The United Nations Convention against Corruption is the only legally binding universal anti-corruption instrument. UNCAC's far-reaching approach and many mandatory provisions makes it a unique tool for addressing a global problem.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) serves as the custodian of the Convention and as the Secretariat of its Conference of States Parties. The Convention covers five main areas: preventive measures, criminalization and law enforcement, international cooperation, asset recovery, and technical assistance and information exchange. The Convention covers many different forms of corruption, such as bribery, trading in influence, abuse of functions, and various acts of corruption in the private sector.
The text of the United Nations Convention against Corruption was negotiated during seven sessions of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Negotiation of the Convention against Corruption, held between January 2002 and October 2003. The Ad Hoc Committee was allowed maximum flexibility in its mandate to negotiate the terms and content for the Convention, bearing in mind existing legal instruments (such as the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime) and how to most effectively build upon them.
The subsequent negotiations covered aspects related to scope and substance of the new Convention and with wide support for a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach for developing the text, delegations provided their feedback on a range of topics including which forms of corruption should be covered by the Convention, whether civil and administrative law measures should be added along with criminal provisions, and the importance of giving weight to both prevention and enforcement measures.
The Merida Papers, a compilation of reports of side events held during the High-level Political Conference for the Purpose of Signing the United Nations Convention against Corruption, organized jointly by the Government of Mexico and UNODC in 2003 provides a foreword by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, underscoring the importance of addressing the issues arising from corruption.
The United Nations Convention against Corruption was adopted by the UN General Assembly in October 2003 and entered into force in December 2005 with 140 signatories and 187 States Parties as of February 2020. The development and enforcement of this treaty is a notable feat given its global coverage and the scope of its provisions related to corruption, which address both preventive and punitive measures. UNCAC also addresses the cross-border nature of corruption by accounting for the need for international cooperation and conditions related to the return of stolen assets. Notably, the Convention also underscores the importance of the role civil society organizations play with regard to accountability and monitoring of processes related to asset return in order to ensure access to information for citizens.
At the High-level event marking the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention, the former Executive Director of UNODC, Yury Fedotov, spoke about the Convention’s integral role in fighting corruption and the number of countries adopting new laws or amending existing legislation based on the peer review mechanism, and thanked those working in the asset recovery arena, including the StAR Initiative for some notable strides. Find the full remarks here.
The following provisions of UNCAC pertain to legal measures available to States Parties in addressing corruption cases.
Corruption can be prosecuted after the fact, but first and foremost, it requires prevention. An entire chapter of the Convention is dedicated to prevention (Chapter IV), with measures directed at both the public and private sectors. These include model preventive policies, such as the establishment of anticorruption bodies and enhanced transparency in the financing of election campaigns and political parties. States must endeavour to ensure that their public services are subject to safeguards that promote efficiency, transparency and recruitment based on merit. Once recruited, public servants should be subject to codes of conduct, requirements for financial and other disclosures, and appropriate disciplinary measures. Transparency and accountability in matters of public finance must also be promoted, and specific requirements are established for the prevention of corruption, in the particularly critical areas of the public sector, such as the judiciary and public procurement. Those who use public services must expect a high standard of conduct from their public servants. Preventing public corruption also requires an effort from all members of society at large. For these reasons, the Convention calls on countries to promote actively the involvement of non-governmental and community-based organizations, as well as other elements of civil society, and to raise public awareness of corruption and what can be done about it. Article 5 of the Convention enjoins each State Party to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.
Chapter III of the Convention requires countries to establish criminal and other offences to cover a wide range of acts of corruption, if these are not already crimes under domestic law. In some cases, States are legally obliged to establish offences; in other cases, in order to take into account differences in domestic law, they are required to consider doing so. The Convention goes beyond previous instruments of this kind, criminalizing not only basic forms of corruption such as bribery and the embezzlement of public funds, but also trading in influence and the concealment and laundering of the proceeds of corruption. Offences committed in support of corruption, including money-laundering and obstructing justice, are also dealt with. Convention offences also deal with the problematic areas of private-sector corruption.
requires countries in its Chapter III to establish criminal and other offences to cover a wide range of acts of corruption, if these are not already crimes under domestic law. In some cases, States are legally obliged to establish offences; in other cases, in order to take into account differences in domestic law, they are required to consider doing so. The Convention goes beyond previous instruments of this kind, criminalizing not only basic forms of corruption such as bribery and the embezzlement of public funds, but also trading in influence and the concealment and laundering of the proceeds of corruption. Offences committed in support of corruption, including money-laundering and obstructing justice, are also dealt with. Convention offences also deal with the problematic areas of private-sector corruption.
In a major breakthrough, countries agreed on asset-recovery, which is stated explicitly as a fundamental principle of the Convention in its Chapter V. No other international instruments before this Convention declared asset recovery as their fundamental principles and regulated it in such a detail. This is a particularly important issue for many developing countries where high-level corruption has plundered the national wealth, and where resources are badly needed for reconstruction and the rehabilitation of societies under new governments. Reaching agreement on this chapter has involved intensive negotiations, as the needs of countries seeking the illicit assets had to be reconciled with the legal and procedural safeguards of the countries whose assistance is sought. Several provisions specify how cooperation and assistance will be rendered. In particular, according to article 57, in the case of embezzlement of public funds, the confiscated property would be returned to the state requesting it; in the case of proceeds of any other offence covered by the Convention, the property would be returned providing the proof of ownership or recognition of the damage caused to a requesting state; in all other cases, priority consideration would be given to the return of confiscated property to the requesting state, to the return of such property to the prior legitimate owners or to compensation of the victims. Chapter V has also become a basis for the establishment of the StAR Initiative.
Implementation Review Mechanism
The Implementation Review Mechanism (IRM) is a peer review process that assists States parties to effectively implement the Convention. The Mechanism promotes the purposes of the Convention, provides the Conference of the States Parties with information on measures taken by States parties in implementing the Convention and the difficulties encountered by them in doing so, and helps States parties to identify and substantiate specific needs for technical assistance and to promote and facilitate the provision of such assistance. In addition, the Mechanism promotes and facilitates international cooperation, provides the Conference with information on successes, good practices and challenges of States parties in implementing and using the Convention, and promotes and facilitates the exchange of information, practices and experiences gained in the implementation of the Convention.
In accordance with the terms of reference, each State party is reviewed by two peers which are selected by a drawing of lots at the beginning of each year of the review cycle. For review of each State party, one peer reviewer will be from the same regional group. The functioning and the performance of the IRM is guided and overseen by the Implementation Review Group, an open-ended intergovernmental group of States parties which is a subsidiary body of the CoSP and was created together with the IRM in Resolution 3/1.
Learn more about the Implementation Review Mechanism on the UNODC website.
Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption
The Conference of the States Parties (COSP) is the main policymaking body of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. It supports States parties and signatories in their implementation of the Convention, and gives policy guidance to UNODC to develop and implement anti-corruption activities.
The Conference was established, as per article 63 of the Convention:
To improve the capacity of States to implement the Convention;
To enhance cooperation among States in achieving the objectives of the Convention; and
To promote and review the implementation of the Convention.
The Conference meets every two years and adopts resolutions and decisions in furtherance of its mandate. The United Nations on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) serves as the Secretariat of the Conference. All States that have ratified the Convention are part of the Conference, while signatories are entitled to participate as observers in the Conference. Non-signatories, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations can apply for observer status at its sessions.
The Conference has created subsidiary bodies, operating under its mandate, to assist in carrying out its work. They are meant to advise the Conference and make recommendations to help deliver its mandate (in accordance with article 63, paragraph 7 of the Convention).
UNCAC-related subsidiary bodies
The Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption has multiple subsidiary bodies which are responsible for the review and monitoring of different aspects of the Convention. The Implementation Review Group conducts an overview of the review process and considers technical assistance requirements for the effective implementation of the Convention and holds on session and a maximum of two resumed sessions per year. The Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Prevention (called the ‘Working Group on Prevention’) is responsible for advising and assisting the Conference in regard to preventive measures under chapter II of UNCAC and meets once a year. The Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Asset Recovery (called the ‘Working Group on Asset Recovery’, ARWG) is in charge of assisting and advising the Conference of the States Parties in the implementation of its mandate with the return of proceeds of corruption. This function is pursuant to Chapter V of the Convention, which enshrines the recovery and return of stolen as a fundamental principle of the Convention. The ARWG holds one intersessional meeting per year. The open-ended intergovernmental expert meetings to enhance international cooperation under the United Nations Convention against Corruption is convened once a year and addresses the functions of developing cumulative knowledge in the area of international cooperation and encourage such cooperation, facilitate the exchange of experiences among States parties and assist the Conference in identifying the capacity-building needs of States.