GFAR: Civil society groups hail return of stolen assets to Nigeria, demand greater accountable asset recovery

At the closing plenary of the first ever Global Forum on Asset Recovery, which ended on Wednesday, a coalition of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) welcomed the political will generated by the Forum to improve asset recovery efforts but called for governments to do more and be more transparent.

Approximately 30 CSO representatives participated in the Global Forum on Asset Recovery, most of them from the four focus countries – Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Ukraine – as well as a few representatives of international civil society groups.

CSOS attending the forum applauded the breakthrough in Switzerland’s return of assets to Nigeria with the landmark proposal for civil society involvement in monitoring the funds returned.

“The MOU between Switzerland and Nigeria recognizes the key role of civil society organisations and is a distinctive departure from the past practice of government-to-government agreements which resulted in re-looting of recovered funds,” said Olanrewaju Suraju, of HEDA Resource Centre in Nigeria.

Participants at the meeting

According to the coalition, the Global Forum was useful for encouraging discussions between law enforcement agencies on concrete cases.

However, in its statement the coalition criticized governments for the serious lack of information on how many stolen assets have been identified and seized.

“While conscious of the sensitivity of investigations, the lack of even basic information about asset recovery activities from governments is a serious failure of accountability which prevents the monitoring of effectiveness and crucially impairs trust,” said Asoka Obeyesekere from Transparency International Sri Lanka.

In eight country studies, CSOs found that relevant information was unavailable. In some countries, such as Ukraine, court decisions on confiscation of proceeds of corruption have been classified as state secrets. The coalition called for transparency commitments by all countries present at the GFAR, and urged them to set up databases with comprehensive asset recovery data.

ANEEJ Boss, Ugolor with another participant at the event

The coalition faulted financial centres – including the forum’s co-hosts US and UK – for not going far enough to clamp down on those who help launder funds out of the developing world, such as financial institutions, property managers and lawyers. The coalition urged countries that have not yet done so to introduce public registers of beneficial ownership and to take action against those who help the corrupt hide away their stolen wealth.

“Currently laundering funds out of our countries is far too easy; recovering the assets far too difficult” said Daria Kaleniuk of Anti-Corruption Centre in Ukraine.

CSOs from the four focus countries made specific recommendations to individual governments in country assessment reports prepared especially for GFAR. They called for:
• national law enforcement agencies engaged in asset recovery to be properly resourced and coordinated;
• for the Prosecutor General Office to stop harassing new anti-corruption investigative bodies (Ukraine);
• for anti-corruption agencies to end restrictive information-sharing provisions between the anti-corruption agencies (Sri Lanka);
• for the creation of a new commission to work on asset recovery in Tunisia, where the former commission ran out of mandate in 2015; and
• for adoption of comprehensive asset recovery legislation (Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Nigeria).

“This forum is a major opportunity to generate political will to push for greater asset recovery for countries like ours. We hope our governments do not squander it,” said Youssef Belgacem from Iwatch in Tunisia


Statement read by David Ugolor, from the African Network for Environment and Economic Justice, Nigeria on behalf of Civil Society at the Global Forum on Asset Recovery Closing Session, 6th December 2017, Washington DC

On behalf of civil society organisations present at this first ever Global Forum on Asset Recovery we are presenting this civil society statement. We thank the co-hosts the US and UK, and the organisers, the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative for inviting us to this forum. We welcome the participation of our governments from Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Nigeria and Ukraine.

We, civil society organisations from these focal countries, and international CSOs urge all governments to take concrete measures to address the underlying causes of asset theft. The ease with which stolen money can be spirited away into the international financial system must be addressed. We urge all countries that are attractive destinations for corrupt wealth to take immediate steps to close down the secrecy loopholes in their jurisdictions and ensure that facilitators of corrupt wealth are prosecuted and sanctioned.

In particular, we call on the US to adopt public and robustly verified Beneficial Ownership registers for companies, trusts and property and to introduce and proactively enforce legal requirements to conduct proper customer due diligence. We urge the UK to ensure that Beneficial Ownership information is readily available from its overseas territories and crown dependencies; that the Beneficial Ownership property register is swiftly legislated for and that professional enablers who facilitate the laundering of corrupt wealth are prosecuted and sanctioned.

Countries from which wealth is stolen must make sure they have in place the systems to prevent that asset theft, and ensure the prosecution of corrupt actors.

We urge:
Sri Lanka to adopt a comprehensive Proceeds of Crime Act; to amend the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act ensuring public dissemination of asset declarations; and to ensure that anti-corruption agencies are able to do their job properly by removing restrictive information sharing provisions.

Tunisia to create a multi-stakeholder and publically accountable committee responsible for asset recovery in Tunisia; to introduce new legislation which criminalises illicit enrichment and introduces a requirement for officials to make asset declarations; and to enhance the role and the resources of the Tunisian Financial Judiciary Pole.

Ukraine to introduce anti-corruption courts and reforms to the prosecuting bodies; to disclose the number of criminal proceedings against Yanukovych and his associates and the amount of their assets frozen abroad; to ensure pre-trial settlements with corrupt actors are legal and properly transparent.

Nigeria to ensure swift passage of the Proceeds of Crime Act; effectively resource the new Asset Recovery and Management Unit; to create a single national body responsible for delivering the National Anti-Corruption Strategy; and to strengthen the autonomy of the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit.

The process of asset recovery remains painfully slow. Six years after the Arab Spring, only $1 billion of $165 billion allegedly stolen by former rulers in the region has been recovered. We believe that countries must work together urgently and proactively to find ways to identify and overcome the main obstacles to asset recovery. This should include making sure that relevant law enforcement bodies have the mandate, expertise and resources to uncover corrupt wealth, and are independent of political interference. States must also simplify legal procedures for asset recovery and develop legal tools that allow the confiscation of proceeds of corruption, and the provision of assistance without criminal convictions.

Civil society organisations believe that asset recovery must be accountable and transparent at all stages. The current absence of data from all countries on asset recovery, both requesting and requested states, is a startling failure of accountability. We urge all countries present at the GFAR to commit to providing public, comprehensive and disaggregated asset recovery data, including the number of cases they have, the number of assets frozen, sanctions taken against financial facilitators, and the length of time taken to respond to requests for assistance.

We also strongly believe that asset recovery must be put to the purpose of ending impunity for grand corruption. Settlements that are untransparent or that provide blanket immunity to individuals or groups of people undermine public confidence in the fight against corruption. The use of amnesties to shield perpetrators from accountability likewise creates distrust in the process. Abuse of immunities by corrupt actors to frustrate prosecution or the recovery of assets must not be allowed.

Civil society organisations have a key role to play in exposing corruption and identifying evidence that can lead to the tracing and recovery of stolen assets. States cannot be successful in tracking down stolen assets on their own. Collective action and genuine partnership with non-state actors is needed. We urge those countries present at GFAR to commit to protecting the legislative and political space for CSOs working in this area; to engage CSOs in a regular and meaningful way on asset recovery issues; and to look at ways to ensure that CSOs can bring public interest claims to help recover the proceeds of corruption.

Assets recovered should be used for repairing the harm caused by grand corruption and for meeting Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The return of assets should involve the engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, including CSOs in determining how returned assets should be best utilised. CSOs have a crucial role to play in monitoring how such assets are spent upon return.

Finally, we believe that the GFAR has been an important means of generating political will to push the asset recovery agenda forward. The signing of the MOU between Switzerland and Nigeria to return $321 million stolen by former dictator, Sani Abacha is a good example of this. We believe that States must take the opportunity of GFAR to make tangible and measurable commitments on improving asset recovery, and report within a year on how they have met those commitments. They must be open about the obstacles they encountered during GFAR on specific cases. And lessons must be learned for future forums. We are disappointed that the space within the agenda for meaningful dialogue between civil society and government has been too limited, and that opportunities for creating collective action and forging partnerships have been lost as a result. Ultimately, however we urge all those who came to the GFAR to maintain the energy and commitment to getting stolen assets returned to the people who they belong to, to those who suffer most from their theft.