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  These kleptocrats, whose massive theft of their nation’s resources inspired the UNCAC asset recovery chapter, had been replaced by democratically inclined leaders committed to the rule of law and the welfare of their citizens.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

Do Mandatory Asset Declarations Reduce Corruption? And If So, How?

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) calls on States Parties to adopt asset declaration and financial disclosure regimes for their public officials (see Article 8, paragraph 5 and Article 52, paragraph 5), and most states have complied with this commitment in one form or another. Indeed, according to a report by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, there is a continuous upward trend in the number of states that have enacted financial disclosure laws (see Figure 1.1 at page 8). Yet the near-universal popularity of mandatory asset declarations does not mean that this tool is actually effective. True, there have been a few high-profile cases where asset declarations played an important role in anticorruption efforts, such as the impeachment of the Chief Justices of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as the resignation of the Vice Rectors of a prestigious university in Thailand and the top brass of a state bank in Portugal. But such high-profile cases are rare and may not be representative of the larger picture. In a previous post on this blog, Rick Messick expressed some skepticism about the extent to which asset declarations and other forms of mandatory financial disclosures actually contribute to anticorruption efforts, and criticized what he saw as extravagant and unrealistic claims about the effectiveness of such disclosures as anticorruption tools.

So what does the existing research actually say about the effectiveness of asset declarations on anticorruption efforts? While there are only a few studies on this topic, the evidence they supply nevertheless offers valuable insights.

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Compensating Victims of Corruption

That corruption is not a victimless crime is no longer in doubt.  The once fashionable argument that corruption advances human welfare by “greasing the wheels” of clunky bureaucracies has been entombed thanks to a plethora of academic studies, media reports, and first-person accounts showing the undeniable, often enormous, harm corruption wreaks on individuals and society as a whole.  As UN Secretary General António Guterres told this week’s seventh meeting of the parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption, that harm ranges from denying citizens access to such basic rights as “health services, schools and economic opportunities” to undermining the very foundation of the state through enabling “a small elite in positions of power to prosper” thus destroying citizens’ “faith in good governance.”

While the damage corruption does is now clear, how to recompense the losses it causes is anything but.  The definitive legal text, the UN Convention Against Corruption, offers little help.  To be sure, article 35 requires state parties to give those “who have suffered damage as a result of an act of corruption … the right to initiate legal proceedings against those responsible … to obtain compensation and article 57 directs governments that have recovered the proceeds of corrupt acts to give priority to “compensating the victims of the crime.” Nowhere, however, does the convention offers any guidance on how to determine who is a victim of corruption or how their damages should be determined.  As a result, both international and domestic law on victim compensation will have to develop through court decisions, learned commentary, and legislation.

An important step in developing this law is the paper the UNCAC Coalition, a network of some 350 civil society groups from over 100 countries, submitted to this week’s meeting of UNCAC state parties.  “Recovery of Damages and Compensation for Victims of Corruption” draws on international law and emerging law and practice in both developed and developing states to guide the creation of laws governing corruption victim compensation.   The Coalition urges governments to: Continue reading

Improving Mutual Legal Assistance: Lessons from Asia

Back in 2014, Rick called for further analysis of mutual legal assistance (MLA) processes and potential reforms that would promote responsiveness to MLA requests in anticorruption cases (and others). As a follow-up, I wanted to highlight the findings of a recent report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB)/Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific. The report, entitled “Mutual Legal Assistance in Asia and the Pacific: Experiences in 31 Jurisdictions,” provides examples of various obstacles to effective MLA, which I have sorted into two general categories: legal and practical. Continue reading

Civil Society on Returning Stolen Assets to Highly Corrupt Governments


The return of the proceeds of corruption to the victim country is a “fundamental principle” of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.  How that return is to be realized, however, remains subject to dispute, particularly when the victim country’s government is highly corrupt.  Should governments where the stolen assets are discovered send them back no matter how corrupt the victim country’s government is?  Wouldn’t the return to a highly corrupt government frustrate the Convention’s most basic purpose — the prevention of corruption.

How to resolve this tension has been the subject of vigorous debate on this blog (hereherehereherehere and here).  Now some 50 members of the UNCAC Coalition’s Civil Society Working Group on Accountable Asset Return, from both countries where stolen assets have been found and those where return has been requested or realized, have weighed in.  In a February 14 letter to an UNCAC conference on asset recovery (addis-ababa-conf-agenda-february-2017-updated-02-02-2017), they write that where the victim country’s government is highly corrupt, it should be bypassed: “returning and receiving countries should in consultation with a broad spectrum of relevant experts and non-state actors find alternative means of managing the stolen assets” (emphasis in original).  The letter offers powerful arguments in support of its position.  The full text and the list of signers follows.  Continue reading

Equitable Sharing, Not Deference: How US FCPA Enforcers Should Accommodate Foreign Interests

Frederick Davis recently published two guest posts (see here and here) emphasizing some of the risks that arise when the US government pursues FCPA prosecutions against foreign corporations. He notes that European anticorruption administrators are regularly irritated by aggressive US action in this field and by the apparent discrepancy in the treatment of US and non-US corporations. He also notes that foreign corporations are reasonably worried about being charged twice for the same transgression: While European countries have addressed this concern through an international version of the double jeopardy bar (also known as ne bis in idem), that bar does not protect a corporation against a subsequent US prosecution. Moreover, as Mr. Davis notes, US enforcement agencies (as compared to their counterparts in Europe) have wider authority to charge, are more willing to assert power abroad, wield more procedural tools, and are less subject to judicial supervision in their charging and settlement decisions. To address these problems, Mr. Davis recommends, among other measures, that the US DOJ issue guidelines for when to defer to foreign judgments.

However, US deference to foreign judgments may not be the best solution. It could be true, as Mr. Davis worries, that US prosecutors are “becoming the ultimate arbiters” of foreign bribery cases (at least those involving multinational corporations). But if the US standard is indeed more stringent, then US hegemony could lead to more aggressive anticorruption prosecution across the board, a boon for anticorruption advocates. Since in certain situations competition among administrative and enforcement agencies can create a de facto “race to the top” in terms of standards, it might not be such a good idea for the US to adopt a more deferential posture toward foreign judgments in transnational bribery cases.

That’s not to ignore the significant problems that Mr. Davis describes. Given that the fines and other monetary penalties for corrupt business behavior can be enormous, US FCPA counterparts in other nations would be rightly dismayed if they lost out on the potential recoveries. If a Danish corporation listed on a US exchange bribes an official in Gambia, all three countries should be able to penalize the wrongdoers and share—though not necessarily equally—in the fines and other penalties recovered. If the penalties are appropriately distributed, we need not sacrifice the aggressive anticorruption regime of US hegemony. My response to Mr. Davis is that we need guidelines for distribution of recoveries, not necessarily guidelines for deferral to foreign judgments operating under differing, and less aggressive, standards.

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A Trade-Anticorruption Breakthrough?: The Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter

The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), released earlier this month, is already generating plenty of discussion. One of the proposed agreement’s most striking features is the full chapter on transparency and anticorruption, Chapter 26. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) had earlier stated that its objectives in negotiating the TPP included addressing transparency, accountability, and corruption; at the time I thought this was simply a negotiating ploy or marketing strategy, but it looks like I was wrong. As USTR’s summary of the “good governance” steps of Chapter 26 correctly notes, the TPP “includes the strongest anti-corruption and transparency standards of any trade agreement.” Indeed, Chapter 26–which appears to modeled in part on draft language that Transparency International had proposed for inclusion in a different trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership–could mark an important and unprecedented step towards using trade agreements to promoting and harmonize international anticorruption efforts.

Here are a few points that are or could be particularly important features of Chapter 26:

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