Tereza Østbø Kuldova (Oslo Metropolitan University) will give a talk "The Global Fight Against Corruption and Human Rights Defenders: Critical Reflections on the Intersections of Whistleblower Protection, Worker Surveillance, and Insider Threat Management".
In 2022, Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for UN, published her short but influential report titled ‘At the heart of the struggle: human rights defenders working against corruption’, which she also presented at the Anti-corruption Conference in Oslo earlier this year, arguing that protection frameworks applicable to human rights defenders should apply also to those who expose corrupt practices, while pointing to a range of threats and risks, including violence and murder, judicial harassment, intimidation, surveillance, smear campaigns, and other structural difficulties experienced by whistleblowers, activists, academics lawyers, and other human rights defenders.
In December 2021, the Biden administration published the new ‘United States Strategy on Countering Corruption’, which similarly declares its aim to ‘protect anti-corruption actors (Strategic Objective 5.2) and defend the freedom of expression of anti-corruption activists, whistleblowers, and investigative journalists’ (p. 14). In the EU, the Whistleblower Directive came into force in 2019, with similar aims – of both using whistleblowers to detect and prevent misconduct, corruption, fraud and other crimes and harms and to, simultaneously enhance the legal protection of whistleblowers and strengthen anti-retaliation policies. At the same time, however, the US anti-corruption strategy elevated the fight against corruption into a matter of national security, effectively making explicit the pre-existing and largely global processes of securitization of anti-corruption, while also emphasizing the important and invaluable role of the private sector in this fight, of the compliance industry and of regulatory technologies (RegTech) in the prevention and pre-emption of corruption, as well as in intelligence gathering. It is here that whistleblowers and others exposing corruption become both a crucial and desired resource for intelligence gathering and a potential ‘insider threat’ for corporations as well as the public sector.
As such, they also become subject to predictive workplace surveillance, monitoring, and insider threat management systems. The paradox is that the same strategies that declare to value and seek to protect whistleblowers, also stimulate the growth of compliance, surveillance, private intelligence and pre-crime architectures that position whistleblowers as either an ‘insider threat’ to be eliminated or a risk to be managed (or both), and that are also instrumental in the techniques of quasi-legal and judicial harassment and in (pre-emptive) practices of silencing of uncomfortable utterances and in undermining freedom of speech in the name of employee loyalty and reputation management. Grounded in ethnographic fieldwork among the the compliance industry professionals and interviews with whistleblowers and experts, this talk aims to shed light on the troubling dynamics that emerges here: a dynamics where we can discern the progressive individualization of anti-corruption, condensed in the figure of the ‘human rights defender’ or a whistleblower (and the responsibilization of the individual), and the parallel layering of ‘protection’ in the form of anti-retaliation and other policies on top of a privatized surveillance, compliance, and intelligence apparatus legitimized by the very same policies and built in the name of the ‘good’ – human rights, anti-corruption, anti-fraud and so on.
This talk will thus try to shed light on the liminal figure of the human rights defender/whistleblower, sacrificed and persecuted again and again, while performing morality on our behalf so that we can continue with the business as usual, thus simultaneously and unwittingly not only enabling the status quo to persist, but also reinforcing it – a liminal figure in the context of what I call the compliance-industrial complex that, more often than not, exploits the letter of the law, against its spirit.
Tereza Østbø Kuldova is a Research Professor at the Work Research Institute, Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway. She is a social anthropologist and the author of How Outlaws Win Friends and Influence People (Palgrave, 2019), Luxury Indian Fashion: A Social Critique (Bloomsbury, 2016), co-editor of Crime, Harm and Consumerism (Routledge, 2020), Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs and Street Gangs (Palgrave, 2018), Urban Utopias: Excess and Expulsion in Neoliberal South Asia (Palgrave, 2017), in addition to numerous articles. Currently, she works on algorithmic and global governance, surveillance and artificial intelligence, corruption and crime, the compliance industry, and the pluralization of policing. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Extreme Anthropology and of the Algorithmic Governance Research Network. She also leads an international research project titled Luxury, Corruption and Global Ethics: Towards a Critical Cultural Theory of the Moral Economy of Fraud (LUXCORE), funded by The Research Council of Norway (FRIPRO Young Talents, project no. 313004); this talk is based on research conducted as part of this project and is made possible by this funding.
Join the Zoom-meeting here