Recent events in the Arab World have shown that in the wake of civil chaos, kleptocratic elites often perpetrate economic crimes for personal gain. Fortunately, the international community holds one more tool in its global toolbox to help fight the impunity that is so often associated with grand corruption: the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative.
A joint World Bank-United Nations mechanism formally launched in 2007 by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and then-World Bank President Robert Zoellick to help countries recover assets from past dictators and grand corruption cases, the StAR Initiative, once a small innovative “start-up” is now a recognized player in the anti-corruption landscape.
StAR’s 2007 birth reflected the optimism born of past asset recovery cases, such as the successful recovery of approximately $700 million from former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. Indeed, it is likely no coincidence that President Zoellick entrusted StAR’s success to the then-World Bank Managing Director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who just happened to be the Nigerian finance minister and helped further the Abacha recovery. (A Nigerian public servant, Okonjo-Iweala left her international World Bank post to return, again, as Nigeria’s finance minister).
Though much of its work happens “behind the scenes,” StAR’s enabling arm has proven effective. In StAR’s first case-related success (it also works on capacity and policy issues), a joint UN-World Bank team assisted Swiss and Haitian officials secure an order to return millions of dollars of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s assets back to Haiti. After decades of international diplomats talking about helping poor countries in grand corruption cases, this marked the first time two major international organizations – the U.N. and the World Bank – worked together to help recover stolen assets from a past dictator.
More recently, in 2012, just one year after Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled from power, StAR helped further a Tunisian government effort to recover two executive jets, worth an estimated $30 million, linked to the Ben Ali family. Currently, StAR is working with developing countries in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia to help sovereign government efforts to recover stolen assets from grand corruption cases.
The World Bank estimates that $20 billion to $40 billion are stolen every year from developing countries. The recovery of these stolen funds often proves challenging because regimes and their bad actors so effectively cover their tracks; yet, thanks to international efforts and policy changes, supported by StAR, to help uncover these funds and return them to the citizens of developing nations, corrupt leaders are likely finding it harder and harder to escape the long arm of justice.
Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha
While successes are often too few and far between, successful recoveries of recent years and ongoing searches for the assets of corrupt actors, including those of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and other leaders deposed during the “Arab Spring,” have emboldened those working on the frontiers of international law and fighting impunity.
In light of the so-called “Arab Spring,” StAR has increased its efforts to combat corruption in the Arab World. To achieve these aims, StAR and the U.N. Special Advocate for Stolen Assets Recovery have also coordinated with complimentary initiatives established in StAR’s wake, including the G8 Deauville Partnership and the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery (AFAR).
The current U.N. Special Advocate for Stolen Assets Recovery, Dr. Ali bin Fetais Al Marri, who is also Qatar’s attorney general, has personally highlighted the importance of stolen asset recovery in the “Arab Spring.” In September 2013, Al Marri met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to brief him on the progress on the recovery of stolen funds in the Arab region since Al Marri’s appointment as special advocate. In addition to the successes, Al Marri also highlighted the obstacles the StAR faces, including domestic and international institutional barriers, legal issues, funding concerns and ineffective international communication issues.
To this end, the U.N. Secretary General and Al Marri discussed the additional means the U.N. and its specialized and regional organs could undertake to support the Arab states whose funds have fallen victim to looting and smuggling by corrupt elites.
The G8 Deauville Partnership with Arab Countries in Transition, currently chaired by the United Kingdom, which launched in May 2011, has helped countries in the Arab world engaged in transitions toward “free, democratic and tolerant societies.” Comprised of both nation-states and international financial institutions and organizations, the Deauville Partnership promotes progress in the form of economic stabilization, job creation, rule of law and international trade in addition to its anti-corruption initiatives.
UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon and Dr Ali bin Fetais Al Marri
AFAR, an initiative established in 2012 under the American’s G8 Presidency that supports asset recovery efforts by Arab Countries in Transition, has also furthered anti-impunity efforts in the region with the help of StAR and the Deauville Partnership. Since its first meeting in Doha, Qatar, during which U.S President Barack Obama notably pledged the United States’ commitment to the fight against corruption, AFAR has held three special sessions in fulfillment of its work plan. The first, in Qatar, focused on domestic asset recovery efforts and the implementation of asset recovery guidelines produced by the G8 countries.
The second, in Egypt, highlighted best means to conduct effective stolen asset and financial investigations. And the third, in England highlighted the role of civil society in asset recovery. Now in its second year, AFAR recently met in Marrakesh, Morocco to discuss challenges in the recovery of stolen assets, international and domestic coordination, relevant legal and institutional frameworks, and future AFAR efforts.
Thankfully, since the real work of asset recovery is lead by sovereign governments and their national public servants, it is encouraging that international efforts like StAR, the U.N. Special Advocate for Stolen Assets Recovery, the G8 Deauville Partnership and AFAR are not alone. National efforts are also getting well-deserved headlines.
In the United States, the Department of Justice, through the President Obama’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, is currently working to seize alleged illicit assets linked to Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea. These include a Gulfstream executive jet, a Malibu mansion worth approximately $30 million, and nearly $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Asset recovery-related efforts such as those in America, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are not alone. Japan recently produced a guide on international cooperation on asset recovery, and Germany launched a new anti-corruption strategy, which reinforces the need for coordination between civil society, the private sector and governments, both internationally and domestically, to curb corruption. Thus, whether the efforts are in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia or the Middle East, it is the collective effort and actions of all nations and nationals in the fight against corruption that will hurt curb grand corruption and further the rule of law, no matter the jurisdiction involved.
“This money – potentially billions of dollars – does not belong to those who wielded power; it belongs to the people.”
These were the words that President Barack Obama used at the AFAR meeting to emphasize the fight against impunity when it comes to grand corruption. And what is important is that the global toolbox to help track down and recover those billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains is growing. The tools may not end corruption, but to the people of the world who have suffered from corruption, it may be nice to know that the world slowly is doing something to help end it. As they say, ever journey starts with a single step. And now, the world is on its way.