Corruption, or “the misuse of public office for private gain”, is immoral and bad in numerous ways, but it’s not a human rights violation. At least not as such. To my knowledge, human rights law doesn’t contain an explicit right not to suffer the consequences of corruption. However, it is the case that corruption causes various rights violations. For example, it can often be viewed as a form of theft and hence a violation of the right to private property. And in the case of corruption in the justice system, the right to a fair trial is violated.
Moreover, corruption has a negative impact on GDP (see here) – mainly because it’s a tax on investment – and hence also on poverty reduction (given the correlation between GDP and poverty reduction, see here, here and here). And there is a right not to suffer poverty. Corruption also has an impact on poverty on the level of individuals rather than countries. It’s obvious that individuals – especially those who are poor or near the poverty line – can make better use of the funds that they have to spend on bribes.
Furthermore, corruption eats away at the rule of law. Even in the most corrupt countries, corruption is usually illegal. If illegal activity becomes normal practice, the rule of law is obviously undermined, with possible consequences for judicial protection in general, including protection of human rights. The rule of law is also harmed directly by corruption, namely by corruption inside the judiciary and the police force, and this has an immediate impact on human rights. Even more seriously, corruption is associated with political instability since it tends to reduce citizens’ trust and faith in institutions. It can therefore destroy democracy, and democracy is both a human right and a means to protect human rights in general.
So, if we can agree that corruption is a cause of various human rights violations, then the question is: who is responsible for corruption and hence for the rights violations occurring because of it? I would say that it’s the government officials taking bribes (and possibly the banks safeguarding the proceeds) rather than the private persons or companies paying the bribes, at least in general. The latter would presumably prefer not to pay bribes and often find themselves in situations in which they have no choice.
Now, you could say that some corrupt officials, especially those at the lower levels of government, don’t have a choice either: without the proceeds of corruption they may well end up in poverty. Demanding bribes is then the alternative for a failed economy and a failed state. However, I think it’s fair to claim that they still have, in general, a wider set of options than many of those having to pay bribes. If you’re stopped by the police and they ask you for a bribe, it seems that your options are more constrained than the options of the police asking for the bribe. It seems easier for the police to find additional non-corrupt sources of income than it is for you to escape the demands of the police. Of course, this isn’t the case in all types of corruption. For example, a large multinational company may find it relatively easy to pay a bribe, and may have more options than the official who’s asking the bribe (and it may very well solicit the payment of the bribe in the first place as a way to outsmart competitor companies).
Next question: what to do about it? Everyone agrees that corruption is bad, and many believe that it’s bad for human rights, but almost no one seems to know how to stop it. And it is, indeed, a problem that is as old as history. One thing we could do is spell out the issue of corruption more clearly in terms of human rights. However, human rights claims by the victims of corruption are probably not very effective, since one consequence of corruption is the weakening or destruction of the judicial institutions necessary for the enforcement of human rights. In that sense, linking corruption and human rights may seem futile or at least of limited practical use.
However, human rights claims aren’t just legal claims that depend on functioning and non-corrupt institutions to be enforced. They are also moral claims and they can have some effect as such. They can be used to denounce widespread systems of corruption and thereby help to change a culture and a mentality, especially over the long run. But moral claims will not destroy endemic corruption by themselves. Countries that suffer high degrees of corruption probably need external help in institution building. Also, economic development will probably reduce corruption, given the correlation cited above between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption. Helping countries to develop will then also help them to fight corruption.
This is an interesting talk about ways to fight corruption (the relevant part starts around the 5th minute):
- Human Rights Watch: Police Corruption in Nigeria (huffingtonpost.com)
- Report: Bribes fuel corruption in Nigeria police (sfgate.com)