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Piggy Banks and Leaders Beware

Piggy Banks and Leaders Beware

A new UN-World Bank project on recovering stolen assets that cites the theft of $1

trillion a year by kleptocrats seeks to hold corrupt leaders accountable and retrieve

their secret stashes.

But although the initiative provides funds and counsel to countries with insufficient

resources to pursue stolen assets, it is unlikely to have any effect in Cambodia

-- until the government agrees to strengthen anti-corruption efforts.

The Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative launched jointly by the U.N. Office on

Drugs and Crime and World Bank was anounced September 17. It seeks to have all financial

centers in compliance with anti-money laundering legislation that would monitor and

investigate the laundering of illegal funds, and to enhance the ability of financial

intelligence groups to form a cooperative, global network.

"I don't see how it would be possible to make use of the initiative without

ratification of the Convention," said Lars Pedersen, head of the UNODC in Phnom

Penh, referring to the 2003 U.N. Convention against Corruption.

"For one, politically it would be difficult" since StAR's content is derived

from the Convention. "Also, it [StAR] would be difficult without being part

of the network established under the treaty."

Although he has not yet discussed the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative with the government,

Pedersen said he was "under the impression they plan to ratify the Convention

against Corruption eventually."

"And I would take this opportunity to encourage the government to ratify,"

he said.

Recovering stolen assets is an intensive process; most developing nations do not

have the technical or financial capacity to do it without substantial foreign assistance.

To date, the UNODC's operations in Cambodia have focused on drug trafficking. But

in the near future, efforts in the area of corruption and money laundering will increase,

Pedersen said.

UNODC has a money laundering expert based in Vietnam who supports Vietnam, Lao and


The bottom line, however, is that the StAR Initiative independent of the Convention

against Corruption is essentially hollow.

Since illicit assets are usually stored overseas, pursuing stolen assets requires

the cooperation of numerous countries. And, without a strong legal framework for

combating corruption in place, technical assistance is ineffectual.

"There is a hierarchy [in combating corruption]; it is difficult without the

institutions in place. It's our job to encourage the development of those institutions.

We don't want to give any technical assistance that is dubious or wasteful,"

said Pedersen.

Outside the legislative progress, development benefiting the Cambodian population

at large and creating a solid middle-class may be the catalyst for counterbalancing

the power of the elite and developing a more democratic environment wherein blatant

corruption is less likely to go unchallenged. Until this demographic shift is realized,

however, the elite faces limited accountability.

Pedersen maintains a positive outlook.

"This is a long term process; we are a little part of the movement [forward]."