Whatever Happened with that Charity That the Obiang Settlement Was Supposed to Fund?

When a country seizes assets that a foreign public official stole from his or her own government, the usual next step is to return those assets to the foreign government from which they were stolen–in much the same way that if I were to steal a computer belonging to Harvard University, and the police caught me and recovered the computer, they should give it back to Harvard (assuming it wasn’t needed as evidence in my trial). But of course in the context of countries beset by systemic corruption–or outright kleptocracies–things are not so simple. Returning the money that the corrupt foreign official stole from the national treasury back to that national treasury may be tantamount to giving the money back to the person who stole it in the first place. So what to do?

One possibility, increasingly popular in some quarters, is to use the money to fund charitable activities in the country where the public funds were stolen, on the logic that doing so does return the money to the “victim country,” but does not return it to that country’s government (which is most certainly not a “victim,” whatever its formal legal claim on the assets in question). This mechanism was employed in the 2014 settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s (extremely corrupt and dictatorial) President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. According to the settlement agreement, the proceeds from the sale of the illicit assets the US had seized would go to a charity that would use the funds to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea. The charity was to be jointly selected by the US and Obiang, or, if they could not agree on a charity within 180 days of the sale of the assets, the proceeds would be controlled and disbursed by a three-person panel, rather than an existing charity. That panel would consist of one member selected by the US government, one member selected by the government of Equatorial Guinea, and a chair jointly selected by the US and Obiang. As a backstop, the settlement stated that if, 220 days after the sale of the assets, the US and Obiang could not agree on a chair, the court that approved the settlement could force the parties to enter mediation or simply appoint a panel chair itself.

My post today is not a commentary on this arrangement, but a question about it: What ever ended up happening with this? I spent a fair amount of time searching online, and I couldn’t find any information about whether a charity had been selected, or whether a panel was formed, and if so how it was formed and who was/is on it. I also can’t find any information about how the charity or panel disbursed the money from the proceeds of the sale of Obiang’s assets. It’s been over five years since the settlement, so I assume whatever was going to happen has happened already. But strangely, though there are lots of references in various recent publications and articles to the provision of the 2014 settlement that calls for the money to be used for charitable purposes in Equatorial Guinea rather than returned to the government, I can’t find any sources that discuss what actually ended up happening. This is not a trivial question, since several people (including on this blog) expressed skepticism that it was possible for a model like this to work in a country like Equatorial Guinea, where there isn’t much/any space for a genuinely independent civil society to operate.

I’m sure there’s a simple answer to my factual question, and I’m probably just not looking in the right place. So I’m hoping someone out there in reader-land can help me. What ended up happening to the proceeds recovered from the sale of Obiang’s assets? Did the parties agree on a charity? If so, which one, and what did it do with the money? Or was the three-person panel formed to handle the money? If so, how was it formed, who was on it, and what did it do with the money? Anyone have any idea?

Asset Repatriation Under UNCAC

One of the most far-reaching changes the United Nations Convention Against Corruption made to international law was the requirement that states cooperate to return assets stolen through corruption to the country where the crime was committed.  No international convention had ever before required a state where the proceeds or the instruments of the crime were found to return them to the state where the offense was committed.

The overarching principle is straightforward, but translating it into exacting, legally binding language is anything but. The drafters had to account for cases where the state requesting return and the requested state have quite different laws on transferring ownership rights by judicial decree and on the effect a decree in one state has on proceedings in another. The result is series of lengthy, complex provisions laced with a thicket of paragraphs, subparagraphs, and cross-references that may warm some lawyers’ hearts but in which many reader can easily become lost.

I mapped the provisions for a forthcoming asset return conference. As the map isn’t (at least yet!) on Google maps, a copy is below. Two experienced UNCAC guides kindly read and corrected an earlier version (thank you Queensland University Senior Lecturer Radha Ivory and Mat Tromme of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law).  Readers spotting any further mis-directions or errors are asked to flag them. Continue reading

To Get Serious About Asset Recovery, Get Serious About the Facts

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

OECD Nations Should Criminalize the Unexplained Wealth of Politically Exposed Persons

Today’s guest post is from Hamid Sharif, Managing Director, Compliance, Effectiveness and Integrity, for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  Writing in his personal capacity, he urges OECD countries to enact laws like that giving the British government the power to demand public officials from another nation explain how they acquired assets held in Britain.  If the official cannot show the assets were purchased with honestly-obtained monies, they are confiscated.  The laws Mr. Sharif advocates would provide that if the official were from a developing country, the seized assets would go to development projects in the victim state.  The views expressed in no way reflect or represent those of AIIB, its Board, or Management.

Since 1996, when then World Bank President James Wolfensohn condemned corruption as a “cancer” which stood “as a major barrier to sound and equitable development,” combating corruption has figured prominently on the international development agenda. In 1997, the OECD nations agreed to make it a crime to bribe a foreign public official, and in the early 2000s the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the other multilateral development banks (MDBs) introduced corruption prevention policies into their procurement rules, adopted anti-corruption policies, established procedures for investigating corruption in their operations, and instituted systems for sanctioning firms and individuals found to have engaged corruption. Beyond ring-fencing their own projects against corruption, both the MDBs and bilateral development agencies have worked to strengthen institutions to prevent corruption in developing countries. Civil society in both developing and developed states has also stepped up its efforts to fight corruption.

Both the MDBs and bilateral donors have urged developing nations to operate with greater transparency and accountability and funded projects to strengthen anticorruption agencies, judiciaries, and other domestic institutions responsible for combatting corruption. Today there is far more information on corruption and how to fight it available to citizens of the developing world than 20 years ago. The result has been a multitude of reforms aimed at preventing or deterring corruption, from the spread of right to information laws to more effective anticorruption laws and agencies.

Despite this progress, in most developing countries institutions are not yet strong enough to investigate and successfully prosecute the corrupt acts of senior government officials whether elected or appointed, individuals who in antimoney laundering parlance are, along with their relatives and close associates termed “politically exposed persons” or “PEPs.”  In many countries, investigating and prosecution agencies as well as courts lack the independence, security, and institutional capacity to instill public confidence in their ability to deal with high-level political corruption perpetrated by PEPs. Continue reading

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Nigerian Foreign Minister’s Vilification of Switzerland and the Diplomacy of Asset Recovery

Today’s guest post is from Dr. Matthew Ayibakuro,director of research and policy at the Africa Network for Environment & Economic Justice (ANEEJ).

On Tuesday, 11 September 2018, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama in a speech delivered at the opening of the 2nd International Conference on Combatting Illicit Financial Flows organized by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), called out Switzerland for being an accessory to the looting of the country by the former Head of State, Sani Abacha.

He further decried the difficulties faced by Nigeria in repatriating the infamous Abacha loot from Swiss authorities, referring to the process as “daylight robbery”.  For stakeholders working on issues of asset recovery from Nigeria and in foreign jurisdictions, these comments give room for some concern.  The potential impact of statements like this in the short and long-term can impede the progress made by the asset recovery regime in Nigeria over the last couple of decades.  There are obvious reasons for this. Continue reading

Will the Swiss Government Heed Civil Society’s Advice When Returning Stolen Assets to Uzbekistan?

Readers of this blog know the Swiss government faces a dilemma in returning several hundred million Swiss francs of stolen assets to Uzbekistan (here and here).  Although the current government has taken small steps towards reform, it remains dominated by the same clique of Soviet-era apparatchiks whose corrupt ways were behind the theft of the assets. Returning the money thus runs a high risk that it will go right back to the culprits or their cronies.

At the same time, the Swiss government has an obligation under the UN Convention Against Corruption to return the assets. Moreover, thanks to decades of misrule, living condition for the average Uzbek remain dismal at best.  Money for everything from basic education and health programs to investment in public works is desparately needed.

Uzbek civil society now offers a solution to the Swiss dilemma.  Acknowledging the reformist leanings of the current government, and wanting to encourage them, civil society proposes that the Swiss government return the funds in tranches.  The return would be keyed to progress in realizing the kinds of reforms the government says it is committed to making.   Internationally recognized measures would be used to gauge progress.

A phased, conditioned return has two advantages.  It offers those in the Uzbek government leverage to persuade reluctant colleagues of the need for change.  At the same time, a phased return avoids swamping the government with a massive amount of money its primitive public financial system simply couldn’t manage responsibly.

The proposal appears in a letter to Swiss authorities authored by prominent Uzbek citizen, both those who have had to flee the country to escape political repression and those (anonymously) who remain.  The English version is here; a Russian version here.  A commentary on the proposal in the Swiss press is here, and background on the circumstance the led to the theft is here.