How Morally Fit Is the West to Lead a Global Campaign On Corruption?

By Junior Sabena Mutabazi
While most of the world’s attention last week was firmly on Kigali, thanks to the World Economic Forum on Africa, an equally significant event took place in London.
It was the Anti-Corruption Summit hosted by British Prime Minister, David Cameron.
The one-day summit, which took place on 12th May 2016, was attended by world leaders, including presidents Ghani of Afghanistan, Santos of Colombia, Buhari of Nigeria, Norwegian Prime Minister, Solberg, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and key global players such as Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, and Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund, intended, among other objectives, to galvanise international cooperation for fighting corruption.
Overall, the eagerly anticipated international summit sought to agree a package of ‘practical steps’ to not only fight corruption, but to also expose corruption so there is nowhere to hide, punish the perpetrators and support those affected by corruption, and drive out the culture of corruption wherever it exists.
Prior to the summit, Prime Minister Cameron had stated that: “Corruption is an enemy of progress and the root of so many of the world’s problems. It destroys jobs and holds back economic growth, traps the poorest in desperate poverty, and undermines our security by pushing people towards extremist groups.”
So, did the summit led by the West generate any practical steps to tackle corruption of all sorts as was intended, or did it turn out to be an occasion of passion and grandiloquence?
Based on a UK government communiqué, it appears the summit reached some commendable steps, including plans to set up a global plan to help recover assets stolen and hidden by corrupt individuals worldwide.
The Global Forum for Asset Recovery, as it will be known, will bring together governments and law enforcement agencies to discuss returning stolen assets to countries they were stolen from. It is thought Nigeria, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Tunisia will be early beneficiaries of the recovery efforts.
Equally, as it is widely recognized that corrupt individuals and foreign companies often move illicit funds by investing in high-end real estate in major cities like London, the summit noted the existence of loopholes that facilitate this practice and agreed to a crackdown.
To set an example, Cameron declared that from June 2016, foreign companies that already hold or want to buy property in the UK will be forced to reveal who really owns them. Currently, around 100,000 properties in the UK (44,000 of them in London) are owned by foreign companies.
Following the UK’s declaration, Afghanistan, France, Kenya, Netherlands, and Nigeria also agreed to commit to launch public registers of true company ownership. Elsewhere, Australia, Georgia, Indonesia, Ireland, and New Zealand all agreed to take the initial steps to similar action.
Similarly, it was agreed that London will host the world’s first ever International Anti-Corruption Coordination Centre – an organ that will have a mandate to strengthen cross-border corruption related investigations.
Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the UK will work closely with Interpol to investigate, recover stolen assets, and punish culprits.
Even so, when you look beyond asset recovery and the identification of property owners, it appears the elephant in the room was barely mentioned which meant that no concrete steps were taken to reverse the trend.
I am referring to tax havens littered around the world including Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Panama, and Switzerland to mention but five.
Of course, while it is important to note that there is nothing fundamentally illegal about offshore entities, it begs the question why individuals and/or companies continue to operate offshore accounts when genuine concerns have been raised over their use as tax evasion vehicles and money laundering channels.
Of tax havens, renowned economist, Prof Jeffrey Sachs recently observed that: “one of the pervasive elements of corruption is the use of shell companies, which are legal entities designed purely to protect real owners from disclosure, liability and accountability.”
Sachs added that: “good that the UK is hosting the Anti-Corruption Summit. But, let’s be clear. As serious and tragic as is the corruption in Nigeria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it has long been facilitated by the UK itself (including through Royal Dutch Shell, not just tax havens). We should distinguish between big and small operators.”
What Professor Sachs was getting at is quite straightforward: the US and UK play a vital role either knowingly or unknowingly in facilitating big corruption operators who move in excess of billions worth of funds to offshore accounts using financial hubs like the City of London and Wall Street.
Sachs identifies one of the UK’s overseas territories, The British Virgin Islands, as one of the receivers of illicit funds.
Astonishingly, the British Virgin Islands is home to over one million registered companies, and yet, the island has a population of just 28,000 people – that is, wait for it, a little over 35 companies per resident population.
Switzerland is also a nation known to be conducive for money laundering and tax evasion activities due to its high level of secrecy. In fact, recently, The Guardian paper reported how European banks at one point held up to $2.2 billion of Nigeria’s money, looted by former leader Sani Abacha within a five year rule. In 2015, after legal battles which had lasted over 16 years, Switzerland agreed to return $380 million of that loot to Nigeria.
Numerous nations have lodged similar recovery claims.
Will this cunning practice be abandoned? Best not to hold your breath because, following the summit’s call for all countries to publish details of who owns what, including offshore firms, Orlando Smith, Premier and Minister of Finance of the British Virgin Islands, had this reaction in the Telegraph: “if legitimate businesses fear that their international transactions will be exposed to the world or, worse yet, accessed by criminals or terrorists and used as a weapon of extortion or intimidation, then the gears of international finance will start to grind more slowly.”
Like I said, don’t hold your breath.
To conclude, while it is vital that individual countries do everything possible to combat corruption, it is even more important that Western nations cease facilitating big operators from using their financial hubs and real estate as means to hide illicit funds. It would be difficult for corrupt leaders or individuals to loot if there were no countries willing to receive the loot in the first place.
At the moment, I am not entirely convinced that Western nations are fit to lead global anti-corruption efforts.
However, if they must, first they must stop being facilitators and receivers of illicit funds.
Otherwise, their position as leaders of global anti-corruption efforts will be as pointless as putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Source: All Africa

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