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Slate: Why the Anti-Corruption Movement Is the New Human Rights Movement

Author: Anne Applebaum
December 13, 2012

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Still in its infancy, the international anti-corruption movement has the potential to enhance and augment human-rights rhetoric enormously. Both rely on arguments about justice, fairness, and the rule of law.

Riots across Tunisia, December 2010. Demonstrations in Moscow, December 2011. Fasts and street marches in New Delhi, March 2012—plus street movements in Slovenia, Quebec, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Wukan in southern China, among others, throughout the past two years. What do they all have in common? The answer is corruption, or rather the desire to end corruption, which is now the primary motivating factor for dozens of political movements around the world.

Of course, many of the riots, strikes, street demonstrations, and much of the political turmoil we've witnessed in the past two years have other sources, too. Many, most notably those in Tunisia and Russia, were anti-authoritarian, and in Tunisia they overthrew the regime. But even there, political anger was fuelled by stories of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife, and their relatives, particularly after an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described "The Family" and their hotels, factories, and real estate, sometimes expropriated from other people, and usually exploited with connections and outright extortion. The riots which followed were anti-regime, anti-corruption, and anti-repression, all at once.

In Russia, last winter's protesters likewise made no distinction between their repressive political system and the corruption of their political class: On the contrary, as their leaders have argued, the one exists in order to feed the other. On a website he created, dedicated to the investigation of local and municipal corruption, Alexei Navalny, the most prominent member of this new generation of Russian "dissidents," explains bluntly: "Why is all of this necessary? Because pensioners, doctors, and teachers are practically starving while the thieves in power buy ever more villas, yachts, and the devil knows what else." Although Russians still allude to the ideals of the past—last December, one Moscow demonstrator carried a "We need a Havel" placard—Navalny still doesn't talk much about human rights or democracy. Instead, he talks about money: who has it, who stole it, who misspent it, who smuggled it out of the country.

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