At Last: An UNCAC Handbook

Thanks to Oxford University Press that gaping hole in every anticorruption practitioner’s library has now been filled. With the publication of The United Nations Convention Against Corruption: A Commentary, those looking for authoritative guidance on UNCAC no longer need to sort through the voluminous literature the convention has spawned: UNODC guides, StAR publications, academic commentary, and international and municipal court decisions.  Editors Cecily Rose, Michael Kubiciel, and Oliver Landwehr have, with help from 35 other experts on international law and corruption, done the work for them.  In one volume they summarize the law and learning on each of the convention’s 71 articles.

The Commentary is much more than a digest of UNCAC’s voluminous source materials, however. Continue reading

Mozambicans Ask: Will the United Arab Emirates Enforce UNCAC?

The United Arab Emirates faces the first serious test of its commitment the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.  Will it open a case against long-time resident Jean Boustani, who the U.S. Justice Department says masterminded the bribery scheme that robbed the people of Mozambique of some $2 billion.  The “Mozambican hidden debt” scandal pitched the nation into a deep recession, depriving thousands of basic necessities and leaving government without the resources to respond to Cyclone Idai

In its latest submission in its case against Boustani, the Justice Department reveals that much of the bribery scheme was carried out in the UAE. Boustani helped one co-conspirator open an account in a UAE bank to stash bribes, facilitated the travel of others to the UAE to further the bribery scheme, and secured UAE employment permits for three under false pretenses.  Each permit, says the Justice Department, “falsely stated that the [accomplices] professions were ‘petrol engine mechanic,’ ‘diesel engine mechanic,’ and ‘hydraulic mechanic.’”  In fact, the Justice Department told the court in its filing, “all three were members of the conspiracy who would receive millions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks for their roles in the scheme.”

The Justice Department’s charges against Boustani and accomplices are here. To view the Justice Department filing describing Boustani’s alleged violations of UAE law, click on DoJ Boustani filing .  To view the e-mails and other documents that support the Department’s narrative, click on evidence of UAE offenses.

Mozambican citizens have suffered a terrible wrong, one which UNCAC is meant to right.  Will UAE authorities do their part to help right that wrong?  Will the UAE live up to its obligations under the UNODC to prosecute those who pay bribes? Those who flagrantly violate other of its laws as part of a bribery scheme?

Asset Repatriation Under UNCAC

One of the most far-reaching changes the United Nations Convention Against Corruption made to international law was the requirement that states cooperate to return assets stolen through corruption to the country where the crime was committed.  No international convention had ever before required a state where the proceeds or the instruments of the crime were found to return them to the state where the offense was committed.

The overarching principle is straightforward, but translating it into exacting, legally binding language is anything but. The drafters had to account for cases where the state requesting return and the requested state have quite different laws on transferring ownership rights by judicial decree and on the effect a decree in one state has on proceedings in another. The result is series of lengthy, complex provisions laced with a thicket of paragraphs, subparagraphs, and cross-references that may warm some lawyers’ hearts but in which many reader can easily become lost.

I mapped the provisions for a forthcoming asset return conference. As the map isn’t (at least yet!) on Google maps, a copy is below. Two experienced UNCAC guides kindly read and corrected an earlier version (thank you Queensland University Senior Lecturer Radha Ivory and Mat Tromme of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law).  Readers spotting any further mis-directions or errors are asked to flag them. Continue reading

To Get Serious About Asset Recovery, Get Serious About the Facts

The asset recovery provisions of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption make it one of the most consequential international agreements of the past 50 years.  Prior to UNCAC, the law of “finders keepers” applied when the proceeds of a crime committed in one state were discovered in a second.  If the second state caught thieves with a sack of cash stolen from a bank in the first state, the first state could ask that the money be returned.  But the second state had no obligation to return it.

UNCAC repeals “finders keepers” for corruption offenses.  It makes the return of assets stolen from a state party through corruption “a fundamental principle of this Convention” and obliges state parties to “afford one another the widest measure of cooperation and assistance in this regard” (article 51).  When the requesting state’s title to the assets is clear, its courts have issued a final order confiscating them, and that order has been given effect by the holding state’s courts, return is immediate (article 57(3)).  In all other cases, return is made pursuant to “mutually acceptable arrangements on a case-by-case basis” (article 57(5)).

From their first meeting in December 2006, parties to the convention have focused on how well the asset recovery provisions are working in practice.  At that meeting, they created an open-ended working group “to advise and assist” them “in the implementation of [the convention] mandate on the return of proceeds of corruption.”  At every meeting up to and including the most recent one in 2017, the parties have directed the working group to continue investigating the efficacy of the asset recovery articles with an eye on how they can be improved.  Yet at no time have the parties ordered the first and most important step in assessing their effectiveness. Continue reading

Two Essential Volumes on Corruption

The study of corruption and what to do about it is no longer an academic or policy-studies backwater.  Matthew’s bibliography of corruption-related publications now lists over 6,000 books, articles, and reports and, as his regular updates show (thank you Matthew), the list continues to grow at the rate of some 50 plus per month.  That is the good news.  It is also of the course the bad news.  Few practitioners, and I suspect even academics, can claim to have absorbed the learning in the 6,000 current documents let alone keep up with the outpouring of new works.

For those who can’t , I recommend two recent books: Dan Hough’s Analysing Corruption and Alina Mungui-Pippidi and Michael Johnston’s Transitions to Good Governance: Creating Virtuous Circles of Anti-Corruption.  Both do an excellent job of synthesizing and extending recent scholarship on corruption issues, and both do so in a sophisticated but accessible manner.  Both have the added virtue of being available in reasonably priced paperback editions. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading