The corrupt quartet in Washington Forum: Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Ukraine

article_imageWorld Bank Headquarters in Washington

Rajan Philips (Sunday Island)

The media took time to report on the inaugural meeting of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) held over three days last week (December 4 to 6), at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington. There was no advance media coverage of the Washington gathering and even the government would appear to have kept mum about its participation in it. The Global Forum was hosted by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom with support from the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (SARI). Its sole purpose is to help four countries – Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Ukraine – to recover their public assets stolen due to government corruption. Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya was a listed speaker in the plenary session along with his counterparts from other countries including the US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Lawyer JC Weliamuna, introduced as Chairman of the Presidential Task Force for the Recovery of Illegally Acquired State Assets, was a panellist in one of the Working Sessions of the forum.

One of would have thought that the Washington forum and its focus on Sri Lanka would stir some discussion in Colombo. More so in light of the 2015-2016 bond scam inquiry, the Prime Minister’s announcement of a new inquiry into pre-2015 bond transactions, and his announcement at the Commission of Inquiry about the technical assistance from the US Treasury for managing public debt in Sri Lanka. And why is this lack of interest? It may be that asset recovery in the abstract is not as exciting as war crimes investigation for news coverage. The UNHRC in Geneva is more media-notorious than GFAR in Washington. And Lord Naseby is far more well-known in Sri Lanka than Jeff Sessions would ever be. The latter is the controversial Attorney General of the even more controversial American President, Donald Trump.

The big global news story of the week was of course President Trump’s precipitous, and even pernicious, announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and ordering the State Department to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Even Israel was not expecting it. The US Secretaries of State and Defence, the two most important members of Trump’s cabinet, steadfastly opposed the move. But Trump is not Trump if he is not true to his bully-kid instincts and his opportunistic loyalties to his even more bullying base. Logistically, it might take years before the US Embassy is relocated in Israel and by then Trump’s directive could be rescinded by a different President. For now, the major fall out of the announcement is the break-up of an older quartet – the Middle East Quartet of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, that was established in 2002 to broker peace in the Middle East. The Middle East peace process is in shambles.

The new ‘corruption’ quartet is not world news but deserves to be important local news. The selection of the four countries seems quite random. Nigerian corruption is legendary. Tunisia and Ukraine are recent additions. Ukraine is also at the centre of the storm in Washington over Russia’s cyber intervention, in favour of Trump, in the US presidential election last year. And Sri Lanka completes the Asian side of quartet for the current global focus. What might be common to the four countries are the challenges facing new governments in investigating high level corruption and recovering assets lost due to corruption under earlier regimes.

Preoccupation with corruption

The forum is also an outcome of the World Bank’s growing preoccupation with global corruption. The Bank estimates that the world is robbed of $20 billion annually due to corruption. The UN has its own Convention against corruption – the UNCAC, which was adopted in 2003 and came into force two years later. The Convention addresses “preventive measures, criminalization and law enforcement, international co-operation, asset recovery, and technical assistance and information exchange.” The definition of corruption covers bribery, abuse of power, influence trading in the public sector, as well as acts of corruption in the private sector.

Corruption is the dark side of globalization and the domination by market forces. This is quite a departure from the priorities of the development decades, when governments were in the saddle running economies. International agencies were focused on dispensing development aid. Now they are preoccupied with fighting corruption. A majority of Sri Lankans like their counterparts in other countries have experienced the worst of both worlds: the old era of universal scarcities that was followed by the current era of universal corruption. Corruption is endemic in the development of public infrastructure – the area of partnerships between governments and businesses. It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is being warmed up to public-private partnerships for infrastructure development even as others are getting tired of them.

The global initiative for recovering assets began in the wake of the Arab Spring that was set off in Tunisia on December 17, 2010. The Arab Forum on Asset Recovery (AFAR) was established in 2012 to recover the loots of fallen dictators. Its successor was the Ukrainian forum. The current global forum is an off-spring of the 2016 Anti-Corruption Summit in England which President Maithripala Sirisena attended. Nigeria, Tunisia and Ukraine have been receiving external support for asset recovery since 2013 and Sri Lanka since last year. Assets of varying amounts have been recovered in Nigeria, Tunisia and Ukraine. In addition, over 300 criminal indictments have been effected in Ukraine. According to the Forum’s website assistance to Sri Lanka includes providing a resident legal adviser and training and technical support to the local CIABAC (Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption).

What are noteworthy are the ‘innovative’ tools that are being promoted to address corruption and to recover stolen assets. One of them is to divert stolen assets to building new permanent assets for public good. The legal mechanism for this is the ‘non-conviction based forfeiture’ of stolen assets. An even more radical innovation is the ‘reversal of the burden of proof’ – i.e. putting the onus on the embezzler to prove that his wealth, or portion of it, is not ill-gotten. A major purpose of the forum is to facilitate international co-ordination and to enable banks (famously, the Swiss banks) to break with the tradition of protecting the privacy of their depositors and to co-operate with governments and asset recovery agencies to provide information and to turn over ill-gotten deposits to respective governments.

It is still quite a way to go before we could see positive effects of the Global Forum in Sri Lanka. But the Forum by itself will not yield results and it is up to the Sri Lankan government to use the resources of the Forum for good results. On the other hand, being part of an international network might itself be pressure on the government to be on its feet exposing corruption rather than sit on its hands covering up corruption. The irony is that the yahapalanaya government, that was elected to address the corruption of its predecessor, has to address corruption generated by its own officials on its own watch. Wouldn’t it have been the height of irony if Sri Lankan delegates at the Washington Forum presented the experience of the Commission of Inquiry on the bond scam as a case study in fighting corruption and recovering assets?

Addressing the final press conference in Washington, Mr. Weliamuna indicated that Sri Lanka was able to initiate at the forum, 11 bilateral processes and another initiative involving four countries for recovering assets. In addition, Sri Lankan officials had technical discussions involving 34 cases of corruption. The convenors of the forum highlighted as one of its unique aspects the joint participation of both political and technical representatives from the four focus countries. It was emphasized that fighting corruption is as much political as it is technical. Who represented Sri Lanka politically at the forum? Strangely, no single minister is solely in charge of corruption investigations. And no cabinet minister seems to have attended the forum in Washington. The government may or may not make a full statement in parliament on the Washington Forum. And the Joint Opposition has no incentive to call for a full statement, as it would mostly be a statement on corruption under the previous government.