The Search for Gaddafi's Assets: How Libya and the Arab Spring Have Renewed the Global Fight Against Corruption

The world watched as the Libyan rebels -- led by the Transitional National Council (TNC) -- fought to gain control of Tripoli and topple yet another infamous dictator. And when the TNC took control of the Libyan capital, the immediate objective turned to rebuilding the embattled nation. Unlike revolutions in the 20th Century, however, what is notable about the Libyan revolution is how quickly the conversation changed from munitions to money -- and how the TNC might recover Libyan state assets, including those that may have been embezzled by Muammar Gaddafi and his associates, in order to provide funding for humanitarian needs and to help rebuild the country. Indeed, in many ways, the search for Gaddafi's assets has given new importance to decades-long anti-corruption and asset recovery movements -- and may very well establish an important model for other countries seeking to recover stolen assets and end the impunity that is so often associated with dictators and grand corruption.

The UN's action to freeze billions in Libyan assets illustrated to many the ability of dictators to spread their people's assets around the world. Indeed, the World Bank estimates that "USD 20-40 billion every year is stolen from the developing countries."

Critical to stemming this illicit financial flow is the elimination of "safe havens" for illicit assets. In part to further this effort, the international community developed the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which recognizes the obligation of institutions and governments to return illicit funds as a tool to combat corruption. In addition, UNCAC devotes an entire chapter to the topic of "asset recovery" -- providing an international legal framework to allow institutions and governments to work together in order to recover stolen assets.

UNCAC was formally linked to the development agenda in 2007, when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank President Robert Zoellick launched the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative at the UN General Assembly. Declaring that "there should be no safe haven for those who steal from the poor," Zoellick, in effect, added international enablers to all those developing countries that sought to recover assets from past dictators and grand corruption cases. Indeed, in many ways he foreshadowed current events when he opined that, "Helping developing countries recover the stolen money will be key to fund social programs and put corrupt leaders on notice that they will not escape the law."

A joint effort by the World Bank Group and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the StAR Initiative has emerged as an important global player in helping countries recover stolen assets from past dictators and grand corruption cases. Coincidentally well-timed for the Arab Spring, StAR recently released its latest publication, Barriers to Asset Recovery.

Referred to as a "powerful tool to help policy makers design a comprehensive strategy for stolen asset recovery, and implement the necessary reforms," by StAR Coordinator Jean Pesme, the new publication may provide new policy makers arising out of the Arab Spring with useful examples to fight corruption, improve good governance, and take practical steps to help those in Libya and elsewhere to recover stolen assets.

In many ways, what happens next in Libya's asset recovery efforts may be monitored, critiqued and studied by governments, scholars, activists, and dictators alike.

In past weeks, some countries have opposed the TNC's asset recovery efforts -- even in the face of much international consensus at the UN, backed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others, to ensure that current frozen funds can be used for humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.

This is unfortunate.

In a time when the Libyan people are in desperate need of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, one would hope that all members of the international community could find a way to ensure that assets belonging to the Libyan people, could be used to help the Libyan people, as quickly as possible.

As we look to the weeks, months and years ahead, however, one also hopes that all the discussion regarding the recovery of frozen and stolen assets will encompass not just concern regarding current assets -- but also future assets -- and how the international community, working with new governments around the world, can ensure that the legacy of the Arab Spring will capture the spirit of those fighting corruption in the Middle East, in Africa, in India, and elsewhere -- and thus protect against the plunder of state assets in the future. For only by promoting good governance and the rule of law can we ensure that future generations are not doomed to chase stolen assets in the future.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, previously served as a White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and as head of operations of the World Bank's StAR Secretariat. He worked on the "Baby Doc" Duvalier/Haiti and Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery teams and is a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC.