By any account, the amount of money stolen by corrupt officials and bureaucrats in developing and transition economies each year is vast. It is estimated that the amount of stolen assets is as high as US$ 40 billion per year, but there are experts who put the figure even higher. When added up, the cost of corruption to nations and economies is quite staggering. Public funds that are diverted for private ends mean that schools don’t get built and children don’t get immunized. They also typically do not get pumped back into the local economy but are instead stashed away in tax havens and financial centers. Morever, recovering stolen funds after they have been moved is extremely difficult.
Launched at the annual meetings, the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) launched Asset Recovery Watch (ARW), a new database to track efforts by prosecution authorities worldwide to go after assets that stem from corruption. It details 75 cases involving 52 countries of origin of corrupt public officials and 34 jurisdictions from which stolen assets have been recovered since 1980. It starts with the case of the repatriation of assets stolen by the former president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, which is still ongoing. It also contains information on the largest reported return – more than $1 billion – which was retrieved by Nigeria from Switzerland in the Sani Abacha case, as well as Kuwait’s recovery of over half a billion dollars in a case involving the Kuwait Investment Organization. While it does document some successes, the Asset Recovery Watch demonstrates the daunting challenge prosecution authorities face: The total sum of assets recovered from abroad that we have been able to identify amounts to about 3,5 billion USD- less than one percent of assets stolen in the last ten years. We know from our discussions with practitioners in the course of the work of the StAR Initiative that the practical and legal obstacles involved in identifying, securing, confiscating and finally repatriating assets are huge - and the recent StAR publication “Barriers to Asset Recovery” attests to that. It requires expertise, tenacity, imagination and a long term perspective. It will not happen overnight but where there is sustained political will there is a legal way to get it done.
Fortunately, Asset Recovery has steadily been moving up the international agenda ever since the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) entered into force in 2005, with the G-20 voicing its support for the StAR Initiative and highlighting the return of stolen assets as a priority for its Anti Corruption Working Group. That attention has only increased in the wake of the recent uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East. It is important that we keep up this momentum and make sure that as a topic it stays at the forefront of the minds of policymakers worldwide.
The database, which measures to what extent the lofty goals expressed at the highest policy levels are followed up by concrete actions at the operational levels, is intended to help keep the momentum going. Indeed, it is one thing to recognize the return of assets as a fundamental principle of the UNCAC (as stated in article 51). It is quite another thing to make that happen in practice.
It often requires years of effort to identify assets stolen and stashed in bank accounts abroad. It takes even longer to build the paper trail between corrupt acts that might have occurred decades ago and those overseas assets-- sifting through boxes of bank documents to find the few crucial statements that will make the difference takes meticulous attention and time. It requires perseverance to build bonds of trust with competent agencies in other countries and forge cooperation on a case so that one can obtain evidence and institute proceedings to immobilize and confiscate stolen assets. Progress is measured in years- not days or weeks. The resolve demonstrated by practitioners and countries that work to recover stolen assets is the ultimate test of professed intentions—and the outcome of their resolve is documented in this database. At the same time we hope that countries will also take the opportunity to make us aware of cases that we were not able to find and to showcase their own examples of where they were successful in repatriating assets
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Mizunoryu