The building that houses the French National Assembly, the lower house of France’s bicameral Parliament, June 22, 2014.  © 2014 Dennis Jarvis

(Paris) – France’s National Assembly should approve a bill to require the government to return assets looted by corrupt foreign officials to the people of the county where the money was stolen, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill is scheduled for a vote on March 2, 2021. Members of Parliament should improve the restitution process so that it is fully transparent and independent.

“French courts are at the vanguard of holding corrupt foreign officials accountable for looting public funds,” said Sarah Saadoun, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Members of Parliament now have the chance to set the gold standard on how governments can provide justice to corruption’s victims.”

On February 19, the National Assembly unanimously voted to include amendment n°176 in a broader bill on development and fighting global inequality. The provision would fill a gap in French law by mandating that proceeds from the sale of assets confiscated from foreign public officials convicted of money laundering or related financial crimes – known as “biens mal acquis” or ill-gotten gains – are returned “as close as possible to the population of the foreign State concerned.” French law does not currently allow for the restitution of such proceeds, so the French government keeps the seized funds.

France began the process of revising its law to enable the return of ill-gotten gains after a French court convicted the vice president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, of money laundering and embezzlement and confiscated around €150 million (around US$182 million) worth of assets. In February 2020, an appeals court upheld the conviction and in December, the International Court of Justice issued a final ruling rejecting Equatorial Guinea’s claim that the most valuable asset implicated by the case, a mansion worth €110 million, should be protected by diplomatic immunity.

Nguema has appealed the case to France’s Court of Cassation, its highest judicial court, which is expected to hear the case in the coming months. If the French government does not pass a law by the time the court issues its ruling, the money will be absorbed into the French general budget if the conviction is upheld.

The case against Nguema, initiated by Transparency International France and Sherpa in 2008, broke new ground in French anti-corruption litigation allowing nongovernmental organizations to initiate criminal corruption proceedings. Since then, organizations have initiated other cases against prominent foreign officials for money laundering that are winding their way through French courts. 

Returning stolen assets is a requirement under the UN Convention Against Corruption, which France ratified in 2003. In 2017, the Global Forum for Asset Recovery, an intergovernmental initiative hosted by the World Bank, agreed to a set of principles for ensuring transparent and accountable return of recovered assets, including a provision that “stolen assets recovered from corrupt officials should benefit the people of the nations harmed by the underlying corrupt conduct.”

Recently, civil society organizations developed their own set of principles for responsible asset return, drawing on their experiences observing cases around the world. These principles call for transparency, accountability, and public participation at every stage of disbursing funds to mitigate the risk that they are re-looted.

The French bill would establish a new budgetary program, housed under the Office of Development Assistance, that would disburse the funds through nongovernmental organizations or the French Development Agency (AFD). Parliament would provide oversight with input from local and international nongovernmental organizations.

This system would be a big improvement over an earlier proposal, which would have given the development agency full control over the funds. However, given the high risk of such funds being lost again to corruption and the importance of protecting the principle that the money does not belong to the French state, it should be improved to ensure that there is full transparency and accountability through completion of the project.

The development agency should be required to keep the funds fully separate from its general budget. Civil society in the recipient country should also have a role in decision-making about how the funds are used.

“It should be clear that the French government’s role is as a steward to responsibly return the stolen money to the people to whom it rightfully belongs,” Saadoun said. “Local civil society organizations should be able to track the funds and help decide how they are spent on behalf of the public.”