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

A Different Kind of Quid Pro Quo: Conditional Asset Return and Sharing Anti-Bribery Settlement Proceeds

In my last couple of posts, I’ve returned to a theme I’ve written about before: My skepticism about claims that the U.S. government either should (as a matter of policy) or must (under UNCAC or other legal obligations) share settlement proceeds in FCPA cases with the governments of the countries where the bribery took place. I’m also skeptical that there’s any obligation on the part of U.S. or other supply-side enforcers to use any of this settlement money to fund NGO-sponsored projects in (or for the benefit of) those countries.

Asset recovery, however, is different. When the U.S. (or some other country) identifies – at its own initiative or pursuant to the request of another government – assets held in the U.S. that have been stolen from a foreign government, my reading of the law (both conventional domestic legal principles and Chapter V of UNCAC) is that the U.S. has an unconditional legal obligation to return those assets to their rightful owner. At times, the U.S. has indicated that, although it has a general policy of returning stolen assets to the governments from which they were stolen, it does not view this as a legal obligation. Rather, the U.S. seems to want to leave open the option, in some cases, of attaching conditions to the return of the assets, or funneling them through NGOs or other bodies, rather than simply turning them over to the claimant government. I understand why the U.S. has taken this position: Returning assets stolen assets to a claimant government with a reputation for pervasive corruption—where it seems highly likely much of the money will be stolen again—seems awfully unappealing, and doubly so in those cases where the government officials who stole the money in the first place, or their family members and cronies, retain their power and influence in the claimant country. Hence the instinct to attach conditions to the return of the assets, or to use the money to fund NGOs rather than simply turn it over to the claimant government. The problem, though, is that I’m hard-pressed to come up with a legal basis (notwithstanding some valiant attempts) for doing anything other than handing over the money.

So, the situation as it stands looks something like this (and I acknowledge simplifying quite a bit to make things a tad neater than they actually are): On the one hand, many developing countries want wealthy countries like the U.S. to share foreign bribery settlement proceeds with the countries where the bribery took place, but for the most part the wealthy countries do not want to do this, and assert—correctly—that they are under no obligation to do this under UNCAC or any other legal instrument. On the other hand, many wealthy countries would like to retain the flexibility to attach conditions to asset return (or to use seized assets to fund NGO programs rather than turning the money over to the governments), but the claimant countries in the developing world assert—correctly—that there is a legal obligation (enshrined in UNCAC) to return stolen assets, without strings attached.

Framing the issue this way suggests a possible compromise. (In the interests of disclosure, I should say that this is not my original idea: It came up in a conversation I had recently with an analyst at an anticorruption NGO, but since I haven’t had the chance to clear it with him, I won’t name the person or organization here.) The trade would go like this: Continue reading

When Should Governments Keep Stolen Assets?

The Swiss government agreed in early March to return $321 million to the Nigerian government that was stolen by the late Sanni Abacha during his kleptocratic reign as the country’s president.   The agreement provides that the funds will be used for programs to benefit the Nigerian people in “an efficient and accountable way” and, to ensure the funds do indeed go to such programs, the World Bank will monitor their use.

World Bank oversight is one way to ensure returned assets are not again stolen, and in the case of Nigeria — a relatively open society with an elected government, a lively, unconstrained media, and a vibrant civil society – World Bank monitoring, when coupled with these conditions, may be sufficient to guarantee the funds are put to good use.  But what about in closed societies?  Those without elections, free media, an independent civil society.  Countries where the same tight-knit, authoritarian group which stole the assets in the first place remains in power?  Is there any way to ensure stolen assets returned to these countries will be used to benefit the nation’s citizens rather than going straight back into the pockets of the thieves? Continue reading

How Asset Return Agreements Can Bolster Reform: The Kazakh Experience

Guest contributor Robert Packer last week highlighted what can be the most contentious issue presented by the U.N. Convention Against Corruption – a request for the return of assets stolen as a result of corruption.  One reading of the convention seems to give countries victimized by corruption an absolute, unrestricted right to the return of the proceeds of corruption located in a second state.  But as Robert observed, states holding stolen assets can be reluctant to return them to a country where the chances the assets will again be lost to corruption are high and can find language in the convention arguably giving them the right, if not to keep the assets, to make return conditional on the requesting state taking steps to ensure the returned assets benefit citizens rather than again being stolen.  While there is always the danger that conflict over whether a return should be unrestricted or conditional will become acrimonious, a recent experience shows the result can also lead to a solution that benefits all parties. Continue reading

Guest Post: Is It Lawful Under UNCAC to Attach Conditions to Asset Returns?

GAB is pleased to welcome back Robert Packer, from the University of Nanterre, who contributes the following guest post:

Article 57 of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which outlines provisions concerning the return of stolen assets, was the most contentious piece of the entire convention. A straightforward reading of Article 57 appears to require state parties to return assets “on the basis of a final judgement in the requesting State Party” (emphasis added). Often, however, a final judgement is not forthcoming. Article 57 addresses that contingency in its final paragraph, which provides for “agreements or mutually acceptable arrangements, on a case-by-case basis, for the final disposal of confiscated property.” That gives rise to another extremely contentious question, discussed previously on this blog (see here, here, and here): Is it legally permissible for states that confiscate the assets to attach conditions on their return? Continue reading