The Open Society Foundations hosts a conference this Friday, March 16, at its Washington office on the human rights issues raised when stolen assets are returned. During the morning session new strategies for addressing corruption before UN treaty bodies and the complementarity of international laws on human rights and criminal justice governing asset recovery will be discussed. In the afternoon, speakers will examine the role of asset-holding states and international organizations in ensuring accountability in asset recovery and return and civil society’s role. Previously unpublicized information on the return of stolen assets to Kazakhstan will be reviewed for the lessons it offers.
Article 54 of the UN Convention Against Corruption requires state parties to have procedures “to give effect to an order of confiscation issued by a court of another State Party.” Once a party receives a request to return assets backed by a confiscation order issued by a court in the requesting state, the process is simple. The requested party brings the order before a domestic court, and the court orders the assets forfeited. The requested state then hands over the money, securities, title to the property, or whatever is required to transfer the assets from their current owner to the requesting state.
What if the asset’s owner contests the transfer, however? What if the owner asserts the court proceedings that led to the confiscation order issuing in the requesting state were not fair? Does the requested state have an obligation to entertain the complaint? Continue reading
Late last year, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic leader of the Chechen Republic. The social media giant claimed that it had a “legal obligation” to disable Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts because of new sanctions imposed by the United States government under the Magnitsky Act. Among other things, Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the assassination of a political opponent, personally torturing another, and leading a violent purge of gay men. He’s also an active social media user: four million people followed his Facebook and Instagram profiles, and 400,000 continue to follow him on Twitter. Kadyrov had become famous for posting videos of himself wrestling a crocodile, praising Russian President Vladmir Putin, and—perhaps ironically—mocking what he saw as the ineffectiveness of American sanctions.
As many journalists noticed, Facebook hasn’t disabled the accounts of other sanctioned individuals, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. Facebook explained this seeming inconsistency with an unhelpful truism that it “operate[s] under the constraints of US laws, which vary by circumstance.” Its statements have led observers to speculate that Facebook is using the sanctions as a pretextual reason to cut off a user it already disliked, or that it’s “picking and choosing compliance” in an attempt to please the government. Although those explanations seem plausible at first glance, a careful look at the relevant laws suggests an even simpler (albeit more mundane) one: Facebook may actually be correct that it had a legal obligation to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts but not those of others targeted by American sanctions.
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.
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.
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:
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