Many Arab Spring countries suffered decades of endemic corruption and the exploitation of their resources. Members of their former governments had stolen billions of dollars of assets and, for the large part, spirited them out of those countries and into the large financial centres and property markets across the world. While some large sums of money flew out of the countries as the regimes fell, the bulk of the looted assets had already been siphoned overseas over much longer periods of time.
Following the Arab Spring, a new approach to asset recovery was necessary. Last year the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery met in Doha for the first time. Arab Spring countries, the Group of Eight (G8) and other key Middle East and North African countries gathered to talk collectively about recovering these assets. Seizing assets such as property, money and vehicles and proving in court that the assets have been obtained through corrupt means is both technically and politically difficult. The Arab Forum was in many ways a wake-up call for the international community and filled an unquestionable need to bring everyone together to talk about the difficulties experienced on both sides.
One year on from Doha, I am leading the UK delegation to the second Arab Forum in Marrakesh. Over three days we will look at the complexities of identifying and returning the proceeds of international corruption. International asset recovery, using government-to-government mutual legal assistance requests, is a complex and highly legalistic process, but there are good reasons for this. Respect for the rule of law requires that there is a strong and thorough legal case before anyone’s personal assets are confiscated, but we should also be concerned about balance.
While it’s important to acknowledge the challenges we face, it’s also timely for us to reflect on the progress that has been made. The UK is serious about getting assets back to the people of the Arab Spring countries. To that end the UK has undertaken a thorough review of its policy and legislation to look at how we can improve our work on international asset recovery. And last year the prime minister, David Cameron, created an Asset Recovery Task Force with 10 full-time investigators and a regionally based prosecutor in Cairo to work proactively on recovering assets stolen from Arab Spring countries. UK investigators now work alongside their counterparts to progress cases in the region and in parallel we have opened domestic money-laundering investigations into individuals with significant assets in the UK.
It is obviously better to prevent assets being stolen from countries in the first place. The UK supports a number of international programmes which aim to build strong, transparent institutions in the Middle East and other regions. In many cases this has included reforming financial management systems, developing or supporting national audit offices and anti-corruption commissions, so it is easier to spot discrepancies in the public purse. These programmes can reap big rewards for the countries concerned. For example, in Uganda one programme identified payments being made to more than 9,000 non-existent public sector employees, saving in excess of £6 million (Dh35.6m) per year.
But it is clearly not only the Arab Spring countries that are affected by such large-scale corruption, it exists on every continent. This year the UK put transparency at the heart of our G8 presidency activities. At the G8 Summit in June, leaders agreed to bring transparency to company ownership. We agreed that companies should be required to obtain and hold information on who really owns and benefits from them and make this information available to law enforcement agencies. As it stands, fake companies can be set up in jurisdictions all over the world and large sums of money can be deposited within these companies, with authorities unaware of who really benefits from the proceeds. This practice is known to fuel corruption the world over. Steps like this will help the international effort to reduce the avenues available to hide the proceeds of crime and corruption.
Despite all our collective efforts, we recognise that the path ahead will not always be easy. It will require dedication and painstaking effort over years, not months. There will be frustrations along the way. Some may be tempted to lay the blame on a lack of political will. I can assure you that at least on the part of my government, that is not the case.
But if we do nothing, then we simply encourage corrupt politicians and officials – today and in the future – to believe that they too can enrich themselves at the expense of their people. We are determined that no country should suffer for the corruption of their former governments. By assembling in Morocco, we are demonstrating that every country has a part to play in the fight against corruption and the recovery of stolen assets.
Dominic Grieve is the UK attorney general