Guest commentator Sara Burhan Abdullah, Pitt Law LL.M. '08 and JD '12, writes about an experience in her native Iraq...
While living in Iraq, my husband Haider Hamoudi and I began working for the Iraqi Jessup moot court team. We instructed the team to apply for their passports, so that we could work with the American embassy. After the team began the passport application process in early October, I contacted the passport office every once in a while to ensure that everything was going well and that the team would remain on schedule. I called in November to see whether all the passports were ready. I noticed that some of the students had their passports, while others were still waiting, and was surprised by this result. I wondered why, if all the papers were submitted together, were some passports finished sooner than others?
I questioned the students about how they got their passports so quickly. They openly admitted that they had bribed some of the employees at the passport office. Of course, only the wealthy students could afford to pay the money, so they were the only ones to get their passports back quickly. I told the students it was a crime to bribe a government official or employee; but no one paid any attention to what I said.
Iraqi Penal Code Article 307(1) penalizes anyone who gives or accepts bribes in order to complete a job that is already an obligation of a government employee. The penalty for this crime is up to ten years in prison, and may include a fine. This rule of law presents an interesting contradiction when you talk to people from Iraq. On the one hand, they want the law to be upheld, much like Americans and people from other developed countries. On the other hand, although they want the law to be upheld, most people do not actually personally follow the law.
Although Iraq has a legal system and a long history of legal education, the rule of law is seldom enforced and fails to function in everyday life. Some Iraqi laws are not enforced at all and are completely ignored by the judicial system. Furthermore, Iraq lacks sufficient separation of powers between the judicial system and other branches of government. The absence of both law enforcement and independent judicial power have resulted in a general mistrust of the judicial system among the general public.
Everyone expects that corrupt practices such as bribery are necessary in order to process papers or applications quickly at government offices. Thus, people willingly pay bribes to get their work done, even though this means that work for poor people who are unable to afford bribes will be set aside. Of course, a person cannot go to a government office and openly bribe the official to have a passport completed in a week. There are people who indirectly arrange all the preparation for payment and getting papers processed. Practices such as bribery are not only corrupt, but they infringe on the rights of people who cannot afford to pay. Furthermore, corrupt practices threaten the rights of everyone by placing money above the citizens' rights and liberties.
How can we eliminate practices such as bribery and penalize wrongdoers? The answer is not easy. There are more than just a handful of people involved in paying and receiving bribes - the problem is rooted in the entire governmental system. As long as bribery is socially acceptable, it will be difficult to change the system; it might take several generations to eliminate such entrenched corrupt practices.