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Why Liberia Should Join the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (Star)?

IT IS COMMON knowledge that debates never occur in a vacuum. There's always some things that are debatable prima facie and there are others that, when considered in details, create the need for a debate—either a positive or a negative debate.

THE NATIONAL DEBATE regarding improprieties around arrangements involving AIRReT is no exception. Claims, threats, parallel public campaigns alongside legal matters, documented missteps of those who are supposed to be refereeing the process, budget size and budget requirements, and a host of other things continue to create the avenue for questioning or the need for clarifications on how we can do asset recovery right in order to restore integrity to the process.

ASSET RECOVERY is only a rewarding initiative when it is done right. It is important to note that investigations, recovery, and restitution of stolen assets are widely known processes. It didn't start with Liberia, in fact, the Chairman of AIRReT, Cllr. Arthur Johnson alluded to this on August 2nd when he discussed similar efforts in Nigeria.

BUT COUNTRIES THAT ARE SERIOUS about recovering stolen assets, such Nigeria, Sri Lankan, Tunisia, and Ukraine, do not spend or require millions doing so. The World Bank Group’s Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR), through its Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) program help developing countries through support from United States and the United Kingdom. Existing guidelines on asset recovery from these entities discourage antagonistic atmosphere and politicization of the process. It discourages those in pursuit of asset investigations and recovery from waging parallel media campaigns to gain political score from the process. This is particularly important to note as in Liberia, an otherwise important process has become extremely polarized.

US STATE DEPARTMENT has published a guideline on asset recovery. The guideline is adopted by the World Bank and the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes). Both the World Bank and UNODC lead the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) through which they set up the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR). StAR works with developing countries and financial centers to prevent the laundering of the proceeds of corruption and to facilitate more systematic and timely return of stolen assets.

THE GUIDELINE, developed by the US State Department, sets forth six (6) steps that conforms to international norms in the recovery of illegal proceeds either from corruption or crimes in general:

1️⃣Identifying the underlying crime and admissible evidence establishing the criminal conduct;

2️⃣Identifying and locating assets subject to restitution or confiscation;

3️⃣Demonstrating (through evidence) the link between the assets and the criminal conduct;

4️⃣Seizing or freezing the assets;

5️⃣Confiscating the assets; and

6️⃣Repatriating and disposing of confiscated assets.

BASED ON THESE GUIDELINES by US State Department (adopted by the World Bank and UNODC), it is evident that the Liberian government's idea of developing restitution plans with the accused is incredibly unfeasible and is in itself liable to corruption. It is hard to see how such an idea is not a ploy to keep political opponents on short leach!

BUT THERE IS A BETTER WAY. Currently, the United States and the United Kingdom are working with four countries, namely, Nigeria, Sri Lankan, Tunisia, and Ukraine, to assist them in the honest efforts of recovering stolen assets. Liberia can join this international effort on asset recovery. These four countries receive global supports especially given that their efforts are internationally vetted and recognized as legitimate. None of these countries have a budget of 2.1 million to recover stolen assets.

THE WEAH ADMINISTRATION can curtail the suspicion of witch hunt and deal with the appearance of threats of a political prosecution by joining the World Bank and UNODC effort, the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR). By doing so, the Government of Liberia will benefit from the following:

1️⃣PARTNERSHIP: When Liberia joins the international group on asset recovery, it will be able to engage in a successful return of stolen assets through a strong partnership with countries where the stolen assets might be. This will also improve the prospect for partnering with local entities in the country around corruption and assets recovery.

2️⃣UPHOLDING ANTI-CORRUPTION CONVENTION: Liberia joining the international group on asset recovery will help fulfill United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) principles of combating corruption, repairing the damage done by corruption, and achieving development goals.

3️⃣SHARED INTERESTS: partnering with other nations around such a transnational endeavor will improve the shared interests of the partners for in a successful outcome.

4️⃣TRANSPARENCY & ACCOUNTABILITY: The entire process would be made public. Investigation criteria, beginning and end of process, findings, and concluding actions will be accountable. On the local front, pride and integrity will be restored to the process.

Legitimacy of the asset recovery process is assessed from the government's public posture in relations to the body (AIRReT) set up to investigate stolen assets as well as that body's own dealings in the media and with all those accused. However, being a part of the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) would put the asset recovery emphasis on the process as opposed to the accusers and accused.

PRES. WEAH could show good faith in the corruption fight by calling on Sayma Syrenius Cephus and AIRReT to shift emphasis away from those accused and focus on the investigatory and recovery process. One way to make this effective is to join the international body on asset recovery. Joining the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) will demonstrate the Weah Administration’s seriousness in the fight against corruption because the global membership would avail the government to empirically tested approaches and mechanisms for enhancing coordination and cooperation, and for strengthening transparency and accountability of the asset recovery process.

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