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Tackling Corruption in Paradise

Marie-Noélle Ferrieux-Patterson is no stranger to controversy.

I am lucky to live in Vanuatu, one of the South Pacific's most beautiful archipelagos and one of the best kept secrets left in the world.

With its population of only 200,000, no pollution, not one single traffic light, beautiful beaches, unspoiled tropical countryside--I cannot imagine what anyone could say or do to get me to move from Vanuatu.

But, as with all countries, there are two sides to Vanuatu. For nearly 15 years after her independence in 1980 from Britain and France there was no Ombudsman appointed as required by the Constitution. In 1994 I was appointed the republic's first Ombudsman and during the next five years issued more than 70 public reports implicating elected leaders and other officials in a wide range of abuses and serious crimes.

The free media endured difficult times during the early years of Independence, especially because of political interference, and there were few other checks and balances to the power of the government. When this was coupled with the prevailing view that it was improper to criticize 'big men' or leaders publicly, no wonder that my public reports came as quite a shock.

The reports' subject matter was quite varied, and what made them more dramatic was that they invariably involved cabinet ministers and prime ministers.

These leaders issued illegal Reserve Bank guarantees representing twice the annual budget; sold passports; plundered disaster relief funds; sold government assets and housing cheaply to themselves; robbed the nation's pension fund to award themselves non-commercial housing loans; and paid themselves illegal compensation from public funds for alleged political grievances.

It is often said that corruption is the Pacific drug, and perhaps such blatant corruption would not happen in a developed country. But people where I live are no different from those anywhere else. How different in essence are the cleverly concealed antics of certain European politicians?

I remember years ago hearing someone say, 'If you want to be seen, stand up. If you want to be heard, speak up. But if you want to be liked, shut up.'

We live in a world of politically correct soundbites and mind-numbing jargon. Bribes and kickbacks are known as 'facilitation payments'. Large corporations vehemently deny making the former, yet I read recently that Unilever and BP Amoco have admitted to making the latter.

I have been asked, 'How did the Ombudsman of a tiny state like Vanuatu gain international recognition?'

By not being diplomatic; by not being put off by the 'bullying tactics' of those implicated in my public reports; by ignoring the insults to me and my family made by leaders in Parliament, on radio and television and in newspapers; by refusing to be intimidated by such extreme actions as an assassination plot, planned against me by a government minister. I can tell you it is a chilling experience to read the statements made by those involved in plotting your death.

But to surrender to these fears only makes it easier for evil people to control how we all live. I was encouraged from the beginning by widespread support from the general public and civil society--the churches, the chiefs and ordinary people.

I was often told, 'Be careful not to offend people.' But I would say that we need to be prepared to offend people more. Surely I am not alone in having discovered that corrupt people have thicker skins than almost any creature alive!

During my mandate the office underwent a series of attacks through the courts.

In November 1996 former Chief Minister Leymang sued the Ombudsman, alleging constitutional breaches. The case finally ended up in the Appeal Court which gave Leymang one final opportunity to provide answers for the Ombudsman's inquiry--which he did.

In July 1997 the Cabinet petitioned the President to dismiss me as Ombudsman. The Ombudsman Office applied for an order declaring the decision illegal and prohibiting further steps. In October the Court ruled the Cabinet decision contrary to the rule of law. This was the first time an executive decision had been both challenged and struck down in Vanuatu's Supreme Court.

In November 1997 Vanuatu's Parliament repealed the Ombudsman Act. Virtually all MPs voting in favour had been implicated for corruption or misuse of power in reports. The President refused his assent and referred the Bill to the Supreme Court for a constitutional opinion. The President later dissolved parliament citing corruption as a reason, and the dissolution was upheld by the Appeal Court. A new act was eventually passed.

Vanuatu and the many other small Pacific countries are not unusual in finding it almost impossible to accept the idea of our leaders being brought to court. We have had no successful prosecutions for the simple reason that none has been attempted. Our most corrupt leaders are still in power. This undermines people's faith in justice.

Over the last few years the Vanuatu Government has ostensibly been carrying out a comprehensive reform of the public service institutions (supported by the Asian Development Bank) but nothing has been done to strengthen the Public Prosecutor's Office and police investigative procedures.

However, the positive result of my work as Ombudsman is that at least the information is in the public domain. Leaders and numerous illegal schemes have been thoroughly exposed which in itself acts as a deterrent. There is a stronger free media--and that makes it more difficult to abuse the public trust, or the public purse.

Until our children, in every country, are taught a doctrine of personal responsibility and self-discipline; and until self-indulgent spoiled parents stop raising self-indulgent spoiled children, it is difficult to be as optimistic as one would like.

As individuals in today's world it is difficult to think we can make a difference. Mergers of companies and countries into increasingly large blocs can make us feel less and less able to influence, let alone change, anything.

Yet small actions can and do make a difference, which is just as well because it is the only thing most of us have the opportunity to do. If an ordinary professional woman and mother like myself can help to change one tiny part of the world in a positive way, so can the thousands of other dedicated people who like me want to leave a better world to our children.

This article is based on a speech given to the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Prague last October.

By Marie-Noélle Ferrieux-Patterson

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