Getting back the ill-begotten loot

The long arm of the law needs to be strengthened,to recover the assets of former dictators

Written by New York Times | Published: January 23, 2012 3:38:10 am

Mark V. Vlasic

One year ago,the eyes of the world focused on Tunisia as its ruler,Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali,fled the country,allegedly with millions of dollars in gold and assets on his airplane. The government of Tunisia is now working with the international community to recover Ben Ali’s ill-gotten gains.

The process will be slow,complicated,and multi-jurisdictional,but it will lay down a marker for future dictators.

As Robert Zoellick said soon after he became president of the World Bank in 2007,“There should be no safe haven for those who steal from the poor.” That was when he launched the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) at the United Nations General Assembly. Designed as a joint initiative of the World Bank and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime,StAR assists developing countries seeking to recover assets from ousted dictators and in other major corruption cases.

Time will tell whether Ben Ali faces the law for his alleged crimes. But what is notable is that a year after Ben Ali fled his country,the law is already being used to recover the alleged ill-gotten gains traced to him and his associates. This is no small feat.

When other past dictators,such as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti,fled their countries,they often retired in comfort,living off their plundered assets in French villas and estates. This time,the international community is working to ensure that such outrages are stories of the past.

The new Tunisian government and its international collaborators started the recovery operations by recovering jets linked to the Ben Ali clan. The first was a business jet that had been parked in France. A second executive aircraft was seized by the authorities in Switzerland.

Of course,the estimated $30 million that these jets were worth is but a drop in the bucket when compared with the assets that the Ben Ali clan is alleged to have plundered. But asset recovery is not just about the money; it is also about the demonstration effect.

When the international community works together to recover ill-gotten gains such as executive aircraft,luxury cars,yachts and villas,people take notice. That is one of the reasons that Sherpa and Transparency International France,two non-governmental organisations that combat corruption,took legal action that led to the confiscation in France of 11 sports cars,worth over $5 million,traced to leaders of Equatorial Guinea. Images of the confiscated cars travelled the world over,demonstrating the long arm of the law. Enabling that arm is critical to the fight against corruption,especially when one considers the size of the problem. The World Bank estimates that $20 billion to $40 billion is stolen every year from developing countries. International cooperation on recovering these assets is critical to the anti-corruption movement.

Many around the world will be watching what happens with stolen assets in Tunisia and Libya. The recovery of two executive jets is only the first step,but that is how every journey begins.

The writer,an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Centre,served as head of operations of the World Bank’s StAR Secretariat

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