UNODC Executive Director addressing delegates at the 9th CoSP, December 2021 (@UN DGC)
Over 2100 participants from governments, regional and intergovernmental organizations, civil society, academia, and the private sector from more than 150 countries attended in-person and virtually from December 13 – 17 2021, the ninth session of the Conference of the States Parties the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC).
The week-long event took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt and, as with previous biennial sessions of the Conference, it continued to set records as the first session to be organized in hybrid format, combining in-person and virtual participants in a successful effort to adjust the event to the restrictions imposed by the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.
The ninth session of the Conference concluded with the adoption of eight resolutions and a decision for the United States to host the tenth session of the conference in 2023. The resolutions covered a range of key topics, including the new challenges related to international cooperation in the prevention of and fight against corruption during times of emergencies and crisis response and recovery, and a follow-up to the political declaration approved at the Special session of the United Nations General Assembly against corruption, held in June 2021.
UNODC’s newly established Global Operational Network of Anti-Corruption Law Enforcement Authorities (GlobE Network) was also the subject of one of the adopted resolutions, which invited States to join the GlobE Network and to participate in and make the best use of opportunities for cooperation through the network, the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative and other cooperation mechanisms.
Notably, the work of StAR was welcomed and recognized in various resolutions that also encouraged States parties to continue to work with the Initiative, in particular in the areas of beneficial ownership transparency and data collection on asset recovery and returns.
Asset Recovery and Beneficial Ownership Transparency at the COSP
The United Nations Convention against Corruption was adopted in December 2003 and remains the most comprehensive and universal instrument against corruption. The Convention was the first to establish asset recovery as a fundamental principle to the fight against corruption. In keeping with this, asset recovery continued to be a key topic throughout the ninth session of the CoSP, whether in plenary discussions and the resolutions adopted, or in the several special events and bilateral meetings that took place during the event.
The main resolution to address asset recovery this time was on “Enhancing the use of beneficial ownership information to facilitate the identification, recovery and return of proceeds of crime” and it was tabled by Nigeria, Pakistan and the State of Palestine. This is the first time that a resolution entirely dedicated to the topic of beneficial ownership was adopted by the Conference of the States Parties to the UNCAC.
Among other measures, the resolution called upon States parties to ensure access to beneficial ownership information on companies, encouraged them to collect and maintain beneficial ownership information, and called upon them to adopt a multipronged approach to beneficial ownership transparency through appropriate mechanisms such as registries that provide access to relevant information to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of cases of corruption and the identification, recovery and return of proceeds of crime.
Furthermore, the resolution asked UNODC and the StAR Initiative to make available online information on States parties that maintain a registry or alternate mechanism on beneficial ownership information, together with methods of how to make requests for such data.
This new mandate reinforces the importance of the work that the StAR Initiative has already been doing in supporting countries, including through a new project funded by the United States on enhancing transparency of beneficial ownership and raising awareness of beneficial ownership risks to combat money laundering.
The importance of strengthening asset recovery mechanisms and the work of the StAR Initiative were also recognized in the resolutions to strengthen international cooperation during times of emergencies and crisis response and recovery; to follow-up to the special session of the General Assembly against corruption; to enhance international anti-corruption law enforcement cooperation; to follow-up to the Marrakech declaration on the prevention of corruption; and to promote anti-corruption education, awareness-raising and training.
In addition, more than 70 special events were organized on the margins of the Conference, featuring panels on a broad range of topics. Asset recovery was the theme of approximately 10 special events, one of them being the StAR Day organized and hosted by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, covering various related issues such as beneficial ownership transparency, recovery of assets based on civil and administrative anti-corruption proceedings, illicit financial flows, non-conviction based asset forfeiture and asset management.
StAR team and panelists at the StAR Day during CoSP, December 2021 (@UN DGC)
In recent years, the StAR Day has become an established part of the CoSP, providing participants with a full day of sessions and dialogue on asset recovery challenges, good practices and innovation, and new tools and knowledge products. In Sharm El-Sheikh, a new session of the StAR Day was organized by the StAR team and various partners. The event was organized in an innovative hybrid format, which allowed for dozens of in-person participants in Sharm El-Sheikh, over 300 online participants and panelists from across the world to join the sessions throughout the day.
The event featured six panels in total and opened with a High-level session on “ The state of play for asset recovery”. Speakers included the Deputy Minister for Prosecution Service at the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Korea, the Head of the Joint Anti-Corruption Unit at the Home Office of the United Kingdom, the Managing Director of the ICAR at the Basel Institute on Governance, and the President of the International Association of Prosecutors. Among other topics, speakers reflected on the importance of formal and informal networks of cooperation, the challenges of bridging the gap between commitments and concrete actions in asset recovery and the importance of transparency in general, including on beneficial ownership, as a measure of accountability and tool against corruption.
The second panel, titled “Orders without Borders: The Direct Enforcement of Foreign Restraint and Confiscation Decisions” - co-organized with the International Center for Asset Recovery (ICAR) - marked the launch of the new StAR publication on the direct enforcement of foreign confiscation orders “Orders without Borders”. Speakers provided an overview of the publication and of current approaches used by South Africa and jurisdictions of the European Union and challenges encountered. Issues related to confiscation orders derived from non-conviction based forfeiture mechanisms, in particular in Latin America, were also discussed.
The third panel, “Data and Transparency in Asset Recovery and Returns”, provided participants with an update on the StAR Initiative’s new global survey to collect data on efforts to recover and return proceeds of corruption in a systematic way. The initial findings of the survey are available in the conference paper produced by the StAR Initiative for the CoSP. The session also presented the experience of Nigeria in collecting data on asset recovery and returns and the new initiatives launched by the United Kingdom to release official statistical information about assets restrained, recovered and returned under the UNCAC and to publish the MoUs that govern the return of stolen assets to another jurisdiction.
In the fourth session, “Ending the Shell Game – Why Fighting Corruption and Going After Dirty Money Relies on Global Beneficial Ownership Transparency” - co-organized with Nigeria and the UNCAC Coalition - speakers from Nigeria, Cambridge University, Open Ownership, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Transparency International Ukraine addressed several issues related to beneficial ownership in the context of cross-border corruption investigations and asset recovery. The session also aimed at de-mystifying different elements of the CoSP resolution on “Enhancing the use of beneficial ownership information to facilitate the identification, recovery and return of stolen assets”.
Panelists discussing beneficial ownership transparency at the StAR Day during CoSP, December 2021 (@UN DGC)
At the fifth panel, “Standing as Victim of Corruption and Damages” - co-organized with the International Bar Association's Subcommittee on Asset Recovery - the StAR team and IBA presented a new publication that is being developed on avenues available to victims to obtain compensation for damages from corruption and who has standing to demand such damages in different legal systems. In addition, experiences from Costa Rica and from civil society represented by the UNCAC Coalition were featured in the discussions.
In the sixth and final session of the day, “Taxing Corruption: How Can Anticorruption and Tax Authorities Work Together?” - co-organized with the Institute of Austrian and International Tax Law - speakers from Uganda and France highlighted their experiences with how cooperation between tax and law enforcement authorities can mutually support each other’s work to strengthen tax collection and the recovery of the proceeds of corruption. The StAR team and the Institute for Austrian and International Tax law also presented the work that is being developed in this area.
Country Engagement on the Sidelines
The StAR team supported various delegations from client countries during the CoSP in the organization of bilateral meetings to discuss specific requests for cooperation. The objective of the meetings was to facilitate discussions between “requesting” and “requested” States parties to overcome barriers in asset recovery in specific cases. Despite the reduced capacity of delegations attending the Conference due to the covid-related travel restrictions, the StAR team also had the opportunity to meet with different representatives of States parties and discuss new or potential country engagements.