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Introduction

It is no secret that over the past several years, respect for democratic institutions and human rights has deteriorated around the world. From China to Venezuela, Burma to Belarus, authoritarian regimes have become more aggressive, more violent, and more brazen. At the same time, democracies have become slower and less interested in responding to the global rise of authoritarianism, as they are preoccupied with domestic troubles. American and allied forces withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving millions at the mercy of the Taliban. Western politicians continue to tolerate corruption and transnational repression. And celebrities and businesses are mostly indifferent to whitewashing attempts by authoritarian regimes. Overall, democracies have done a poor job at holding dictators accountable, further emboldening them to carry out their abuses with impunity. 

As we head into 2022, we take a look at three noteworthy trends in our end-of-year blog series, “Truth Ignited: 2021 in Review,” that have manifested themselves in the rise of authoritarianism across the globe: corruption, transnational repression, and sportswashing.

On Corruption

By Alexander Sikorski

“An official taking a bribe, and a policeman pulling a bag over the head of a prisoner tied to a chair, are one and the same person.” — Alexey Navalny at the 2021 Oslo Freedom Forum

Abdujelil Helil was a wealthy businessman from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, located in northwestern China. He had earned praise from local Communist Party officials for his loyalty. However, he was also Uyghur. For several years now, under the guise of combating terrorism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has perpetuated a genocide against the Uyghurs, forcing them into labor camps, destroying their cultural sites, and forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women. In 2017, Chinese government officials came for Helil, accused him of financing terrorism, sentenced him to 14 years in prison, and seized $11 million in his assets. Following a secret trial in March 2021, the CCP further sentenced Helil for “membership in a terrorist organization.”

Helil’s story is not unique. Since 2017, dozens of wealthy Uyghur businessmen have been targeted by the Chinese government. Their assets are stolen, auctioned off, and then … the assets disappear. They are laundered within a global system of financial corruption, and can re-emerge as contemporary art, luxury sports cars, and penthouse apartments. Stolen money linked to the Uyghur genocide can end up financing the lavish lifestyles of Chinese kleptocrats in London, Paris, and New York. 

This system of global financial corruption is a grave danger to human rights and democratic values. Corruption hampers economic opportunity, erodes trust in institutions, corrodes the rule of law, and ultimately encourages regime officials to steal from vulnerable populations, safe in the knowledge that their ill-gotten gains can never be traced. Corruption is not exclusive to dictatorships, but it is fundamentally exacerbated by authoritarianism. In countries where there are no independent judiciaries, free press, or free and fair elections to hold leaders accountable for their crimes, corruption thrives.

For example, corruption has turned Venezuela, once the most prosperous country in South America, into a mafia state. The regime of Nicolás Maduro has mismanaged public assets and siphoned billions of dollars out of the oil rich nation, leading to nationwide shortages of food, medicine, and medical supplies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that since 2014, almost 6 million Venezuelans have fled the country as a result of the political and economic crisis. 

Maduro, and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, were able to accomplish this through fraudulent elections, packing courts, and destroying other democratic institutions in Venezuela to avoid being held accountable for their actions. This year, we got a glimpse of the scale of Maduro’s criminality when the United States extradited Alex Saab, one of the chief architects of Venezuelan corruption. Among other schemes, Saab used a government-subsidized food program called CLAP to steal hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of the Maduro regime, while using that same program to socially control destitute Venezuelans.

Understanding the extent of corruption is the first step to defeating it. In September 2021, investigators revealed the hidden assets of Republic of Congo President Sassou-Nguesso and his closest associates, linking over $32 million in stolen money to assets in New York, Dubai, and Florida. In October, a group of journalists published the Pandora Papers, a collection of almost 12 million documents that exposed the shadowy financial system that allows dictators and kleptocrats to launder and hide their money. Among other schemes, the papers revealed how Putin’s mistress used a shell company to purchase a house in Monaco, how the dictator of Azerbaijan, Ilham Alijev, has acquired dozens of expensive properties in London using secretive offshore companies, and how the Qatari ruling family dodged millions of dollars in taxes in the UK. In total, the Pandora Papers implicated 35 world leaders and over 300 public officials from 90 different countries, including judges, ministers, and mayors. 

The Pandora Papers demonstrated the vastness of the shady financial system that allows authoritarians and corrupt rulers around the world to hide their ill-obtained gains. However, the leak also showed how Western democracies enable authoritarian rulers to hide their corruption. Dictators and kleptocrats use Western financial secrecy tools, shell companies, and anonymous trusts to hide the sources of their income, and stash billions of stolen dollars into real estate and luxury goods in the world’s capital cities. They are helped along the way by a legion of consultants, accountants, lobbyists, and lawyers working without compunction.

The degree to which Western financial and political systems have been complicit in accommodating the financial needs of dictators and kleptocrats is scandalous. It is disgraceful that Kazakh and Chinese oligarchs can legally store their stolen money in anonymous trusts in South Dakota, that American banks like Goldman Sachs can spend billions in bribes for officials in Malaysia to raise money for a state-owned wealth fund, or that former German Chancellor — Gerhard Schroeder — after initiating the multibillion-dollar Nord Stream pipeline project while in office, could safely retire to become chairman of the supervisory board of Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft, which is on the European Union and United States’ sanctions list.

Activists already understand that the fight against corruption is the same as the struggle for freedom and human rights. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has been investigating the stolen money of Russia’s elite for years. This year, after failing to assassinate Navalny, Russian officials designated Navalny’s organization as extremist and sentenced him to life in a penal colony. However, as soon as Navalny was arrested, the Anti-Corruption Foundation released a documentary, “Putin’s Palace,” investigating President Vladimir Putin’s enormous luxury palace and the corruption scheme surrounding its construction. 

It is time for democracies to wake up.

Corruption perpetuates dictatorship worldwide, and makes homegrown authoritarianism more likely. Democracies should:

– Reform their financial systems, enforce transparency regulations, and make it impossible to hide the source of money in large financial transactions;

– Eliminate loopholes in the art market;

– More aggressively enforce existing anti-money laundering laws;

– Pass legislation similar to the Magnitsky Act and Khashoggi Ban, which sanction individuals and entities engaged in corruption and human rights violations; 

– Apply sanctions not just to the generals and colonels perpetrating human rights abuses, but also to the oligarchs whose interests they serve; and 

– Vigorously prosecute politicians, public officials, and businessmen for corruption. 

In order to stop human rights catastrophes like the Uyghur genocide and protect people like Abdujelil Helil, democracies should, at the very least, not help dictators launder their stolen treasure.

Conclusion

It is a recurring theme among commentators and analysts that democracy is under siege. Yet, 2021 has revealed that democratic movements show more determination and vigor than ever before. While dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping steal the headlines, activists around the globe are developing networks, devising new strategies, and harnessing the power of technology to turn the tide on authoritarianism. Truth is infectious, and as we learn more about the destructive power of corruption, the totalitarian nature of mass surveillance, and the complicity of celebrity power in authoritarianism, we draw more people to the cause of democracy. The new year brings many challenges, but we do not face these challenges alone; we stand in solidarity in our mission to promote and protect human rights globally.

Read the complete “Truth Ignited: 2021 in Review” blogs series below: