The asset recovery provisions of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption make it one of the most consequential international agreements of the past 50 years. Prior to UNCAC, the law of “finders keepers” applied when the proceeds of a crime committed in one state were discovered in a second. If the second state caught thieves with a sack of cash stolen from a bank in the first state, the first state could ask that the money be returned. But the second state had no obligation to return it.
UNCAC repeals “finders keepers” for corruption offenses. It makes the return of assets stolen from a state party through corruption “a fundamental principle of this Convention” and obliges state parties to “afford one another the widest measure of cooperation and assistance in this regard” (article 51). When the requesting state’s title to the assets is clear, its courts have issued a final order confiscating them, and that order has been given effect by the holding state’s courts, return is immediate (article 57(3)). In all other cases, return is made pursuant to “mutually acceptable arrangements on a case-by-case basis” (article 57(5)).
From their first meeting in December 2006, parties to the convention have focused on how well the asset recovery provisions are working in practice. At that meeting, they created an open-ended working group “to advise and assist” them “in the implementation of [the convention] mandate on the return of proceeds of corruption.” At every meeting up to and including the most recent one in 2017, the parties have directed the working group to continue investigating the efficacy of the asset recovery articles with an eye on how they can be improved. Yet at no time have the parties ordered the first and most important step in assessing their effectiveness. Continue reading