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A picture taken on February 14, 2012 on the Avenue Foch in Paris shows a truck at the entrance of Paris residence of the son of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang, being searched by French police as part of a corruption probe.  © 2012 Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

After a Parisian court convicted the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Nguema Obiang, of laundering more than €150 million in France two years ago and authorities seized those assets, the French government faced a decision: what should it do with them? That question remains unanswered even as the Nguema’s appeal trial against his conviction ended on Tuesday this week.

The conviction in absentia of Nguema, who is also the president’s son, and the confiscation of his ill-gotten assets is a groundbreaking victory in the global fight against corruption. It thwarted Nguema’s shameless efforts to turn his country’s oil wealth into a personal fortune in France and is a catalyst in making France a key partner in holding corrupt officials accountable. Indeed, the two organizations, Transparency International France and Sherpa, which prompted French prosecutors to investigate Nguema, have initiated cases against other prominent foreign officials for money laundering, including Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of the Syrian autocrat.  

Siphoning public resources

But there will be a hollow ring to the victory unless France ensures that the money is responsibly returned to the people of Equatorial Guinea, who should have benefited from it in the first place. The vast majority of the Central African nation’s people have seen little benefit from their country’s oil wealth, even as their president and his family shamelessly flaunt opulent mansions, exotic sports cars, and diamond-studded watches. My organization, Human Rights Watch, documented how the political elite’s get-rich-quick schemes siphon off public resources at the expense of health and education investments that are desperately needed.

The problem is that even if France recognizes Equatorial Guineans as the victims of Nguema’s corruption, there is no French law that facilitates the government to repatriate these assets. This is not surprising as these forms of money laundering cases are a relatively recent occurrence, and best standards and practices are being formulated. The French government appointed a parliamentary commission to study the issue, which proposed in a report published on November 27 that the funds be transferred to a special budgetary line within the French Development Agency to invest them in social projects “as close as possible to the population in the fields of health, education, access to water” in the country where the money originated.

Official impunity

While the proposal is an important step toward establishing a legal framework for asset repatriation, to proceed on its basis alone could dangerously undermine the credibility of money laundering cases.  In particular France needs to resist giving the money to its own development agency. For a public inured to official impunity, corruption trials like the one against Obiang hold extraordinary power. By pulling back the curtain on corrupt government dealings, they expose not only an individual’s crimes but the elaborate system that enables and protects them. Watching the legal process unfold in a foreign country can itself be a reminder that the community of nations is not blind to these depredations, and borders cannot fully protect even the most powerful officials from the force of law.

But the Equatorial Guinean government, like others caught in the crosshairs of such investigations, has challenged this symbolic power by casting the case as neo-colonialist attack on its sovereignty, a modern-day effort to subjugate the government and plunder the riches of Africa dressed up in the language of law. Allowing the French government to maintain control of confiscated assets lends credence to this dangerous narrative and risks subverting the triumph of law over power into the perception of law as a tool of power.

For a transparent mechanism

Instead France should build on best practice elsewhere to ensure that it contributes to international standard setting for responsible disbursement of the funds. To start with, France should adopt a law in line with the principles set out by the Global Forum on Asset Recovery, an intergovernmental initiative supported by the World Bank, that models good governance by requiring a transparent, accountable, and inclusive mechanism for disbursing stolen funds.

Then it should consider following a model deemed one of the best examples of responsible repatriation: the Bota Foundation. Switzerland and the United States jointly established the foundation, with the World Bank’s facilitation, to return $115 million to the people of Kazakhstan. The foundation was independent, and its accounts were fully transparent. It worked closely with Kazakh and international organizations to invest in education for the poor, primarily by providing conditional cash transfers to nearly 100,000 families with qualifying children.

Transparency and traceability

In addition to disbursing funds independent of a government agency, the process should be consultative and transparent from start to end.  This includes ensuring the fund is traceable by the public and a complaint mechanism to investigate any irregularities. The process should also formally include participation of international and domestic nongovernmental organizations selected through an open and transparent competitive process that scrutinizes potential conflict of interests.

Returning stolen assets should contribute to the fight against corruption and provide a remedy to its victims. It should not replace existing government funding or be used to let the government off the hook for fulfilling its core social and economic obligations. Nor should the beneficiaries of the funds include senior government official or their families.

France can be proud that its courts struck a blow to impunity of a kleptocrat. But justice will leave a bad taste unless those assets are responsibly returned to Nguema’s victims.

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