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,"
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,
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,"
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]."