A Cautionary Note on the “World Anticorruption Police”

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times this past Wednesday, Alexander Lebedev, former KGB officer and current owner of the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, calls for “an international body to police corruption.” Lebedev astutely describes how “international banks, law firms and accountants” make it far too easy to hide the proceeds of corrupt activities, and far too difficult to bring the perpetrators to justice.  Yet his proposed solution–an international anticorruption police force–is likely to have costs that far outweigh whatever benefits it may have.

The numbers Lebedev cites are jarring: $30 trillion “embezzled” by “crooked business people, working with corrupt officials” over the last 15 years; $4 trillion disappeared from China over the past decade; another $1 trillion from Russia. Putting aside the questions of whether the sources of these numbers are accurate – the report from which Lebedev gets his $30 trillion figure says $30 trillion had been invested “virtually tax free,” but it never uses the word embezzlement – there is a real threat that corrupt actors will hide the proceeds of corruption and evade justice. Lebedev is also right that anticorruption enforcers are often stymied by the ease with which banks, law firms, and accountants can move money from one jurisdiction to another, particularly anticorruption enforcers from countries with limited resources.

But Lebedev’s proposed solution suffers from a couple of serious drawbacks.

First, Lebedev’s proposal is too reactive; more effective responses to the problems he identifies are more likely to be preventive. The proliferation of national antibribery laws, to their credit, seek to cut off bribery before it happens. Other proposals, like modifying international tax law, seek to prevent corrupt assets from ever making it to tax havens. Lebedev’s proposal kicks in only if other measures have failed.

But the bigger problem is that a world anticorruption police force, presumably deployed only when states refuse to cooperate, would undercut state sovereignty. Lebedev’s ideal targets demonstrate this point – he wants the force to swoop into the “European Union, or Switzerland,” where allegedly corrupt Russians have resettled and now claim asylum for fear of political persecution, and presumably to seize their assets and send them back to Russia for prosecution. Regardless of one’s feelings about EU asylum law, we should take countries’ sovereignty seriously, and tread on it, if at all, only when necessary.

Furthermore, I do not think this aggression – putting aside legal concerns —  is necessary. The Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (a joint project of the World Bank and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime) works with countries – instead of against them – to develop their own frameworks for recovering assets. Some states have their own asset recovery programs, and will help others get back what was stolen from them.  There are limits to existing mechanisms for asset recovery. These limits, however, are reflections of practical, political, and legal boundaries. We should be skeptical of powerful, border-crossing police forces that pay no mind to these boundaries.

5 thoughts on “A Cautionary Note on the “World Anticorruption Police”

  1. I’m inclined to share your skepticism. For me, the first concern you raise — the “reactive” nature of the proposal — is not that big of a concern. Prevention is great and all, but lots of anticorruption enforcement, like lots of law enforcement generally, is “reactive” (as it must and should be). The bigger worry is that the reasons that current international cooperation on anticorruption and asset recovery efforts don’t work better would likely bedevil Lebedev’s proposed anticorruption police as well. If the international community can convince enough “haven” jurisdictions to do things like reform their banking laws and establish effective law enforcement cooperation (whether through formal Mutual Legal Assistance agreements or more informally), then we might be able to achieve the results Lebedev wants without the Interpol-on-Steroids he envisions. If we can’t do those things, then his proposed police force would either be infeasible (if it lacks the power to override national sovereignty objections) or destructive (if it has such power).

    It might also be worth noting that concerns about politicization of anticorruption enforcement, already discussed in a few posts on this blog, might create serious complications for Lebedev’s worldwide corruption police. I share his frustration with the spectacle of corrupt Russian expats living the high life on the French Riviera or in swanky London apartments. But suppose the Russian authorities decided to use corruption charges to go after people like Alexei Navalny, or Lebedev himself, to the point where those people had to flee Russia and seek asylum elsewhere. Should Russia be able to call on the World Anticorruption Police to nab them and send them back to Russia to face charges? Who gets to make that call?

  2. Lebedev’s reference (in NYTimes article) to INTERPOL strengthens David’s critique, because INTERPOL itself is responsive to David’s concerns.

    I would tweak Matthew’s characterization of Lebedev’s proposal as INTERPOL-on-steroids, which suggests it’s of the same general character, just beefed up. Instead, I think it would constitute a major change in the organization’s governing principles (maybe INTERPOL-gone-wild), because the “world police’s” main functions appear to contradict two core INTERPOL principles. INTERPOL’s current Constitution (in article 2) sets out its aim:

    To ensure and promote the widest possible mutual assistance between all criminal police authorities within the limits of the laws existing in the different countries and in the spirit of the
    “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”

    (Link to Constitution: http://www.interpol.int/About-INTERPOL/Legal-materials) Contra Lebedev’s proposal, which is premised on overriding sovereignty. Further, worries of political motivation are (at least ostensibly) addressed by INTERPOL article 3, which prohibits interventions of a “political . . . character.” Again, Lebedev dismisses (or at least discounts) the specter of politically motivated prosecutions. While a world police force appears very problematic, increasing INTERPOL’s funding and emphasizing anti-corruption efforts might present a worthy alternative.

  3. David,

    Your points regarding the “powerful, border-crossing police forces” are well taken. But just as Lebedev’s proposed solution seems too aggressive, StAR’s collaborative posture may not be forceful enough. In 2010, an independent review of StAR’s efforts found that although the organization has “made progress…StAR has been unable to sustain its engagement beyond initial stages.” And although this should not be the sole measure of StAR’s success, the report also found that none of the stolen assets countries recovered could be attributed to StAR’s efforts. (source: http://www.napawash.org/images/reports/2010/WorldStARExternalReviewFinalReport.pdf)

    This makes me wonder if there’s a middle ground — something like the UNCAC but with more technical assistance and bite. Or maybe something with a public shaming component a la the diamond industry’s Kimberly Process but for countries committed to combating corruption? There are obvious pushbacks to both suggestions, but just some food for thought.

  4. I would say that Mr Lebedev prematurely dismisses the possibility that domestic law enforcement authorities may lead the fight against corruption. He deplores the efforts of ‘professional advisory firms’, and appears to assume that national investigative units cannot counteract schemes that they devise. This premise might be questionable. Are they unable or unwilling? While “anti-money laundering controls that matter more for developing countries are those that operate in the destination countries” (Peter Reuter, cited in the UN Doc A/HRC/19/42), it remains to be seen whether destination countries could be genuinely interested in cutting down the flows of ‘dirty’ money. That, I would say, is the crux of the matter.

    Take, for instance, the story of the US ‘friendship’ with the notorious president of Equatorial Guinea (eg http://www.globalwitness.org/library/secret-life-shopaholic-how-african-dictators-playboy-son-went-multi-million-dollar-shopping, pp. 1-9). The US chose not to jeopardize their oil exploration in the region up until some point at time. The 2010 report of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations suggests that DoJ was fully aware of that man’s corrupt practices as early as in 2006, but no steps were taken. I assume that other countries are just as careful as the US in dealing with crimes of the powerful, such as large-scale corruption. A more recent example is the fate of the ex-president of Ukraine: two days ago Switzerland and Austria announced AML investigations into the assets of the president, his family, and his top aide. Perphaps, that step would have been more valuable when the man was still in power and was actively accumulating his wealth (and I assume there were just as strong grounds for opening an inquiry at that time as there are now).

  5. Pingback: Taking the Rolls Out for a Spin? Maybe You Should Avoid Brazil | FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

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