Returning Assets to Governments Run by Kleptocrats

The return to the victim country of assets stolen by a corrupt official has been much commented upon on this blog (here, here, here, here, and here).  The discussion centers around whether governments holding the stolen assets must return them when the government requesting the return continues to be dominated by thieves.

Not surprisingly, the asset recovery provisions of the UN Convention Against Corruption provide little guidance.  It was written at a particular moment in history — just after Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and Suharto of Indonesia had fallen.  These kleptocrats, whose massive theft of their nation’s resources inspired the UNCAC asset recovery chapter, had been replaced by democratically inclined leaders committed to the rule of law and the welfare of their citizens.  The question then occupying UNCAC’s drafters was how to return the money to such rulers as quickly and inexpensively as possible.

But in hindsight, the replacement of these kleptocrats by enlightened rulers seems more an accident of history than a harbinger of future events.  It is all too rare for a kleptocrat to be replaced by a democratically chosen successor of the likes of the Philippines’ Cory Aquino or South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Far more common is the replacement of one kleptocrat by another — or by a gang of kleptocrats.  When this is the case, must nations holding the fallen kleptocrat’s assets return them to another thieving government?  Knowing chances are slim the assets will ever benefit those the thieves rule?

Although UNCAC offers no answer to these questions, in a paper delivered at a conference organized by Geneva Center for Civil and Political Rights I argue that UNCAC is not the only treaty governing states’ obligation to return stolen assets.  There are as well provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that states must observe.  And these point decidedly against returning stolen assets to a kleptocracy. Thye dictate instead that the assets be returned directly to citizens.

My paper is here.  Comments welcome.  Other papers presented at the conference’s rich and stimulating discussion on human rights and corruption are here.

February 19 – 20 Conference on Human Rights and Corruption

GAB readers know of the close relationship between corruption and human rights (here).  They know too that how to use that relationship to both combat corruption and advance human rights is still in the initial stages of debate (here and here).

To move the discussion forward, the Geneva Centre for Civil and Political Rights is holding a conference February 19 – 20 titled “Anti-Corruption Strategies for UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies” (Flyer).  Members of the anticorruption community and those who work for or with the bodies responsible for seeing states comply with their human rights treatu obligations will gather to examine how the two groups can work together to advance shared goals. A special focus will be corruption victims and asset recovery.  Details on the conference are here.

Guest Post: Global Forum or Global Farce on Asset Recovery?

GAB is delighted to welcome back Susan Hawley, Policy Director at Corruption Watch, to contribute today’s guest post:

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? Continue reading

US Anticorruption Policy in a Trump Administration Revisited: An Evaluation of Last Year’s Doom-and-Gloom Predictions

Almost exactly one year ago, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I published a deeply pessimistic post about the likely future of U.S. anticorruption policy under a Trump presidency. As I acknowledged at the time, “the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial.” That statement is, alas, still true. But what about the impact on anticorruption specifically? In my post last year, I made a bunch of predictions about the likely impact of a Trump presidency on corruption, anticorruption, and related issues. What did I get right and where did I go wrong?

This may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it’s often useful to go back and assess one’s own forecasts, not only in the interests of accountability and self-criticism, but also because examining where we got things right and, more importantly, where we went wrong can help us do a better job in the future. Of course, one difficulty in assessing my own predictions is that many of them concerned longer-term effects that we can’t really assess after one year (really 9+ months). And in some cases the predictions concern things that it’s hard to assess objectively. But it’s still a useful exercise. So, here goes: Continue reading

Civil Society on Returning Stolen Assets to Highly Corrupt Governments


The return of the proceeds of corruption to the victim country is a “fundamental principle” of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.  How that return is to be realized, however, remains subject to dispute, particularly when the victim country’s government is highly corrupt.  Should governments where the stolen assets are discovered send them back no matter how corrupt the victim country’s government is?  Wouldn’t the return to a highly corrupt government frustrate the Convention’s most basic purpose — the prevention of corruption.

How to resolve this tension has been the subject of vigorous debate on this blog (hereherehereherehere and here).  Now some 50 members of the UNCAC Coalition’s Civil Society Working Group on Accountable Asset Return, from both countries where stolen assets have been found and those where return has been requested or realized, have weighed in.  In a February 14 letter to an UNCAC conference on asset recovery (addis-ababa-conf-agenda-february-2017-updated-02-02-2017), they write that where the victim country’s government is highly corrupt, it should be bypassed: “returning and receiving countries should in consultation with a broad spectrum of relevant experts and non-state actors find alternative means of managing the stolen assets” (emphasis in original).  The letter offers powerful arguments in support of its position.  The full text and the list of signers follows.  Continue reading

Will the Trump Administration Realize that Fighting Extremism Requires Fighting Corruption?

That corruption breeds extremism is one of the abiding lessons of the last decade plus.  Whether it is Nigeria, Egypt, Somalia, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Uzbekistan, allowing what a recent Carnegie Endowment report terms “acute, systemic” corruption to fester is the equivalent of putting out a welcome mat for extremists, home-grown and foreign. Eleven days after President Trump takes office, the world will see whether his national security team has absorbed this lesson.

January 31, 2017, is the day the Trump Administration must tell an American judge whether it will continue negotiations with the Government of Uzbekistan over the return $850 million in bribes paid in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act the Department of Justice has frozen.  Following a Bush Administration policy continued by the Obama Administration, the U.S. government position has been that such funds should go back the country of origin only if:

  1. the government take steps to curb grand corruption and
  2. the monies are used to improve the lives of ordinary citizens.

Candidate Trump called the FCPA a “horrible” law. On the 31st the world will see what that means in practice.  He could, as I explain here an article for the U.S. newspaper The Hill, tell the judge he has decided to turn the money over to the Uzbek government without strings.  That result would certainly show how horrible he thinks the FCPA is.  It would also ease the task the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, and the other radical groups in Central Asia have set of overthrowing the endemically corrupt Uzbek government.

Will the Trump Administration realize that fighting extremism requires fighting corruption? Visit this blog February 1 for at least the first answer to the question.

Guest Post: U.S. Constitutional Principles Do Not Preclude Burden-Shifting or Illicit Enrichment Offenses

Peter Leasure, Ph.D. candidate in criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, contributes the following guest post:

It is well known that corrupt kleptocrats often transfer enormous sums of money from their countries. As a result, there has been a growing emphasis on attempts to freeze, seize, and return stolen assets to their jurisdiction of origin. However, countries vary in the legal mechanisms they have to achieve these objectives. One common fixture of many of these legal mechanisms is the requirement that the assets (or the capital used to acquire them) be traced to a predicate offense. However, meeting this requirement can sometimes be difficult, which hinders asset recovery proceedings.

To address this problem, some jurisdictions, such as France, have adopted a burden-shifting approach. Under the relevant provisions of the French Criminal Code, officials have the burden to account for the lavish assets they have acquired once claims of corruption arise. A similar sort of burden-shifting takes place under so-called “illicit enrichment” or “unexplained wealth” statutes. Under such statutes, a government official can be criminally liable if the official has substantial assets that he or she cannot adequately explain. In other words, once the government proves that the corrupt official has assets grossly disproportionate to his or her official salary, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that the assets have a legitimate origin. Many countries have adopted statutes of this sort. Moreover, some international anticorruption conventions, such as the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption (IACAC), expressly call for the adoption and enforcement of such laws.

The U.S. takes a different approach. The U.S. made this clear in filing a reservation to the IACAC’s illicit enrichment section (Article IX), in which it stated that the offense of illicit enrichment set forth in the convention “places the burden of proof on the defendant, which is inconsistent with the United States constitution and fundamental principles of the United States legal system.”

But is it always the case that the government bears the burden of proof in the U.S.? In fact, it is not. There are numerous examples of areas from U.S. criminal law where burdens are shifted from the government to the defendant. Continue reading