Olaniyan’s ownership of proceeds of corruption in International Law


Femi Falana

By Femi Falana

Corruption clearly represents one of the most serious political, economic and societal problems. Corruption harms communities and impacts the global economy. It victimizes society’s most vulnerable and marginalized individuals because it affects their ability to meet their basic needs, and reduces their chances of overcoming poverty and exclusion. Corruption also discourages business opportunities, hinders foreign aid and investment, and exacerbates inequality.

Since the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) some twenty years ago, the international community has produced a comprehensive body of international anticorruption standards. States are now required to prevent and criminalize corruption offences within their domestic legal systems and to cooperate and assist one another in the areas of asset recovery and law enforcement, among others.

Enforcement, however, remains the Achilles’ heel of the international, regional and domestic anticorruption legal rules. Corrupt officials routinely use states’ institutions and coercive powers to steal people’s wealth with almost absolute impunity. Even though the value of the assets returned has varied over time, the total amount recovered since 2010 is reported to be just over $4 billion– a tiny fraction of the estimated staggering $3.6 trillion lost to international corruption every year.

For example, Nigeria’s former military dictator Sani Abacha stole US$5 billion of an estimated US$400 billion allegedly looted by military leaders and politicians since the country’s independence in 1960. At the same time, victims of corruption continue to be denied access to justice and effective remedies.

In this very timely and impressive treatise—Ownership of Proceeds of Corruption in International Law, just published by Oxford University Press—Kolawole Olaniyan of Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in London addresses these lingering legal and practical challenges and discusses the complex interplay between the legal rules on corruption, asset recovery and human rights law.

The book comprises three parts and eight chapters. Essentially, Part I deals with Conceptual Frameworks while Part II covers Legal and Institutional Frameworks. Part III proposes a Coherent Foundation for Justice and Remedies for Victims of Corruption. Together, they offer a comprehensive and systematic analysis, connecting the important areas of corruption, asset recovery and human rights.

When the very institutions and officials charged with preventing and combating corruption and pursuing asset recovery cases are themselves corrupt, the victims are left with no recourse, and the resulting sense of powerlessness and betrayal often compounds the injury and makes redress more difficult.

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Through the analyses of theories, concepts, jurisprudence and case studies, the book makes a compelling case for people’s ownership rights of proceeds of corruption. It discusses contemporary doctrinal issues as well as the legal and practical challenges confronting asset recovery. By offering both a theoretical framework and an analysis of case studies in these fields, Kolawole seeks to advance the coherency, consistency and effective implementation and enforcement of both anticorruption and human rights standards.

Kolawole’s extensive treatment of the rarely addressed private sector corruption is particularly welcome. The focus on private sector corruption is quite important especially given the well-documented complicity of private actors such as banks and financial institutions in public sector corruption.

Thorough and scholarly, yet eminently readable, the book addresses important and topical issues such as the sharing of proceeds of foreign bribery, universal jurisdiction, and international cooperation and assistance in asset recovery cases, including the proposed International Anticorruption Court.

Indeed, the objective of UNCAC will not be achieved until an International Court Against Corruption is set up by the United Nations to deal with corruption promoted by powerful countries and multinational corporations. The victims of grand corruption in the world should continue to campaign for the establishment of the international court.

The book also discusses how the current legal rules and mechanisms on corruption and asset recovery still have very little to offer to victims. Kolawole’s focus throughout is on the rights of individuals and people to seek redress when states are either unwilling or unable to pursue asset recovery cases.

I congratulate Kolawole on this excellent book. The book is an original and a remarkable and valuable contribution to the literature on corruption, asset recovery and human rights.

As the international community marks the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the UNCAC and concludes the tenth session of the Conference of States Parties to the UNCAC in Atlanta, USA, the need to recover proceeds of corruption and ensure access of victims to justice and effective remedies has assumed critical importance for the global community. The book will undoubtably change the international discourse on these fundamental issues.

The book will be an invaluable resource for lawyers, judges, policy makers, scholars, human rights defenders, anticorruption and asset recovery practitioners alike. It will also be a very useful resource for victims of corruption around the world including in Nigeria in their fight for justice and effective remedies.

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