The issue of repatriating the proceeds of corruption to the countries from which they were stolen has attracted substantial commentary, including in multiple posts on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here). Much of the discussion focuses on whether and how to return funds to countries that still suffer from systemic corruption or outright kleptocracy. In these cases, the risk that the assets, if simply returned, will be stolen again is, in the view of some critics, unacceptably high. In some cases, despite these risks, the government that seized the assets nevertheless repatriates the seized funds directly to the government from which they were originally stolen; the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has done this in several cases, including asset returns to Peru, Italy, and Nicaragua. In other cases, by contrast, the seized funds have been funneled to a local NGO rather than to the government. This was done in the agreement among the United States, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan regarding the transfer of corruption proceeds to Kazakhstan (an agreement which created a new NGO called the BOTA Foundation). This mechanism was also included in the DOJ’s settlement with Equatorial Guinea over the disposition of assets stolen by the President’s son, Teodorin Obiang. Another approach, which we saw in this past February’s trilateral agreement among the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria regarding the return of $308 million in assets stolen by former Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha (which I discussed at greater length in a previous post), entails the earmarking of the repatriated funds for specific infrastructure projects, coupled with oversight by a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor and yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organizations (CSOs), with both the auditor and the CSOs selected by Nigeria, but subject to a veto by the United States and Jersey.
The inclusion of these various conditions is understandable. Notwithstanding the sovereignty-based objections advanced by the so-called “victim countries”—which often assert that they have an absolute right to the unconditional return of assets stolen from their national treasuries—returning huge sums to corrupt or weak governments without any safeguards would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, there are many pitfalls involved with leaving oversight largely to the victim country government and local CSOs, and the ability of countries like the United States to monitor compliance with the terms of repatriation agreements in foreign countries is limited. The best way to address these concerns is to involve an international institution—such as the World Bank, or possibly one of the regional multilateral development banks—in monitoring the terms of repatriation agreements.