The global record on recovering assets looted from public treasuries is not good. The World Bank and UNODC estimate that between $20-40 billion is stolen each year. Between 2006 and 2012, $2.6 billion stolen assets were frozen in so-called “destination” countries, and $423.5 million was returned. That means of the roughly $120 billion (taking the lowest end of the World Bank and UNODC’s estimate) thought to have been potentially looted globally in that 6 year period, only 0.3% was actually recovered.
To strengthen international efforts to combat this problem, the 2016 London Anti-Corruption Summit called for the creation of a Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR); the World Bank and UNODC’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative organized the inaugural Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR), in December 2017 in Washington, D.C., with the US and UK governments as co-hosts. The GFAR, which welcomed over 300 participants from 26 jurisdictions, focused on four countries: Nigeria, (thought to have to have lost $32 billion to corruption under previous President Goodluck Jonathan); Sri Lanka (where former President Rajapaksa allegedly stole up to $5.38 billion); Tunisia (where former ruler Ben Ali and his family are thought to have amassed wealth of over $13 billion); and Ukraine (where former president Yanukovych and his associates are thought to have stolen around $7.5 billion). These countries were selected for their political will to recover stolen assets and the considerable assets they have to recover.
The stated objectives for the GFAR were “progress on cases achieved by the four focus countries, increased capacity through technical sessions, renewed commitment to advancing asset recovery cases, and increased collaboration among involved jurisdictions.” As measured against these objectives, was the GFAR a success? Should it be a regular event? More generally, do asset recovery forums like this have sufficient positive impact to justify their cost?
- On the positive side, there is no doubt that forums like the GFAR are extremely useful for networking. Such forums enable officials who work on asset recovery cases to meet counterparts from a wide range of partner countries in one place–a form of “speed dating” for law enforcement officials. The benefits of this sort of networking shouldn’t be underestimated: Creating personal interaction and informal ties between law enforcement officials is essential to making international corruption cases work and getting around the frustrations of the slow and unwieldy mutual legal assistance processes. At the same time, the benefits of such networking is of course limited by who turns up. At the GFAR, the elephant not in the room was the United Arab Emirates, where money from Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Ukraine has ended up, and where increasing numbers of corrupt money trails lead, from the Gupta scandal in South Africa to the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia. This is not to dismiss the networking benefits that the GFAR provided, but it does underscore the difficulty of engaging with some of the most important and problematic jurisdictions.
- As for whether the GFAR significantly contributed to concrete progress on specific asset recovery cases involving the four focus countries, here it’s difficult for an outside observer to tell, because all case discussion took place behind closed doors, and there is no public record of which cases were even on the table. Unfortunately, GFAR did not produce any mechanism for monitoring or progress reporting, which is a serious missed opportunity. Only a significant upswing in the freezing, seizing, or confiscation of assets from these countries in the next 18 months would indicate serious progress—and even then it would be difficult to know whether the GFAR was a significant contributing factor.
- On more general efforts to strengthen the international asset recovery system, the GFAR was disappointingly light on policy commitments. The final GFAR communique contained no new meaningful or measurable pledges; rather, the communique merely reiterated vague promises to strengthen cooperation, to make more efforts to prevent corruption, and to participate actively in UNCAC forums. Nonetheless, there was at least one encouraging feature of the comminique: Civil society groups such as the UNCAC Coalition have long been advocating for a declaration of principles for asset recovery, and the GFAR communique did indeed introduce such a declaration, dubbed the “GFAR Principles for Disposition and Transfer of Confiscated Stolen Assets in Corruption Cases.” These ten principles, framed as “considerations” to promote successful asset return, include transparency and accountability (Principle 4), the use of returned assets to benefit the people of nations harmed by corrupt conduct and achieve development goals (Principles 5 and 6), and the inclusion of non-government stakeholders—including civil society, NGOs, and community-based organizations—in the asset return process (Principle 10).
- While Principle 10 is particularly welcome, and several opening speeches at the GFAR included discussions of the importance of civil society, one of the biggest disappointments of the GFAR was the marginalization of the approximately 30 civil society organizations present. Although the participating civil society organizations submitted a strong written statement and a closing statement to the GFAR, and were given some useful networking opportunities, they were excluded from large parts of the policy and technical discussion. If the GFAR was a major test of how serious countries are about including civil society in the asset recovery process, the results were disheartening.
Should the GFAR be a regular event? The communique states that the GFAR will reconvene “as required, when significant and complex asset recovery case coordination efforts are necessary.” Despite its limitations, forums like the GFAR do serve a useful purpose, and future events can and should go further, particularly with respect to having specific mechanisms to monitor progress, concrete policy commitments, and full inclusion of civil society representatives. Whether there will be the political will and impetus to hold another forum, though, is another question.