When Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali abruptly fled Tunisia’s chaos,becoming an exile of a nation that he and his wife reportedly used as their personal cookie jar, it was deja vu all over again.
Amid rumors that Mr. Ben Ali fled along with 1.5 tons of gold (worth approximately $65 million), his escape seems eerily reminiscent of president-for-life Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s escape from Haiti. According to reports, it appears that both leaders fled aboard aircraft filled with stolen loot from countries that had endured nearly two decades of corruption and nepotism under their regimes. In a mysterious turn of events and after 25 years in exile, Mr. Duvalier recently returned to Port-au-Prince as Swiss and Haitian officials are working to return millions of his frozen assets to Haiti. Considering the similarities, one must ask: Can post-Ben Ali Tunisia learn something from post-Duvalier Haiti?
Much like post-Duvalier Haiti, Tunisia is in a fragile state, and after an attempt to create a unity government with opposition leaders, it is clear that events that will define its future are still in motion. When the dust settles and a stable government is formed, one of the major questions it will face will be whether it will follow Haiti’s lead in trying to achieve some measure of justice by attempting to recover allegedly ill-gotten gains accumulated by the Ben Ali family.
Indeed, concerns about high-level corruption were among the reasons for the uprising in Tunisia, so it stands to reason that any new government would be well-served by launching a proper investigation into the allegations of malfeasance that have arisen.
In a matter of days since Mr. Ben Ali’s quick departure, his international assets are being identified and targeted abroad. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office announced it would block all “suspicious” movements of the Ben Ali family’s assets, preventing their liquidation or transfer out of the country. Similar actions are being taken in the United States. In Canada, there are reports of Tunisian expatriates protesting outside a $2.5 million stone mansion that is purported to be the property of Mr. Ben Ali’s 30-year-old son-in-law. And in Switzerland, a country recognized for being forward-leaning in helping recover stolen assets (including passing a law to help repatriate Duvalier-related funds to Haiti), the Swiss Federal Council decided to block “with immediate effect” any possible funds in Switzerland of Mr. Ben Ali and his associates.
These are welcome steps forward – and a testament to a new era of fighting impunity – in which alleged kleptocrats are no longer openly welcomed by private banks and Western governments – but rather, sovereign states and political leaders step in to ensure that, as World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick put it, there are “no safe haven* for those who steal from the poor.”
But a full accounting of Mr. Ben Ali’s wealth has yet to be revealed – and it will take time and sustained political will by any new Tunisian government to run all leads to an end. Indeed, it took years for Haiti to commence a sustained effort to recover Duvalier-related assets.
Unfortunately, political will on the part of a post-kleptocratic government is one of the rarest, yet most necessary, ingredients for successfully recovering illicit assets. And even should a new Tunisian government be willing to investigate the former president’s assets, identifying and recovering stolen assets is far from easy.
This is one of the reasons Mr. Zoellick made the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative, a global partnership to help recover assets from past dictators, his first initiative after joining the World Bank. Mr. Zoellick and his colleagues recognized that grand corruption – not unlike the alleged corruption in the cases of Mr. Duvalier and Mr. Ben Ali – is a global issue that demands a global response.
According to Jean-Pierre Brun, the lead author of new StAR handbook on recovering stolen assets, “the [asset recovery] process can be overwhelming for even the most experienced practitioners. It is exceptionally difficult for those working in the context of failed states, widespread corruption, or limited resources.” Thus, for Tunisia, any quest to recover stolen assets will not be simple. But it is not the only country to face such challenges.
Over the past few years, the Haitian government has been working quietly with officials from Switzerland and the StAR Initiative to help recover assets purportedly stolen by Mr. Duvalier (indeed, such effortslikely prompted Mr. Duvalier’s sudden return to Haiti). And even though time-consuming, Haiti is on track to possibly recover millions of dollars of assets that are frozen in Swiss bank accounts – bringing some sense of justice to a country sorely in need of good news.
Thus, with the recent departure of Mr. Ben Ali comes the possibility of a new chapter for Tunisia – one in which corruption does not dominate the country – and in which the rule of law plays a central role in society. Should the new government decide to enter into the world of asset recovery, it should do so knowing that the success of such operations depends a great deal upon the political willpower of the successor government to sustain its recovery efforts. Let us hope the new leaders in Tunisia are statesmen, emboldened by the examples of Haiti and others to continue their fight against corruption, and that future dictators and kleptocrats around the world take notice. For it is only by collective and targeted international action that we can ensure that there will be no safe haven for stolen assets.
By Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University who worked on the Haiti/Duvalier asset recovery team while serving as head of operations of the World Bank’s StAR Secretariat and Greg Cooper, a law student at the University of Texas.