Last week, civil society in France celebrated a legal victory in its fight against corruption. The French Supreme Court upheld judicial investigation on complaints lodged by civil society organizations (Transparency International France and SHERPA) against three African Presidents and their relatives (Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo; Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea; and Omar Bongo of Gabon) on their acquisition of property and luxury goods in France that are worth far more than their official earnings.
The French Supreme Court ruling has demonstrated the critical role of civil society in the recovery of stolen assets, which has remained overlooked in the past. The case also sheds light on the emerging topic of ‘social damage’ in anti-corruption initiatives. The importance of International Legal Instruments in the global fight against corruption has proven equally relevant in this case. The Northern NGOs filed a lawsuit against the African Leaders to better implement the right to restitution that is guaranteed in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (of which France is a signatory).
A citizen of Gabon, Gregory Ngbwa Minta joined hands with Transparency International France and SHERPA in filing the lawsuit. According to IACC Today, cases filed to recover stolen assets had been rejected by the courts in the past. But a magistrate accepted the case in May 2009 as a plaintiff on the premise of social damage since “the claims of the complaint directly harm its interests, namely in fighting corruption (IACC Today).” Minta sought redress for personal damages and damages suffered by the entire nation. Minta’s case as a taxpayer was dismissed later and the public prosecutors appealed and blocked the judicial investigation in the interim. But the relentless efforts of the French NGOs took the case to the Supreme Court and their advocacy was eventually rewarded: on November 9, 2010, the Criminal Chamber of the French Supreme Court allowed the investigation to go forward (TI France Website). Gregory Minta’s courage was recently acknowledged by the Transparency International’s Integrity Award of 2010.
The Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative led by the World Bank claims that, “even a portion of recovered assets could provide much-needed funding for social programs or badly needed infrastructure.” For instance, “every $100 million recovered could fund full immunizations for 4 million children or provide water connections for some 250,000 households.” The World Bank in conjunction with the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is forging partnerships with developed and developing countries, as well as bilateral and multilateral institutes in implementing the StAR initiative.
Julien Coll, the Managing Director of Transparency France, the organization leading the lawsuit in France, called the recent decision of the French Supreme Court “a major step forward.” He added: “Besides the progress made in the recovery of stolen assets, (the decision) will allow civil society to overcome the inertia of the state prosecutor in cases which are highly sensitive from a political point of view. In time we hope that it will lead to a better implementation of the right to restitution as guaranteed by the UN Convention against Corruption. This would really allow entire populations to recover stolen assets, which is what the entire case was founded on (IACC Today).”
Photo Courtesy: UNDP (Flickr)