The UN Convention on Corruption (UNCAC) was entered into force in 2005. Once Pakistan ratified the convention in 2007, the government of Pakistan made corresponding amendments in its domestic anti-corruption law, entitled National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Ordinance of 1999. Since then, several headways have been made to prosecute the ones involved in corrupt practices. Furthermore, novel legal concepts have taken roots in the justice system of Pakistan. Plea Bargaining, voluntary returns, the reversal of the burden of proof, know your customer requirement for financial institutions, forfeiture/asset freezing and mutual legal assistance agreements (MLAA) with foreign governments are a few concepts to name here. While these developments are commendable, they might not be sufficient to give credibility to the process of bringing to justice the wrongdoers. Thus, Pakistan stands at unenviable 117 out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project’s Rule of law index 2019, one place lower than the preceding year.

The widespread perception among people of Pakistan is that the anti-corruption endeavours of the governments, both past and present, have been politically motivated. Pakistanis believe that anyone in the power corridors can get away with any crime. The magnitude of the crime does not matter. By way of contrast, those not being able to find favours with the ruling regime are destined to live under the constant fear of apprehension, prosecution and punishment. Dispelling this impression is a must for any government to succeed in its anti-corruption drive.

Connected with the perception of selectivity and political victimisation is the impression that the NAB targets little fish only. The rich and the resourceful care little for accountability laws. They either use their influence or possess the means to manoeuvre the system to their advantage. One cannot blame the executive branch of the government for this problem only. The judicial system is equally responsible for it. It is unfortunate to witness that the courts, rather than following the procedure, grant bail to the powerful property tycoons. The courts reduce their unpaid liabilities running in billions to easy instalments spreading over several decades. If this is how the judiciary works, then people cannot but think that laws of the country control only the weak ones. But the same law refuses the same treatment to the lesser humans. For instance, the courts will not entertain a plea of a retired university professor requesting release on bail, even if he has spent 2-3 years behind bars. Same rules but interpreted according to the social status of a person leads people to raise their voice against the fairness of the process.

One cannot overstate the importance of whistle-blowers in the enforcement of anti-corruption laws. They are the ones behind unearthing mega corruption scandals. Thus, the UNCAC 2005 calls upon states to provide adequate protection and incentives to the whistle-blowers. As per the conventional definition of corruption, whoever is maintaining a standard of living beyond the declared source of income should be treated as a suspect. If the state indiscriminately applies anti-corruption laws, people will come forward to point out illicit gains made by individuals through corrupt practices. To make this happen, it is the sine qua non that people have faith in their justice system. The judiciary is supposed to work under the principle of equality before the law. But, the ordinary citizens’ confidence in the rule of law recedes when they see that some people hiring expansive attorneys can help any corrupt person. These lawyers get their clients off the hook by relying on the loopholes in our judicial system. In such an environment, a person intending to inform the authorities gets discouraged. For s/he knows if the suspect comes out clean, it will be her/him to bear the brunt of retaliation. Consequently, s/he stifles their desire to be a whistle-blower. Therefore, the so-called ‘untouchables’ must be brought to justice; much like the ordinary offender or the rule of law would always remain elusive.

Lastly, there is something inherently perplexing about the way Pakistanis comprehend the term corruption. For ordinary citizens, corruption has only one facet: financial. However, the word corruption as used in the UNCAC 2005 is not restricted to financial embezzlements only. It defines the term as illicit gain made or advantage stolen in return for favour rendered. There can be so many varieties of corruption under the UNCAC definition. And the people involved are seldom held accountable for their involvement in corrupt practices. For example, doctors and physicians are frequently sent abroad by pharmaceutical companies for prescribing medicines produced by these companies, notwithstanding their high cost and low efficacy. Likewise, Investigating officers drop inquiries against the influential suspects or declare them innocent, even if the complainant disagrees and protests. But such practices by the investigation officers do not ring the bell in our minds. We do not even suspect the motives of the official who drops charges against a suspect. Why do we let it go without thinking that the officer must have taken some benefit by allowing a suspect free? Much like the fact that acquisition of unexplained wealth gives rise to a presumption of its illicit origin under the reverse burden rule!

One or another law of Pakistan may have already covered the examples given above. Nevertheless, the general public does not perceive these to be crimes. The attempts to dispel the perception of corruption are unlikely to bear any fruit if there is no public support. The state needs to sensitise the public about the different kinds of corruption. The masses should be made aware of the rationale behind their culpabilities such as loss to public exchequer or tax evasion, without taking into account social approval of the acts in question. The incumbent government need to address all the concerns raised here if it wants to do better on the rule of law index 2020. Needless to say that the index takes into account the public perception of corruption as the chief determinant of a nation’s performance in upholding the rule of law.