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

Guest Post: Global Progress on Beneficial Ownership Transparency

Joseph Kraus, Director, Transparency and Accountability at The ONE Campaign, contributes today’s guest post:

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the pernicious effects of anonymous companies, those all-too-secretive corporate vehicles that can be – and often are – used to facilitate corruption. Such entities thwart the ability of investigators, journalists, and civil society watchdogs to “follow the money” and hold bad actors accountable. Despite this obvious problem, there has been little political will to better regulate such entities.  Yet that is changing. In the past five years, there has been growing political momentum to put an end to corporate anonymity. Most recently, last month the European Union agreed on landmark regulations that will require public registers of company beneficial ownership information. (The EU also agreed to allow law enforcement, financial institutions, and anyone with an as-yet undefined “legitimate interest” to access trust ownership information.) These groundbreaking new rules will be implemented across the bloc’s 28 Member States.

Given the recent victory in the EU, it’s worth taking stock of global progress and tracing what has helped fuel gains that few thought plausible just a few years ago. Continue reading

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.