30 January 2013
Every president’s “to-do” list is a long one, and in a second term, they often become even longer. Promises need to be fulfilled, and legacies cemented. In this time of global unrest and financial uncertainty, President Barack Obama’s list is likely longer than many of his 43 predecessors. Thankfully, the president has already put down a “marker” when it comes to the importance of fighting corruption and recovering stolen assets from past dictators.
Addressing the first-ever Arab Forum on Asset Recovery (AFAR), co-organized by Qatar and the United States presidency of the G8, President Obama made clear that the recovery of stolen assets from “Arab Spring” countries is “needed to help stabilize economies and create jobs and growth” across the affected Middle Eastern countries.
But perhaps even more importantly, the President illustrated the need to fight the impunity that is so often associated with economic crimes by kleptocratic elites.
Referring to the assets looted by such dictators as Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisa and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, President Obama declared that, “This money—potentially billions of dollars—does not belong to those who wielded power; it belongs to the people.”
Indeed, the President's words were some of the most pointed–and timely–by a senior American official as they came just days before the five-year anniversary of the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative, a joint World Bank-United Nations mechanism formally launched in 2007 by another American–then-World Bank President Robert Zoellick—and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
To be sure, another “marker” was laid down when StAR was launched at the U.N. General Assembly. In the words of Robert Zoellick, "there should be no safe haven for those who steal from the poor."
With a second term, President Obama is in a unique position to help make good on these two “markers”—one issued by himself and one issued by his American counterpart at the World Bank—making the cause of asset recovery both national and international, as well as bipartisan in nature.
Notably, asset recovery operations are now on-going at both the national and international level.
In the U.S. the Department of Justice, through the Administration’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, is currently working to seize alleged illicit assets linked to Teodoro "Teodorin" Nguema Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea. These include a Gulfstream executive jet, a Malibu mansion worth approximately $30 million, and nearly $2 million worth of Michael Jackson memorabilia.
Internationally, StAR has worked with Swiss and Haitian officials to help secure an order to return millions of dollars of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's assets back to Haiti, and more recently, supported efforts by the Tunisian government to recover two executive jets in Europe that were linked to the Ben Ali family.
Thus, by leading through example in pursuing high-profile asset recovery cases in America and by supporting international efforts, such as StAR and AFAR, to help recover assets from ousted dictators and grand corruption cases, President Obama is laying the legacy groundwork to claim a presidency built upon the rule of law. To the world’s law students, and to all those fighting corruption, this is one second-term lesson worthy of attention. And to all those kleptocrats seeking to avoid the rule of law, perhaps it is a lesson best taught by a legal scholar-turned American president. Time will tell, but for the victims of corruption–the world’s poor–let us hope the president is right.
Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, leads the international practice at the Madison Law & Strategy Group. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and a member of the Slobodan Milosevic/Srebrenica genocide prosecution teams at the UN war crimes tribunal, he worked on the Haiti/Duvalier asset recovery team while serving as the first Head of Operations of the World Bank's StAR Secretariat, and more recently served as international legal adviser to the Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery team.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.