2017 has been a dark year on the anti-corruption front. Far too many allegations of corruption have affected public and private organisations alike. Dishonest or immoral behaviours have often been uncovered. Many judges have been dismissed or imprisoned and prosecutions, undermined. Election campaigns have often been polluted by corruption allegations and journalists have been silenced and even murdered. Progresses made have been reversed. We cannot and must not remain indifferent.

This year the Council of Europe´s anti-corruption body GRECO completed the evaluation of the prevention of corruption in respect of MPs, judges and prosecutors in its 49 member states, which it started in 2012. The International Anti-Corruption Day, commemorated every year on 9 December, is a good occasion to step back and reflect on the progress made so far and the remaining challenges.

Overall, two main lessons can be learned from GRECO’s evaluations. First, countries tend to underestimate the strength of preventive measures, too often preferring the repressive ones. Second, implementation of anti-corruption measures needs to be stepped up, as it remains slow. Countries must spare no effort to implement without delay all of GRECO´s recommendations. This implementation should not be limited to formal compliance, but move towards real, effective implementation.

The ball is now in member states’ courts to make anti-corruption reforms happen. This is a task not only for governments, but also for parliaments and the governing bodies of judges and prosecutors. They need to take ownership and responsibility for translating these recommendations for reforms into real change in their own constituencies. If we accept that there should be separation of powers, then it is incumbent on MPs, judges and prosecutors to effectively monitor themselves, create proper oversight mechanisms, address unethical conduct where it occurs, and take swift and decisive action to enforce the rules and sanction misconduct.

A proverb says that “You will get furthest with honesty”. I can’t agree more. Short-term political gain must give way to genuine reforms and effective measures to prevent corruption. What recent history teaches us is that a lack of integrity and corruption lead to cynicism, populism, radicalisation and extremism. In the medium to long term, corruption brings down countries’ financial and economic systems, our democratic setups, and the respect for human rights and the rule of law. In short, sooner or later, without determined political leadership that champions action against corruption, this “cancer of society” could make “losers” of us all.

GRECO´s new evaluation round starting this year is about leading by example. It is about making sure that those who are entrusted with the task of running our democracies (our governments) and those who are expected to ensure respect for the rule of law (our law enforcement authorities), do so with honesty, ethics and transparency. There is nothing that can do more harm to our democracies than members of government or of police forces whose moral standing is affected by corruption, dishonesty, or murky dealings. We expect, and have the right to expect, the highest possible standard of behaviour from them.

Everyone has a role to play in fighting corruption in their own sphere of activity or work. This includes not only governments, parliaments, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, private and public companies, business associations, NGOs, but also every individual citizen. Journalists and the media also have a crucial role to play in investigating possible abuses of power and corruption allegations. They often carry out this important task under enormous pressure and exposed to serious risks including intimidation and physical violence.

This was a dark year for journalists investigating corruption. I wish to pay tribute to the life and work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who was brutally murdered, whose investigations focused precisely on corruption issues. This was an unacceptable attack on the values the Council of Europe stands for. I hope soon full light will be shed on what happened and the murderers brought to justice. Transparency is key to accountability and the work of media is crucial: it must be protected and supported. Every time a journalist is attacked or cannot carry out his work freely and safely, we must recall that media freedom is fundamental to the freedoms of every individual in any democratic society and must be cherished.

To eliminate corruption in our societies, it is crucial that we have robust legislation and independent institutions, but that is not enough. We also need good, honest people to come to the front, show leadership and lead by example with honesty, probity and integrity.