“The more effective a tool is in fighting corruption, the more governments will resist it”

In March 2019, the powers of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) to investigate corruption were significantly strengthened, allowing the agency to systemically verify the wealth of around 70,000 Palestinian public officials. These officials are obliged to fill in signed declarations of their assets and commercial interests. The declarations are compulsory when starting or leaving a public role that involves a corruption risk, as well as every five years in such a role.

EUPOL COPPS is supporting the PACC to make improvements to the asset declaration system. To aid this process, the Mission commissioned a report by a leading anti-corruption expert from Germany, Dr Tilman Hoppe. This report, delivered to the PACC on 9 September, provides a number of concrete recommendations, which if implemented, should have a demonstrable effect on the fight against corruption.

“Asset declarations are one of the most effective anti-corruption tools,” says Dr Hoppe. “We can see this because governments often fight their introduction. The more effective a tool is in fighting corruption, the more certain elites will resist it. You don’t get much resistance to code of conduct or ethics trainings. The situation is different for asset declarations”.

Isam Abdulhaleem, the General Director of the Asset Declarations Department of the PACC, agrees that asset declarations are effective in fighting corruption and emphasises the role that they have in increasing public trust in the institutions that represent them. “When we talk about asset declarations this is an issue of transparency. When an individual declares property and wealth, this is an embodiment of transparency. Self-accountability is also important – by making these declarations public officials are also checking themselves”.

“In terms of broader significance,” Mr Abdulhaleem continues, “we are talking about public funds and public office. Declarations increase trust in public institutions and public office, and anyone who is a public servant”.

The fact of having declarations is not enough however, stresses Dr Hoppe, noting that for an anti-corruption framework to be truly effective, it needs to be accompanied by sanctions. “We have examples of countries with state of the art systems – perfect in terms of collection of information and verification,” he says. “But you also need sanctions. In Indonesia for example, sanctions are only disciplinary, whereas in France or Greece you can go to jail for a long time if you lie on your asset declaration”.

Dr Hoppe also talks about the importance of having a system where officials can submit declarations electronically, which would make it much easier for all sides and also allow for the declarations to be analysed by a computer program for potential irregularities before further verification.

These are points on which Mr Abdulhaleem is in complete agreement. “We have a modest computer program which stores data”, he says “but the current program doesn’t analyse data. Because asset declarations are filled in manually, most of our work at PACC is done manually. The level of checking would be higher if there was an electronic system”.

A key recommendation in Dr Hoppe’s report is that data submitted in the declarations should be verified against data collected by other state bodies, for example the tax authorities, land registry, vehicle registry. “In an advanced system of good practice you can even check against bank accounts,” says Dr Hoppe. “You should be able to connect with any state authority. Some of the verification can be done by computer, with the human coming into play for the deeper analysis”.

The German expert also emphasises the importance of educating the whole criminal justice chain from investigators, to prosecutors to judges in how to identify and calculate inexplicable wealth as well as clear guidelines and training. “We know that lawyers aren’t usually strong with numbers,” he jokes. “And cases failed in other countries because of this. Does a loan count as income? These questions aren’t always easy”.

Dr Hoppe is complimentary about his Palestinian colleagues. “I was struck by how dynamic the staff at PACC are and how much they try to bring things forward. This is unusual. Often, I meet agencies, and there is a culture of ‘proactive waiting’. I had the opposite impression with PACC. This is a very good ground for changing things”.

Mr Abdulhaleem is proud of his role in fighting corruption, and also argues that tackling corruption is an essential part of the state building process. “As individuals, we believe in the goals of our job – we see fighting corruption as part of a national task that needs to be implemented. PACC has a national role, it’s fighting corruption, it’s not easy, but it’s a requirement for building a state and state institutions. Fighting corruption is the responsibility of society, and we feel like having a participatory approach including educating members of the public is the best way”.

Over the course of his career, Dr Hoppe has advised the anti-corruption authorities of many countries and analysed the anti-corruption frameworks of many more. He believes that the example of Georgia is a good one to follow, with a well-functioning digital system and strong verification mechanisms. He also mentions elements of Tunisia’s approach as being positive examples to follow. It can only be hoped that Palestine will also be cited in the future by anti-corruption experts as a standout global and regional leader in the fight against corruption.