Department of Justice Seal
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
World Economic Forum - Davos, Switzerland
January 22, 2004

(Please Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)

Thank you. It is a pleasure to join you here in Switzerland. I thank President [Klaus] Schwab and the World Economic Forum for the invitation to speak with you today.

Last year when many of us met here, the focus was quite naturally on our common effort against global terrorism. Our terrorist enemies have sworn to decimate liberty, to undermine the rule of law and to disrupt free markets. We, in turn, have banded together in defense of our ideals. Terrorists sought a world divided by hate and oppression, but instead have helped to unite all freedom-loving nations.

We are winning this war against terrorism. But there are other threats to our values, and to the capacity of business and government to work together to end the plague of poverty and expand human achievement. I would like to discuss one of the most pressing threats to opportunity and human achievement today … corruption … and how the world is uniting to combat it.

The fight against corruption has commanded my attention since my first days of service as Attorney General. My first international responsibility was to lead the U.S. delegation to the second World Forum on corruption held in The Hague in 2001. In the intervening years, the international effort against terrorism has not obscured my dream of government integrity and public trust. In fact, last month, I joined with officials of 94 other nations in Merida, Mexico, for the signing of the landmark United Nations International Convention Against Corruption.

Just as our most basic ideals of liberty and the rule of law can be traced back to the time of Hammurabi, so, too, can the threat corruption poses to those ideals.

Moses warned the children of Israel, quote, "Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous." Mohammed, referring to giving what is due the people, said, quote, "Give full measure and full weight in justice. Do not evil in the earth, causing corruption."

The 20th Century taught us forcefully that free people operating in free markets are the greatest force man has ever known for overcoming the scourge of poverty, while creating opportunity and achievement for all.

The success of this system, though, depends on a marketplace of integrity. When governments play favorites … when they award contracts and make decisions based on corruption that favors the connected, rather than competition that favors the citizenry … freedom is stymied.

When corruption intrudes, the invisible hand that guides the market is replaced by a greased palm. And officials who pocket payoffs do not just violate the integrity of the marketplace.

They tax the poor to benefit the corrupt.

They deny their people better roads, cleaner water, and stronger schools.

They strangle the culture of productivity that is the death knell of impoverishment and the life force of human achievement.

The goal of law enforcement, then, is clear: Equal opportunity in the marketplace must be defended. Trust must not be abused. Confidence must be sustained. The marketplace of integrity must not be contaminated by a corrupt contagion of greed.

Shockingly, until recently, corruption … and terrorism for that matter … were viewed as regional problems beyond international discussion and cooperation.

In some nations, bribes were actually allowed as tax write-offs, a cost to be deducted at home for doing business abroad. These governments engaged in the delusion that they could subsidize bribe-paying abroad while expecting these same companies to behave morally at home.

But let me be clear: no society has ever been totally free from corruption. Even the most successful and longest-established market societies experience corruption. For example, in 2002, the United States Justice Department dealt with more than 1,000 federal prosecutions of corrupt officials on the federal, state and local levels.

World Bank studies estimate that negative effects of corruption can reduce a country's economic growth rate by as much as a full percentage point each year.

Overall, the World Bank estimates that the cost of corruption represents about seven percent of the annual world economy, roughly 2.3 trillion dollars. This is a staggering amount … a figure that is equal to the entire federal budget of the United States government [2.2 trillion dollars].

Think of the jobs, the infrastructure, and the educational systems that 2.3 trillion dollars could provide if it were redirected from the personal enrichment of the corrupt to the public service of the people. Think of the rising tide of trust and productivity that would result … a tide that would lift all citizens, especially the poor among us.

Today, with accelerated economic globalization and rapid advances in technology, corruption is a contagion that cannot be contained by borders. Corruption facilitates and perpetuates such transnational criminal activity as organized crime, money laundering, drug trafficking, and the smuggling of human beings.

Corruption provides sanctuary to the forces of terror, aiding the smuggling of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons materials.

Corruption draws the business community into a web of deceit and graft, making them co-conspirators in picking the pockets of ordinary people. After all, if businesses must pay to gain a position, they will make certain that position pays off.

Corruption saps the legitimacy of democratic governments. In its extreme forms, corruption even threatens democracy itself, because democracy lives on trust, and corruption destroys trust.

Perhaps worst of all, corruption limits the unique ability of all human beings to flourish in freedom.

Austrian economist and Nobel Prize-winner, Friedrich von Hayek, noted in his seminal book, "The Road to Serfdom," that when man is able to pursue his goals unfettered in an open, competitive market place of integrity, the creative capacity in him is unleashed, benefiting all.

Freedom's greatest gift is the ability of every individual to fulfill his or her God-given potential. When corruption robs us of this gift, it diminishes each and every one of us.

I believe that with an understanding of the threat posed by corruption also comes an opportunity for us to defeat it. If corruption is an age-old threat, the 21st Century presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to defeat it through a combination of visionary leadership, unprecedented cooperation, and openness and transparency.

First, leadership.

To be sustainable over time, the political will necessary to succeed against corruption requires a moral foundation. Economic and political interests may shift, but the morality of fighting corruption is a constant. It is common ground that all governments and private citizens can and should share.

The Honorable Ki Raitu Murungi, the Minister of Justice in Kenya, explained why his country was combating corruption. Quote, "[Corruption] has killed our children. It has destroyed our society. It is the fundamental cause of our high levels of poverty, unemployment and social backwardness. For us in Kenya, the fight against corruption is a matter of life and death. It cannot wait for tomorrow. The time is now."

Notably, Kenya was the first nation to ratify the U.N. anti-corruption treaty, and it is to be congratulated for taking that courageous step. But words of leadership must be backed by actions of leadership, and this is my second point: the unprecedented level of cooperation that is developing to combat corruption.

Back in the 1970s, investigations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed unethical and immoral practices on the part of American firms seeking business abroad. In response to public outrage, the United States passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977.

This act, with its strong criminal penalties, influenced American businesses to develop corporate compliance codes and to establish ethical guidelines to fight bribery and corruption. To enlist other countries in the movement toward good governance, the United States strongly supported the OECD Anti-bribery Convention, which entered into force in 1999 and now has 35 nations working together to help strengthen its implementation.

Over the past ten years, multilateral organizations such as the Organization of American States, the Council of Europe, and the Southern African Development Community have all committed to some form of a mutual peer review process designed to identify, combat and prevent corruption.

In addition, we have seen the creation of the Global Forum on Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity, which on two occasions during the past three years has gathered more than 100 nations to discuss ways to combat corruption.

These regional and multilateral efforts culminated in the signing of the U.N. treaty to combat corruption in Merida, Mexico, last month. As evidenced by the 95 nations that signed the U.N. treaty, there is now a worldwide conviction that the crime of corruption … which sacrifices prosperity for personal profit, and human achievement for human greed … must be defeated. With each prosecution of a corrupt government official, we reinforce the principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people.

We must use the tools of investigation and prosecution to bring the corrupt to justice, but we must also do more.

We know from our war against terrorism that it is not enough to act after attacks have been perpetrated. To defeat terrorism we must prevent acts from occurring in the first place. Just as we cannot wait for the next terrorist to strike, we must not wait for the next bribe to be paid before moving to stop future corrupt activity.

Technology gives us the tools we need to be forward-looking in the fight against corruption … to achieve a world in which corruption is not merely prosecuted, but prevented … not merely detected, but deterred.

This is my third point: Information - or transparency - is the enemy of corruption. Corruption feeds and breeds from secrecy and ignorance. It cannot thrive under the light spread by an open, informed society.

Today, with the explosive growth of the Internet and 500-channel digital satellite broadcasting, information has never moved more quickly, to more people, with more purpose. As the various financial crises and our effort to deal with the corporate scandals in the United States has confirmed, information is the most therapeutic resource we have in achieving integrity in our markets and in our government.

When evidence of corruption is presented to the public, institutions are held accountable. In this way, open government becomes an essential tool to creating good government.

One example of this is in Uganda. When the government there published the amount of funds allocated to local school districts, the amount actually received by the schools rose from 28 percent to 90 percent.

Transparency and openness facilitates not only a flow of information, but also a flow of capital. This is particularly helpful in developing nations, where investors have shown an unwillingness to make large commitments to development efforts without signs of governmental integrity.

To encourage transparency and accountability, President Bush created the Millennium Challenge Account, which pledges $5 billion in development aid over the next three years. But this new assistance will only be made available to countries that rule justly, invest in their people and stand firmly against corruption.

The United States is committed to working with other governments, citizens, businesses and non-governmental organizations to defeat corruption. By declaring that corruption is not an acceptable part of doing business, we will spread the blessings of freedom and the rule of law. Impoverishment will be vanquished. Opportunity and human achievement will be available to all, not just the privileged and corrupt few.

Twenty-eight months ago, all free nations were called to defend freedom from terrorism. Today we are called to defend our freedom from corruption. Each of us must pledge to answer this call, because, in the end, government alone cannot promote the opportunity and achievement that flourish in the absence of corruption. It is up to business leaders and government leaders alike to set high ethical standards. And if we do, we will turn a zero-sum contest of corruption into a framework of freedom that benefits all.

For with each word of leadership, we send the unmistakable message that government will not be sold to the highest bidder.

With each example of courage, we send the message that the poor will not be held hostage by the greedy and corrupt.

And with each act of justice, we send the message that citizens - all citizens - will not be denied the opportunity to achieve a better, more prosperous life in a world of freedom.

Thank you very much.