A President's Support of Stolen Asset Recovery and the Fight Against Impunity

In his address to the inaugural meeting of the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery in Doha, President Barack Obama conveyed American support for international anti-corruption and stolen asset recovery efforts in the so-called "Arab Spring" countries. It was the U.S. government's most notable statement of support for asset recovery and, in many ways, it comes as a natural progression of American and international support for the recovery of stolen assets, and an end to the impunity that is so often associated with economic plunder.

Last week's forum, co-organized by Qatar and the United States presidency of the G8, with technical support from the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR), sought to kick-start multilateral efforts to recover funds illicitly-obtained by former regimes that are stashed away in offshore accounts, foreign real estate and shell companies.

In a video message to the forum's delegates, President Obama asserted that the recovery of "potentially billions of dollars" in stolen funds could help advance "transitions to democracy," "stabilize economies," and "create jobs and growth" in countries like Tunisia and Libya.

Indeed, the president's words were some of the most pointed by a senior American official -- and timely -- as they came just days before the five-year anniversary of StAR, the asset recovery mechanism formally launched on September 17, 2007 by another American"president" -- former World Bank President Robert Zoellick and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

A joint initiative of the World Bank and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, StAR assists developing countries seeking to recover assets from ousted dictators and grand corruption cases.

Launched soon after President Zoellick's arrival to the World Bank, StAR's "birth" at the U.N. General Assembly reflected the guarded optimism born out of past asset recovery cases, such as the successful recovery of approximately $700 million from former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Zoellick entrusted StAR's success with then-World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was one of the Nigerian ministers involved in the recovery operation. [A loss to the Bank, and gain to her native land, Okonjo-Iweala has since returned to her former post as Nigeria's Finance Minister.]

Though much of its work happens "behind the scenes," StAR's enabling arm has proven more effective than many had expected. In 2009, Swiss and Haitian officials, working with StAR, secured an order to return millions of dollars of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's assets back to Haiti. The order reflected a milestone: the first time that the international community had worked together to help recover stolen assets from a past dictator.

More recently, in 2012, just one year after Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled from power, StAR supported efforts by the Tunisian government to recover two executive jets in Europe that were linked to the Ben Ali family.

Of course, the estimated $30 million that these jets were worth is but a fraction of the assets that the Ben Ali family is alleged to have plundered. But, importantly, asset recovery is not just about the money; it is also about the demonstration effect.

The fact of the matter is that when the international community works together to recover illicit assets, such as executive aircrafts, luxury cars, yachts and villas, people -- and the press -- take notice.

That is one of the reasons that Sherpa and Transparency International France, two NGOs in Paris, took legal action that led to the confiscation in France of 11 sports cars, worth over $5 million, traced to Teodoro "Teodorin" Nguema Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea.

And their efforts have continued to pay off.

The French government recently seized a six-story, 101-room mansion in a posh Paris neighborhood, worth around €150m, linked to the Obiang family.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Department of Justice is currently working to seize Obiang's U.S.-based assets, including a Gulfstream jet, a Malibu mansion worth approximately $30 million, and nearly $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia, including Jackson's famous studded glove.

In a related statement, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said: "We are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world's corrupt leaders." And herein lies the goal -- crystallized by Robert Zoellick's words at the U.N. General Assembly: "there should be no safe haven for those who steal from the poor."

We know that the end of the era of impunity for corrupt leaders -- and the elimination of safe havens -- may not come today, tomorrow or the next day, but collaborative endeavors like the StAR Initiative and last week's meeting of the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery reflect the international community's will to curb economic abuse and support critical national-led efforts to promote good governance and fight corruption. Each successful recovery may be just one step in the global anti-corruption campaign, but each small step is integral to a successful journey.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, worked on the Haiti/Duvalier asset recovery team while serving as head of operations of the World Bank's StAR Secretariat. A former White House Fellow and Slobodan Milosevic prosecution team member, he served as international legal adviser to the Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery team, and now leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.