The Obiang Trial: Lessons from a Decade-long Legal Battle

The trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang before a French court for what is in effect kleptocracy is by any measure a giant step forward in the fight against grand corruption.  Indeed, it is such a significant milestone that GAB has, thanks to the Open Society Justice Initiative’s Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz, provided readers in-depth reports of how it is unfolding (here, here, here, here, here, here).

Criminal trials are the result of a long and complex process meant to protect a defendant’s rights, and frustratingly, these human rights safeguards provide wealthy defendants, no matter their guilt, with many opportunities to derail a case.  In Teodorin’s case, not only does he have apparently limitless resources to spend on lawyers to pursue every legal defense to the nth degree, but the government of Equatorial Guinea, a family enterprise run by his father, has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Teodorin from facing justice: naming him an ambassador to try and create a defense of diplomatic immunity, claiming that property he bought is state-owned and thus immune from legal challenge, and even filing an action against the French government in the International Court of Justice.

As Shirley and Ken draft the next installment in their series, this is an opportune time to stand back and examine how these many obstacles were overcome.   How did it come to pass that a senior official of the government of Equatorial Guinea is being held accountable before a criminal court in Paris for the wholesale theft of his nation’s wealth?  And more importantly, what can be done to ensure the Obiang trial is no fluke?  That the hundreds, if not thousands, of public officials who have stolen massive amounts from the people of their countries also find themselves in court answering for their crimes.

Thankfully, a fine paper answering these questions is now available. Authored by French attorney Maude Perdriel-Vaissière, a critical actor in shepherding the Obiang case through the French legal system, it recounts how a small, dedicated band of civil society activists overcame the many legal and political obstacles to bring Obiang before the bar of justice.  Continue reading

Guest Post: The U.S. Retreat from Extractive Industry Transparency–What Next?

Zorka Milin, Senior Legal Advisor at Global Witness, contributes today’s guest post:

The US Department of the Interior recently took steps to halt its work on implementing a global transparency initiative for the resource sector, known as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). This announcement came on the heels of the Congressional action repealing a related rule, adopted by the SEC pursuant to Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act, that required oil, gas and mining companies to publish their payments to governments. The two issues are related but distinct. First, 1504 rule required US-listed companies to report payments they make to governments around the world. In contrast, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) applies in those countries whose governments choose to join the initiative (including the US) and requires payments to be disclosed both by the recipient government as well as by all extractives companies that operate in that country. These differences in scope make the two transparency measures necessary complements to each other. EITI produces valuable information from governments about the payments they receive for their natural resources, whereas mandatory legal rules like 1504 are necessary to ensure meaningful and broad reporting from companies, including in those resource-rich countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Angola that are not part of EITI but are in desperate need of more transparency. Indeed, the US EITI experience shows that even in those countries that do commit to implementing EITI, EITI alone might not be enough to compel all companies to report, if it is not backed by domestic legislation.

Officials at Interior appear to be retreating from their ill-advised decision to effectively withdraw from EITI, but these mixed signals, especially when viewed together with the Congressional action, send a troubling message about the US government’s changing stance on anticorruption, and set back a long history of US leadership on these issues. Nonetheless, while these recent US developments are a setback from a US anticorruption perspective, the rest of the world is powering ahead with this much needed transparency. Continue reading

When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

Can corrupt leaders enact effective anticorruption reform? The brief answer seems to be yes: Leaders who are (perceived as) corrupt can initiate and support effective anticorruption reform efforts. For example, as this blog has previously discussed, President Peña-Nieto (who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and graft) supported constitutional anticorruption reforms in Mexico. Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has similarly launched various anticorruption campaigns, even while fending off numerous corruption allegations.

But why do corrupt leaders institute anticorruption reforms? While there’s no universal explanation, there appear to be at least three archetypes that might help anticorruption activists identify and push unlikely reformers: The Power Player, The Top-Down Director, and The Born-Again Reformer. Continue reading

Corrupt Land Grabbing: A Cambodian Response

For the vast majority living in developing nations the principal source of wealth is  land: whether the plot where their house is located, the fields they farm, or the forestlands that provide daily sustenance.  The first effects of economic development often show up as sharp increases in the value of this property.  Once valuable only as a place to locate a small village or to eke out a living in subsistence agriculture, land prices suddenly skyrocket when an airport, ocean terminal, or other significant new infrastructure is to be located nearby.  While offering neighboring property holders a chance to escape poverty, these investments can also put them at great risk.  Land registries in poor countries are often not well-kept and registry staff poorly paid, making the doctoring or forging of ownership records possible.

An example what can happen occurred recently near Sihanoukville City, Cambodia.  After plans to expand the city’s port were announced, a powerful official connected to the port authority began a campaign to evict residents of a nearby village from land they live on and which their families have farmed for generations.  Strategically placed bribes have given him a colorable claim to the land, and he has mobilized local authorities to try and force the residents off the property.

Although all too often Cambodians in a similar situation have surrendered, a group of villagers decided to fight and turned to Bunthea Keo, a young Cambodian public interest lawyer, for help.  Thea brought suit to halt the eviction, and in a paper written for the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative he explains not only the legal theories behind the case but the organizational and financial issues involved in bringing a public interest suit on behalf of a large group of citizens in Cambodia.  It is the ninth in a series of papers the Justice Initiative has commissioned on civil society and anticorruption litigation following earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer, vi) public trust theory by Professor Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, vii) private suits for procurement corruption by Professor Abiola Makinwa of the Hague University of Applied Sciences, and viii) international tribunals as a means for forcing government action on corruption by Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director of the Social and Economic Rights Project.  All papers are available here.

Suing Governments For Corruption Before International Tribunals: SERAP v. Nigeria

Last week I reported that the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project or SERAP , a Nigerian NGO, was being sued by the country’s former first lady for urging the authorities to investigate her for receiving “small gifts” ($15 million in total) while her husband served in government, first as Governor of the oil-rich state of Bayelsa, then as Vice-President and later President.  While the saga of the first lady and her “small gifts” recently took another unusual (bizarre?) legal twist, this week the focus is on SERAP and one its most creative approaches to combating corruption in Nigeria: the precedent setting suit it brought against the Government of Nigeria in the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States  for corruption in education.

The ECOWAS Court is one of several regional international tribunals established to hear disputes between neighboring countries, in its case 15 states in West Africa.  The Court’s statute also grants it jurisdiction to entertain actions against a member state for human rights violations.  In 2007 SERAP took advantage of this provision to bring the Government of Nigeria before the bar of justice for its failure to curb massive corruption in the agency funding schools in disadvantaged areas of the country.  While SERAP’s argument was straightforward — Nigeria’s inability to curb corruption denied citizens’ their constitutionally guaranteed right to education – the SERAP suit appears to be a first: a human rights action based on a state’s failure to control corruption.

The Nigerian government lodged several objections in opposition: SERAP had to take its case first to Nigerian courts; the ECOWAS Court had no jurisdiction to hear the matter; SERAP had no standing to sue; the right to education was not justiciable.  But in its landmark decision in favor of SERAP the Court swept all of them aside, ruling that corruption in education could constitute a violation of the right to education if government did not make a serious effort to prosecute the corrupt officials and recover the stolen funds.  SERAP v. Nigeria stands as an important precedent for civil society groups in countries where governments are unwilling to address deeply-ingrained, high level corruption that denies citizens constitutionally guaranteed rights.  It also demonstrates how an energetic civil society group committed to fighting corruption can find a creative legal argument to unlock the courthouse door.

Details on the case are in this paper by Adetokunbo Mumuni, SERAP’s Executive Director and its lead counsel in the action.  The paper is the eighth in a series commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative on civil society and anticorruption litigation.  It follows earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer, vi) public trust theory by Professor Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, and vii) private suits for corruption in public procurement by Abiola Makinwa, a lecturer in commercial law at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.  All papers are available here on the JI Web site.

Why Not Citizen Suits for Corrupt Procurements?

Beginning from the simple and indisputable premise that those harmed by corruption should be able to do something about it, Professor Abiola Makinwa of the Hague University of Applied Sciences develops a novel approach to attacking the ubiquitous problem of corruption in public procurement.  To appreciate it, take an example.  Suppose government awards a contract to a company to build a road so farmers in the region can more easily and cheaply bring their products to market.  Suppose further that thanks to corruption the road is either never built or it quickly becomes impassable.  Who suffers most from the construction company’s failure to perform the road building contract?  Who has the greatest stake in remedying the wrong? Continue reading

Guest Post: The Long, Long Road from Talking Transparency to Curbing Corruption in Mauritania

GAB is delighted to welcome back Till Bruckner, an international development expert who recently spent six months living Mauritania, and contributes the following guest post based on his experience there:

What do fish and iron have in common? Answer: Mauritania, a largely desert country of less than four million people in north-western Africa, is immensely rich in both. At the same time, most Mauritanians are poor. And one of the biggest reasons is corruption and misgovernance.

Consider first fishing. Although Mauritania has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, its marine wealth is carried away by foreign ships whose owners often bribe senior government figures to obtain fishing permits and take their catch straight to Europe or Asia. As a result, the country has failed to develop a significant fishing industry, or domestic fish processing industry, of its own, and a fishing industry that boasts an annual catch of half a million tons generates a mere 40,000 jobs inside Mauritania. Yet to the south, Senegal translates a catch of similar size into at least 130,000 jobs, while to the north, Morocco has turned its million-ton-a-year catch into a massive export industry whose turnover is projected to reach two billion dollars by the end of this decade.

Inland, deep in the Sahara, some mountains contain more metal than rock, consisting of up to 75% iron, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Mauritania nationalized its iron mines in 1974, creating the state-owned monopoly company SNIM. Its workers blast the slopes to rubble, and conveyor belts transport the rubble into waiting railway waggons. The longest train in the world then chugs its way across 700 kilometres of desert, loads its cargo onto giant foreign freighters—and neither the ore nor most of the money paid for it are ever seen again. The looting dynamics in Mauritania’s mining sector are illustrated by the stark contrast between Zouerate, the town in the Sahara where the iron is mined—which looks like a dystopian hellhole straight out of a Mad Max film—and the rich suburbs of the capital city of Nouakchott (which produces virtually nothing), where giant villas rise out of the sand, and oversized SUVs cruise the streets. And in Nouakchott itself, in the poor suburbs, families living five to a windowless room have to pay for their drinking water by the barrel.

The preferred prescription in a situation like this (from the usual suspects: development professionals, anticorruption activists, etc.) is a combination of transparency, accountability, and civil society monitoring. But Mauritania is actually doing well on those dimensions. Continue reading