Returning stolen assets to the people
Empowering lawmakers to seek offenders is a start, Marc and Craig Kielburger write.
His fellow citizens live in squalor. Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinea’s vice-president, Teodoro Nguema Obiang, has mansions in Malibu and Paris.
In October, a French judge handed down a ruling that anyone with access to Instagram could have seen coming: a guilty verdict in his corruption case. The social media playboy is famous for posts of luxury cars, champagne-fuelled trips to beaches in Cuba, and the purchase of Michael Jackson’s crystal-studded glove. #Luxuryliving.
The verdict may not have been a surprise. But the judge’s comments were.
Judge Benedicte de Perthuis called for the assets — including more than $45 million in fines and the $160-million Paris mansion — to be returned to the people of Equatorial Guinea, ideally in the form of aid, as opposed to the French treasury.
It was only a recommendation, lacking the legal framework to compel the assets be returned. To ensure they are, Transparency International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) working in more than 100 countries to combat global corruption, is lobbying for a legislative amendment for cases like Obiang ’s.
The case raises an interesting question: How do you return money to a country whose government stole it? And how do we turn it into development funding ? This solution is no doubt complex, but it’s also a moral imperative.
“It was an open secret,” says Lucas Olo Fernandes, program co-ordinator at Transparency International, about the flow of corrupt money into France. “This is obviously money from a country that needs it.”
Equatorial Guinea has the highest per capita income in Africa — yet half the population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water and 40 per cent of children aren’t in school.
An estimated US$2 trillion is lost to corruption globally every year. Even a tiny portion of this treasure chest would represent a new — and massive — funding stream to help implement development initiatives like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
This is bold thinking — and it should be the new benchmark.
Fernandes says the first step is supporting democratic reform and finding civil society actors — of which there are many in Equatorial Guinea — on the ground. This would involve an inclusive consultation process and a transparent management system working with recognized NGOs.
This is not just an academic pursuit; corrupt money is a real problem that affects many nations, including Canada.
With rumblings of two impending cases against leaders from Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville), France is getting serious about the vast sums of corrupt money flowing through its borders. Britain, too, has recently passed new legislation compelling those suspected of profiting from corruption to explain their wealth. Canada must follow suit. Our country’s laws and institutions should not offer safe haven for leaders who steal from their own people. Canada’s recently passed version of the U.S. Magnitsky law (formally known as the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act) is a good start, empowering legislators to go after offenders. Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories at We.org.