The recovery and repatriation of stolen assets—if it happens at all—typically occurs behind closed doors. In this regard, ironically, the return of kleptocrats’ loot sometimes shares a key characteristic with the underlying corrupt act itself: being shrouded in secrecy.
Global norms on grand corruption and the corresponding duty to locate, freeze, and repatriate proceeds of corruption to victim countries have already undergone a major shift since Nigeria’s president Olusegun Obasanjo bluntly criticized Western complicity in facilitating the stealing of billions of public funds from developing countries, in a 1999 speech at the UN General Assembly:
“It is morally reprehensible, unjust, unfair and against all established human values to engage in actions that actually encourage corruption in poor countries to fatten your own country…. The thief and the receiver of stolen items are guilty of the same offense.”
In shaping global anti-kleptocracy norms and in codifying them into international law, the strong provisions on asset recovery in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) contained in Chapter V are of critical importance.
Yet, despite these provisions, the particulars of too many cases of international recovery of proceeds of corruption are known only to government officials, courts, law enforcement, implicated financial institutions, corrupt politicians themselves, and their lawyers. For other interested parties, such as the media, and the general public, reliable information on the amounts of assets frozen, confiscated, or returned is hard to come by.
Sometimes, there is a public announcement or press release when stolen funds are finally returned. For example, at the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) in December 2017, Switzerland, Nigeria, and the World Bank signed a memorandum of understanding and publicly announced the return of $321 million in assets stolen by President Abacha over two decades ago to Nigeria. But for the majority of cases, there are few readily accessible public records.
The lack of transparency around corruption-related international asset recovery is problematic for several reasons:
- It denies countries that make a concerted effort and devote significant resources towards locating and returning illicit gains from kleptocracy the credit that they deserve. Collecting, systematizing, and showcasing asset recovery efforts reflects the hard work being carried out by investigators, prosecutors, and courts all over the world.
- It prevents the fruitful exchange of best practices and of innovative new legal tools among prosecutors, investigators, and private actors seeking to initiate legal action to return stolen assets.
- It denies civil society and the public the opportunity to verify whether proclamations of political will are matched by actions, and to demand accountability for a failure to do so.
- Additionally, the regular collection of case information will ensure that returned funds are accounted for. And if not, someone will be able to ask: “So what happened to those stolen millions?”
Case information is required to inform the debates on anti-corruption policy and repatriation of proceeds of corruption in international and multilateral forums, such as the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group or the UNCAC Asset Recovery Working Group. Knowing which factors contribute to successful asset recovery or why a particular case failed helps policy makers put in place a functional asset recovery framework.
Solid evidence also provides the foundation for designing effective preventive measures and policy reforms to stop assets from being stolen in the first place. Grand corruption can only be curbed by stopping the entry of stolen funds into the financial systems, and by closing avenues of hiding money by using anonymous corporate structures. We need to know which jurisdictions are most popular among corrupt officials in order to focus our efforts on strengthening beneficial ownership regimes where it matters most.
There is inherent value in documenting innovative approaches and emerging practices in initiating recovery actions, for example NGOs going beyond more familiar roles as advocacy organizations and taking direct action by bringing cases to court or becoming parties to ongoing court corruption-related cases (e.g. in France and Spain) or authorities using unexplained wealth orders (UK). Case examples of successful civil legal action in corruption-related asset recovery can help encourage private actors to bring cases against entities or individuals that benefitted from corruption. This raises awareness of new avenues for action and educates practitioners about new legal toolsand cooperation mechanisms.
The systematic collection and publication of case information will also inform the risk-based calculus of financial institutions and increase reputational risks for intermediaries that turn a blind eye towards offering financial shelter for gains from corruption.
StAR’s Asset Recovery Watch database, which was launched in 2011, is the first systematic effort to track efforts by prosecution authorities worldwide to go after assets that stem from corruption. The database contains 240 entries that detail cases involving over 50 requesting and over 40 requested jurisdictions.
Asset Recovery Watch currently documents approx. $6 billion in stolen funds that have been frozen, adjudicated, or returned to affected countries since 1980. Our next update will detail an additional approx. $2.5 billion in stolen funds. In all likelihood, these figures represent only a fraction of actual gains from corruption that have been returned or are in the process of being located, frozen, or returned.
We, at StAR, would greatly appreciate your help in collecting case information. If you have relevant information on international asset recovery cases (related to corruption offenses) in your jurisdiction, please share it with us. We document and track any corruption-related asset recovery cases where stolen assets have been deposited abroad, i.e. outside the victim country. We only include publicly available documents, such as court documents, press releases, or government reports. You can email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sustained data collection efforts and regular reporting by public authorities are needed to systematically collect case examples of international asset recovery. Without this, we are all just tapping in the dark.