lack of transparency in laws, raising salaries for state employees, accelerating administrative reform or harsher punishments?
I think a mix of all these is needed. Of course, it is important to punish those who are corrupt, but it is first and foremost necessary to put in place mechanisms to prevent corruption. That means you have to create decision-making processes which ensure that opportunities for corruption are limited in the first place. It is crucial to limit provisions in the laws, decrees and circulars which give discretion to the authorities. Another important factor is to limit the number of authorities that one has to deal with to get something done. Greater use of ‘one-stop-shop’ mechanisms would help limit the scope for corruption.
Of course, state employees need to have an income which makes it possible for them to have a reasonable living standard. But a code of conduct for the public sector is also very important. It is quite interesting to see the result of a survey conducted recently by the Party. It is quite clear from the answers of respondents -officials, businesspeople and also citizens that they thought the main reason was deficiencies in policy and regulation. They saw these as far more important than personal or culture related issues. So it is not about low salary, or worsening morality in general, or about a “culture of giving gifts”, but about the quality of regulations and about cumbersome and overlapping administrative procedures.
We know there is a lot of corruption in Indonesia and the Philippines. Do you think corruption is a normal thing for a developing country? And as Vietnam is a developing country, can this be considered a normal state of affairs?
If you look at surveys done in different parts of the world, you tend to find that at lower levels of development, there is usually more’ corruption. But no country is immune, as any developed country including in the ED, which neglects the issue, will soon find out to its
I detriment. The key issue is good governance -a system characterised by predictable and open policymaking, the rule of law, transparent processes, and a strong civil society participating in public affairs. Wherever governance is not as good as it should be, there is scope for corruption.
Quite a few Vietnamese people think that graft and corruption is a normal thing. So, do you think educating an important factor?
Awareness-raising is important. Citizens and officials may not understand the full extent of the damage that corruption causes at the national level. Citizens, the media, as well as civil society in general have an important role to play in the fight against corruption. It is crucial that they are invited and encouraged to contribute to the effort.
Is corruption in Vietnam getting to the point that it is alarming?
Corruption has not prevented the country from making very impressive strides in socio-economic development. But it is clear that corruption in Vietnam has reached a level where it causes serious concern for the population, the government, and also for international donors.
Some argue that pluralism would promote democracy, thus, there would be less corruption. Do you think the fact that Vietnam is a single-party state is a major reason behind the rampant corruption in Vietnam?
Interestingly, if you look at international surveys, such as the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, there is no clear correlation between a pluralist democracy and the absence of corruption. Some democracies do not fare all that well in terms of corruption, while there are a few examples of countries which have been successful in taming corruption even without having a democratic system in the Western sense because they are governed well. But having and maintaining good governance is easier in a democratic system with separation of powers, institutional checks and balances and, above all, where the government is overseen and controlled by the people.
The EU is the biggest donor for Vietnam. Do you detect any signs of corruption in projects receiving ODA from European countries?
Wherever large amounts of money are spent, there is potentially scope for corruption. What we are doing by putting in place transparent and clear procurement procedures, not least in the context of our aid harmonisation initiative, is to reduce the opportunities for corruption.
There are arguments that the problematic issue relating to corruption in Vietnam is not only that the Vietnamese government has the ability to tackle it or not but whether they have will to go further. The point here is, for instance, high-profile cases often involve too many people including those at a very high level.
In Vietnam, there is both petty corruption and corruption in high places. Both are harmful to society. It is important of course that the leadership leads by example. As former Party Secretary general Le Kha Phieu pointed out in an interview some months ago, corruption, once it becomes “drug resistant”, can destabilise the entire political system -as in all countries.
We have seen cases in recent years where high-level officials have been tried and convicted of corruption. It is essential to ensure and show that nobody is above the law, regardless of his or her position and status.