December 6, 2017—As Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) approaches its tenth anniversary this month, coinciding with the Anti-Corruption Day on December 9, one recalls the asset recovery efforts that followed the Arab Spring of 2011 promising, among many things, an era of transparency in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Three years later, President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine was toppled. After all these historic events, activists moved quickly to retrieve stolen assets from their public funds and sought assistance from Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR), a partnership between the World Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to return the funds.

Corruption has a devastating impact on growth and development, robbing countries of funds that can boost their infrastructure, education, and health systems, causing the entire society to suffer. StAR provides platforms for dialogue and collaboration and also facilitates contact among different jurisdictions involved in asset recovery. Since its establishment ten years ago, StAR has assisted many countries in developing legal frameworks, institutional expertise, and the skills necessary to trace and return stolen assets.

StAR has now moved from supporting regional forums to a global one. This week StAR supported the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR), which focused on tracing stolen assets in four countries: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Ukraine.

GFAR opened with remarks by World Bank Group Senior Vice President and General Counsel Sandie Okoro, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and UK Minister for Countering Extremism the Baroness Williams of Trafford. The Forum facilitated contacts with relevant jurisdictions from different parts of the world that the four countries had requested cooperation with.

Okoro said corruption is Robin Hood in reverse. “It steals from the poor and vulnerable, to give to the rich and powerful. If we are to make sustained progress in the pursuit of the World Bank Group’s twin goals –to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity –we must double our efforts in the fight against corruption,” she added.

Sessions said that since 2004 the United States has returned millions in corruption proceeds. “You can be sure of this,” said Sessions,” the United States will do our part.  And we urge every government to do their part, as well.”

Baroness Williams said that corruption corrodes the fabric of society and stifles trade, and stressed the importance of international partnership in taking action against corruption.

But tracing, recovering, and returning stolen money is a complicated and lengthy process, according to Shervin Majlessi, a senior financial sector specialist with the World Bank Group and a senior legal adviser with StAR, and that is why forums like GFAR are necessary.  “What most people don’t realize is that the process is very technical and requires patience, legal creativity, and building lasting relationships between many different actors,” he said.

 StAR has played an important role in that process. It supported the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery following the Arab Spring. Lebanon returned $28.8 million to Tunisia after StAR facilitated contacts between Lebanese and Tunisian authorities and built Tunisia’s capacity to prepare improved requests for assistance.  Physical assets valued at approximately $58 million were also returned to Tunisia from France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland.

 Every year $1 trillion is paid in bribes while an estimated $2.6 trillion is stolen through corruption – a sum equivalent to more than 5 percent of the global GDP. StAR has provided technical assistance and capacity building to help return funds often parked outside the jurisdiction of countries they were stolen.

“It requires tenacity and creativity to get rid of safe havens for illicit cash,” said Yira Mascaro, practice manager for Stability and Integrity in the World Bank Group, who oversees StAR. “StAR is committed to helping countries to develop the necessary network and to acquire capabilities that enable them to take back their rightful assets.”

Tracing and returning stolen assets is an arduous task because money can easily be stashed in art, antiques or jewelry, which are difficult to trace and portable.  Countries around the world face legal constraints when dealing with stolen assets — especially developing countries with scarce resources to match the skills and creativity of criminals. Finding and returning assets held in secret corporate structures in multiple jurisdictions is a lengthy and difficult process that is fraught with legal complications. StAR has held dozens of workshops over the past decades, helping to train asset recovery specialists in developing countries.

In 2014, StAR supported the Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery to provide technical support and expertise to help retrieve stolen assets.

StAR has provided technical assistance to 43 countries and engaged with 106 around the world over the past ten years. StAR’s publications, which are the backbone for capacity building, have been downloaded 55,000 times.

 “StAR began its work in 2007 and first produced a lot of books and knowledge products in 2007,” said Jean-Pierre Brun, senior financial sector specialist with the World Bank Group, who works on StAR. “But now we have moved into the trenches, providing the countries with the tools to fight corruption on the ground.”