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An assessment of the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption efforts: GRECO publishes Austria’s report

By Gustavo Prieto*

There is a relationship between corruption— broadly understood as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain— and the violation of human rights. This is because corrupt political and juridical decisions are not taken based on the criterion of lawfulness; indeed, they circumvent the rule of law, which is a necessary pre-condition for the respect of human rights. For this reason, it is important to understand what legal mechanisms for tackling corruption are appropriate from an international standpoint

One of these mechanisms is the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), an initiative established in 1999 under the auspices of the Council of Europe, which comprises 50 member states, some of them outside Europe. GRECO's goal is to monitor States' compliance with anti-corruption standards using mutual evaluations and what is referred to as "peer pressure." (here). One of the principal characteristics of GRECO's framework is that it predefines concrete categories to use in evaluating the fight against corruption.

This month GRECO made public its Interim Compliance Report from the Fourth Evaluation Round on Austria (here). This report is an opportunity not only to assess the current state of the fight against corruption in Austria, but also to gain insight into many important features of the GRECO legal framework.

The Fourth Round Evaluation Report on Austria was adopted at GRECO's 73rd Plenary Meeting (2016) dealing with "Corruption prevention in respect of members of parliament, judges, and prosecutors" and offered 19 recommendations (here). As required by GRECO's Rules of Procedure, Austria's authorities submitted a Situation Report on measures taken to implement the recommendations addressed in the Evaluation Report. However, the first compliance report (here) concluded in 2019 found that Austria had only dealt adequately with one of these original recommendations: establishing publicity of hearings in administrative matters as a general rule for all administrative courts, with a limited number of exceptions determined by law.

The just-published Interim Compliance Report assesses the implementation of the 18 pending recommendations since the adoption of the Compliance Report. GRECO reported that Austria had made significant progress on only one of the pending recommendations: the need to ensure that all relevant categories of judges be bound by a Code of conduct. The 2021 Report acknowledged that a summary of important rules of conduct had been published and made accessible to all Austrian judicial employees on 28 March 2019.

Nonetheless, GRECO noted, the remaining 17 recommendations had not yet been adequately addressed. For example, one of these recommendations was introducing a system of periodic appraisals for judges, including the presidents of courts, and using the results of these appraisals in decisions on career progression. In this regard, GRECO noted that a draft bill was being prepared by the Federal Ministry of Constitution, Reforms, Deregulation, and Justice, but that this legislative process was still at a very early stage.

While it has taken considerable time to implement anti-corruption standards and some have not yet been implemented at all, the potential of GRECO's framework to impact the public debate on a state’s policymaking should not be underestimated. By introducing concrete conceptual categories that identify specific policy areas which require further action, GRECO can impact public debates and demands. For example, it could empower civic society to express concrete demands, such as implementing 'periodic appraisals' for judges, rather than espousing vague demands for fighting corruption in general. However, in order for GRECO’s work to have a transformative impact on the public, it is critical that all sectors of civil society are informed about the important work being doing by GRECO in Austria and other countries.

* Dr Gustavo Prieto, Postdoctoral researcher, Faculty of Law and Criminology, and Programme for Studies on Human rights in Context, Ghent University (Belgium)

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