Global Policy Forum

Heroines in a Global Crusade


By David Ignatius

International Herald Tribune
March 5, 2001

The most interesting political movement in the world today does not have a name, and it does not even have a clear ideology. It is the global rebellion against corruption, and it stretches from France to the Philippines, from China to Colombia.

A good way to understand this global phenomenon is to look at two of its unsung heroines, a judge in Paris named Eva Joly and a politician in Colombia named Ingrid Betancourt. If they gave Nobel prizes for bravery, these two should split the award.

Because they refused to be intimidated by the power elites of their countries, these women began an inexorable process of change and reform. But each has also paid a terrible personal price, not simply in living with death threats but in suffering through tragic events for people she loved. Both have recently published memoirs in French that explain their motivation and the movement they symbolize.

Judge Joly, 57, has led the French investigation into the payoffs and thievery that surrounded the formerly state-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine. She began her probe in 1995, just one year after she became a juge d'instruction, a French position that combines judge and prosecutor. In theory, these judges have wide latitude to expose corruption, but in real life they have been checked by unwritten rules that put prominent people and institutions off-limits.

The Norwegian-born Judge Joly broke through those Gallic restraints. As she pressed her investigation, she summoned some of Paris's most prominent figures, and if they would not testify she put them in jail.

Caught in her net were people the French only whispered about: a Corsican operative named André Guelfi; a shadowy businessman, Alfred Sirven, who had managed Elf's "black" funds as its No. 2 executive; and a former foreign minister, Roland Dumas.

The Elf scandal has shaken the foundations of the French republic. The webs of influence and payoffs appear to touch many of the leading figures in French political life. Judge Joly be- gan receiving death threats several years ago, and she is now accompanied by bodyguards.

As with many of the global crusaders against corruption, she had a burr under her saddle - a quality that made her at once an insider and an outsider. The daughter of simple Norwegian farmers, she had come to Paris in 1964 when she was 20 to work as an au pair. She quickly found a job with an aristocratic French family named Joly, and then fell in love with and married their son. He was promptly disinherited, and she had to work as a secretary while her husband studied to become a doctor. While working and raising two young children, she also found time to study law. She became a prosecutor in 1981. The rest, as they say, is history. Judge Joly was determined to follow evidence wherever it led. Colleagues tried to caution her early on that she was over the line, but she ignored them.

A life lived under threats of death and public notoriety took a toll on her marriage. She and her husband grew apart, and he died tragically last week of undisclosed causes.

Ingrid Betancourt's path was different, but it led her to a similar decision to defy entrenched power.

She comes from a distinguished Colombian family. Her father served as ambassador to France, and she was educated largely in Paris. She married a French diplomat, and when she returned home to Bogota she could look forward to a life of power and privilege. All that was required was to close her eyes to the drug lords and corrupt politicians operating at the dirty edges of Colombian society.

But Ms. Betancourt could not stay silent. There was that mysterious burr under her saddle, too. She ran for the House of Representatives, and soon after taking office in 1994 she began asking questions about a dubious arms deal that had involved big commission payments.

Emboldened by that success, she began probing whether drug lords had helped finance the campaign of Colombia's then president, Ernesto Samper. That investigation eventually led to Mr. Samper's trial by the Congress.

The death threats began in 1996, as the Samper case was coming to a head. Ms. Betancourt's marriage had ended by then, and she was trying to raise two young children as a single mother. One day in June, a letter arrived with a crude warning that she and her family would pay for her crusade. In a recent interview, she described what else was in the envelope. "There was a Polaroid of the body of a child, torn apart," she said. Did she mean that the photo was torn apart? Her eyes filled with tears, five years later. "No," she said. "The child was torn apart."

She put her children on a plane the next morning for New Zealand, where her ex-husband was living. They did not live with her again for four years. Her daily companions became her bodyguards. Her crusade against corruption continues to this day.

"There is always a question of why we do things in life, especially things that are dangerous and difficult," observed Ms. Betancourt, who is now 40. But as with Eva Joly, and with the thousands of courageous others who are challenging the corruption that afflicts governments around the world, the answer is that they don't really have a choice. People with a passion for the truth cannot live with lies, no matter how dear the price of their defiance.

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