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How to Return Stolen Assets Responsibly

Civil Society Groups Develop New Principles

People looking at luxury cars owned by Teodoro Obiang, son of Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, before an auction of sales house Bonhams at the Bonmont Abbey Golf & Country Club near Geneva, Switzerland, September 29, 2019. © 2019 Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP

Corruption bleeds billions of dollars from governments every year, money that can end up paying for lavish lifestyles or stashed away in bank accounts. The public from whom these funds are stolen often pays a heavy price for the corruption, such as lower investment in health and education.

When courts seize these funds, the people robbed deserve to have them returned.

To help make that a reality, civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, developed the Civil Society Principles for Accountable Asset Return. These principles build on those agreed by the Global Forum for Asset Recovery, an intergovernmental initiative hosted by the World Bank. Numerous groups contributed to the Civil Society Principles, drawing on their experiences observing cases of asset repatriation in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and Equatorial Guinea.

Responsibly returning assets is especially challenging when the corrupt person from whom they were seized remains in power. For example, last year, the Swiss government auctioned $27 million worth of luxury cars it seized from Teodorin Obiang Nguema, the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, who is also the president’s son. An obscure buyer bought thirteen of the cars. Yet somehow, the collection’s top prize – a Koenigsegg One:1 worth $4.6 million –  turned up back in Nguema’s hands. The Swiss government is required to repatriate the proceeds to benefit Equatorial Guineans – but it will need to carefully design a way to do this to make sure the money doesn’t have the same fate as the Koenigsegg.  We urge them to do so in line with the civil society principles.

The principles provide guidance for accountable asset repatriation, including:

  • Transparency and public participation: The assets should be traceable and separated from general budgets and independent groups should be involved at every stage.
  • Integrity: The assets should not benefit anyone involved in the underlying corruption, and a monitoring process should be put in place that includes a complaint mechanism.
  • Accountability: Anti-corruption, rule of law, and accountability mechanisms should be put in place to provide oversight, including related to procurement, conflicts of interest, and freedom of expression.
  • Victim restitution: Recovered assets belong to the people of the country from which they were stolen, and should be used to benefit them, meaning improve their quality of life, improve rule of law, or fight corruption. Victim groups should receive restitution and be given the opportunity to engage with the process.

Recovering stolen assets is only half the battle. To fight corruption, governments should model good governance when returning them.

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