| by Neville De Silva
Courtesy: Sunday Times

( December 28, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) As the presidential election campaign heads inexorably (one hopes) towards a peaceful (more hopes here) denouement in less than two weeks from now, with a crossover here and a double-cross there, it is punctuated now and then by an element of farce that adds some light relief to the growing acrimony.

The scene at times is decidedly Shakespearean. The thunder overhead as the skies open up seems to reflect the volley and thunder from the stage — the ones that are still left standing — and words of accusation, betrayal, duplicity and backstabbing with echoes of “et tu brute” gushing out of political mouths like rainwater from some drainless Colombo streets.

One interesting fact that emerges from the leaders across the globe chosen for this study is that the longer they are in power the more they seem to steal their nation’s assets because their longevity seems to give them a feeling of permanency.
But more than at most elections one is also beginning to hear both on stage and screen harsh charges of corruption, kickbacks, commissions, bribery and assorted crimes so much so that one is constrained to disagree with Alice that things are getting curiouser and curiouser. They are getting murkier and murkier.

The accusers and the accused (generally unnamed) can sort out their own problems, circumstances and the instruments available to bring offenders to book willing and able to act.

The purpose here is different. It is to remind that while accusations were being flung at one or the other, coincidentally the world was alerted to the World Anti-corruption Day just a couple of weeks back.

Whether Sri Lanka commemorated this important day with any event, major or small, I do not know. But it should have done not just under the aegis of some civil society organisation but under government auspices particularly since Sri Lanka was the second country to ratify the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in March 2004.

If Sri Lanka had been in the forefront of nations ratifying such an important convention then obviously it intended to faithfully fulfil its obligations under this convention. If that was the real intention and not a sham commitment to fight corruption, then it seems unfortunate that years later we appear to be backsliding.

The more we read or hear about the happenings round the world the more we realise how necessary it is that the international fight against this scourge needs to be strengthened so that public officials are not only prevented from accumulating ill-gotten gains but are held accountable for such mass-scale robbery.

Conventions are all fine and might set out laudable goals. But ultimately what matters is whether those who siphon off state assets or make money on the side and by that one does not mean a measly sum, are brought to book and at least part of the assets recovered.

Not many are perhaps aware of the Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) initiative which is a joint effort by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Bank which received strong backing in 2007 during a side event at the Spring Meeting of the IMF and World Bank.

When the initiative was introduced representatives of both the developed and developing countries and multilateral development banks added their voice in support of the initiative.

It was recognised that a collective global effort is intrinsic for its success and for transmitting without any ambiguity the signal that corruption does not pay, though it surely does, and continues to do, as we all know.

The purpose of StAR is to put corrupt leaders on notice that stolen assets will be traced, seized, confiscated and returned to the country that was the victim of the robbery of its assets.

The legal backbone of the initiative which has won much respect is the UN Convention Against Corruption and is the most far reaching innovative international accord on the subject and which Sri Lanka seems to have ratified within a few days of signing it with great alacrity.

Lack of space does not permit a detailed explanation of StAR or its action plan. But suffice it to say that one of the major attributes of this initiative is that it is not only trying to recover the assets of developing and transitional countries that have been spirited away by the corrupt despite their publicly avowed commitment to uplift the down trodden and to bring prosperity and socio-economic amelioration to the people of whichever country they administer.

If the proceeds of stolen assets, bribes, commissions and criminal activities such as drug trafficking and funding terrorism are to be stashed away then this has to be done in the developed countries, in territories that are tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, in banks and other financial entities such as the famous – or notorious — Swiss banking system.

So the trail must lead inevitably to the developed world without whose help this trail will end in some blind alley. That is why the recovery of some of the assets siphoned off by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos who ruled — or misruled — the country for 16 years took as long as 18 years.
A study done on behalf of StAR looked at nine countries from Asia to Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean. Three of the leaders dealt with in that study are from Asia, Marcos being one of them.

The other two were President Suharto of Indonesia and President Joseph Estrada also of the Philippines.

One interesting fact that emerges from the leaders across the globe chosen for this study is that the longer they are in power the more they seem to steal their nation’s assets because their longevity seems to give them a feeling of permanency.

Take President Suharto. He ruled Indonesia for a little over 30 years until he was overthrown in 1998. He — and his family one presumes — is estimated to have embezzled US$ 15-35 billion. The average annual GDP of Indonesia was $86.6 billion.

Take a look as the Marcos billions. Marcos who was ousted in 1986 is estimated to have stolen using multiple ruses and covers, something between $5-10 billion. The average annual GDP of the Philippines was $23.9 billion.

These are just two cases listed among others, of stolen assets. It is well known that corruption has a very damaging impact on developing and transitional countries as vital resources are being diverted away from essential development needs.

The StAR report said the theft of public assets from developing countries is a huge and serious problem. The cross-border flow of global funds from corruption, criminal activities and tax-evasion is estimated to be between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion per year.

It is also said that corrupt money connected with bribes received by public officials from developing and transitional countries is estimated to be between $20-40 billion per year. This amount is equivalent to 20-40 per cent of Official Development Aid (ODA) flows.

These facts and figures are sufficient to indicate the enormous problems that the developing nations face as a result of the corruption and criminal activities that infest these countries.

That is why sustained global efforts are needed to put paid to such robbery and make those responsible pay for their venality and sins against humanity.

( Images: Suharto, Rjapaksa and Marcos)