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  These kleptocrats, whose massive theft of their nation’s resources inspired the UNCAC asset recovery chapter, had been replaced by democratically inclined leaders committed to the rule of law and the welfare of their citizens.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.

Some Realistic Steps to Address Corruption in Cambodia’s Prisons

Prisons are perfect environments for corrupt activity (see here and here), even in countries that are generally not corrupt. A captive, marginalized, and powerless population is at the mercy of an armed, empowered group for everything from safety to basic food and water supplies. In Cambodia, a deeply corrupt country to begin with, prison corruption impacts every aspect of incarcerated life. Prison conditions are abysmal; water and food are scarce and are often unsafe to consume; prisons are severely overcrowded; and prisoners are subject to beatings and sexual abuse by other prisoners and guards. The Cambodian NGO Licadho found that “[t]here is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable [in prison], from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.” Even release from prison at the end of a sentence can be contingent on paying bribes.

These conditions constitute clear, and awful, violations of the human rights of prisoners. Cambodian prison corruption also threatens to undermine Cambodia’s already shaky justice system: As long as prisons are seen as institutions of corruption, torture, and injustice, as opposed to centers of rehabilitation, they will never escape the image left behind by the Khmer Rouge.

There aren’t a lot of feasible solutions, however. Both financial resources and political will to address prison corruption are very limited. Major reforms that would address fundamental problems, such as the lack of an independent judiciary, are hard and expensive, and the current government is not open to them. Nevertheless, there are a range of more modest reforms, which are both less expensive and more politically feasible, that could reduce corruption in prisons and improve the situation of many prisoners. Consider three such low-hanging fruit:

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Large-Scale Land Acquisitions: Opportunities for Corruption

Recent years have seen a significant rise in large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors, generally for agricultural or extractive purposes. Many of these land deals, termed “land grabs,” have had injurious effects on local populations who are often pushed off of their land without their informed consent. (For a description of contemporary land grabs and a land grab bibliography, see here.) Foreign companies and governments secure the majority of these land deals in poorer countries, where large tracts of land can be purchased cheaply, and where many of the local inhabitants do not have the means to contest the deals through the legal system. The land is frequently used for agriculture or production of “flex crops” (such as soy or palm oil), which are then sold abroad, rather than to the host country. Therefore, land grabs can result in not only the displacement of local communities, but also the reallocation of these vital resources to external actors, rather than to the inhabitants of the host country.

Large-scale land deals are often facilitated by corrupt practices perpetrated by the foreign purchaser and/or the host government, through the transactions themselves or through weak institutions. Last November, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and Global Witness released a report that details the opportunities for corruption at each stage of large-scale land acquisitions, as well as the current legal frameworks for addressing this corruption. As noted in the report, corruption can occur in each of the six phases of a land deal: Continue reading

Asking Too Much: Why Regional Human Rights Courts Cannot Tackle Corruption

Should regional human rights courts, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), expand their mandates to explicitly address corruption? Commentators have explored the possibilities of incorporating corruption into the human rights framework (see here and here), and in a previous post, Kaitlin Beach specifically explored the benefits of utilizing regional human rights courts to address corruption (see here and here). Kaitlin emphasizes certain advantages that regional human rights courts have, mainly their flexibility in the types of reparations they can demand. This enables them to order structural anticorruption changes at the state level, as opposed to simply issuing individual indictments.

Despite these advantages, though, we should not get our hopes too high about the role these courts can play in the fight against corruption. Indeed, the IACHR – which Kaitlin points to as her lead example for the productive role that regional human rights bodies can play in combating corruption – is currently burdened by its lack of compliance mechanisms, inefficiency, and financial instability. These setbacks have caused the IACHR to have only limited success in combating human rights abuses. To expect an institution that is still struggling to fulfill its original mandate to also take on an additional mission is unrealistic, and adding this additional burden would further strain the limited resources that courts like the IACHR have available to remedy human rights abuses.

Consider the following limitations of the IACHR, which are characteristic of other regional human rights bodies as well, and which make it unlikely that these institutions will be able to do what some anticorruption advocates hope: Continue reading

Coming Along for the Ride: Regional Human Rights Courts Should Demand Government Measures to Affirmatively Address Corruption

In an earlier post, I discussed an order by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanding that Brazil investigate and report on prison guards’ corruption. Mandating that a country review its own corruption seems to be a new step for an international judicial body. The approach suggests a way to more closely integrate corruption-related concerns into international human rights work: including corruption-specific mandates within broader holdings. Other international adjudicative bodies, particularly regional human rights courts, should follow this model.

The idea of directly adjudicating corruption through an international court has been floated but also strongly opposed. Some corruption commentators advocate making grand corruption a crime against humanity that could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). As discussed on this blog, Judge Mark Wolf has proposed an independent international anticorruption court, an idea that met with some tempered support and a good deal of opposition (see here, here, and Matthew’s concerns here). I agree that grand corruption does not belong in the ICC or an independent court. To reject grand corruption as a stand-alone offense to be prosecuted in international criminal tribunals is not, however, to reject that corruption should be addressed by international criminal tribunals where it is relevant. Existing bodies like regional human rights courts—the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and the much newer African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as other, even younger human rights bodies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East—should explicitly address corruption-related issues within the context of the large volume of human rights adjudication already taking place. As other commentators have already discussed, these regional human rights courts can fold corruption into their respective mandates and generate meaningful corruption-related law (see here, here, and here). Indeed, regional human rights bodies are already well-placed to highlight corruption where it emerges and to respond appropriately to both the existing situation and future concerns:

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TNI’s Gold Mine: Corruption and Military-Owned Businesses in Indonesia

The Grasberg Mine, located close to the highest mountain in West Papua, Indonesia, is the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine. The mine, owned by the corporation Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, has been the site of strings of grave human rights abuses, linked to Indonesia’s own National Armed Forces (Tentara National Indonesia/TNI). TNI’s presence in the territory is ostensibly to protect the mine, and Freeport’s Indonesian subsidiary acknowledges having made payments of as much as US$4.7 million in 2001 and US$5.6 million in 2002 for such government-provided security. A report by Global Witness, however, revealed numerous other payments ranging from US$200 to US$60,000 that Freeport Indonesia allegedly made to individual military officers.

The TNI’s sale of security services to companies like Freeport is only one of the many business ventures conducted by the TNI and its officers. As Human Rights Watch has reported, the Indonesian military has been supplementing its income through both its formally established companies, and through informal and often illicit businesses such as black market dealing. Moreover, the military’s business activities (both lawful and unlawful) are largely shielded from public scrutiny: budgeting for military purposes is generally kept secret, and TNI members generally refuse to answer questions about institutional spending.

Military-owned business in Indonesia are problematic, not only because this private-sector activity impedes military professionalism and distorts the function of the military, but also because it also contributes to crime, human rights abuses, and especially corruption. This problem is greatly compounded by the fact that TNI officers generally enjoy immunity from corruption charges brought by civilian institutions. In fact, the Transparency International’s Defense and Security Program has deemed Indonesia one of the countries most prone to corruption in its defense and security institutions. It is therefore appalling that this issue has not been addressed more seriously by the Indonesian government. Although a 2004 law mandated the transfer of control over TNI businesses to the civilian government within five years, the law did not clearly specify which types of business activities were covered, and this legal loophole enabled the TNI to preserve many of its moneymaking ventures, including TNI’s infamous security services—to say nothing of already-illegal criminal enterprises and illicit corporations. Moreover, despite the five-year timetable in the law, the government has been notably reluctant to enforce the transfer of ownership, making repeated excuses alluding vaguely to the need for the TNI to compensate for the lack of budgeting for security purposes. As a result, despite some efforts to reform the way the TNI is allowed to handle its businesses, military-owned businesses in Indonesia continues to flourish, with the Indonesian people of Indonesia having to pay the price.

The government’s weak response towards the military’s non-compliance with the 2004 law is merely one of the many indicators of how impervious the TNI’s power and seeming impunity. There are factors that contribute to this impunity, along with the corresponding corruption and abuse of power in the operations of military-owned businesses: Continue reading