THE BLOG
26/04/2012 08:26 BST | Updated 25/06/2012 06:12 BST

The Biggest Crime on the Planet

A year on from successfully having them frozen, the Egyptian state has yet to recover a penny of the £85 million of assets thought to belong to Hosni Mabarak in the UK. Staff at its specially established Illicit Gains Department, despairing of any prospect of cooperation from the UK Treasury, filed a lawsuit against it last month.

A year on from successfully having them frozen, the Egyptian state has yet to recover a penny of the £85 million of assets thought to belong to Hosni Mabarak in the UK. Staff at its specially established Illicit Gains Department, despairing of any prospect of cooperation from the UK Treasury, filed a lawsuit against it last month.

The Treasury will plead that until the Egyptians have demonstrated that the assets were paid for with money that was illegally obtained in Egypt, there's nothing they can do. One has to prove the 'predicate crime.' In my old career I would come across this problem frequently, and it's often exceptionally difficult to overcome; but it's hard not to see this particular constraint as one of many that make it dispiritingly easy for dictators, corrupt government ministers and bureaucratic crooks of various stripes to steal and hide their money.

Finding the stuff remains half the problem. In the last twelve months assets belonging to Qaddafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gbagbo have been frozen around the world, the amounts in the many tens of millions of dollars. This sounds impressive, but what the authorities have been able to identify is negligible as a proportion of the whole, because no one knows where the vast bulk of these deposed dictators' fortunes lies. The tip of the iceberg may be frozen but the rest remains stubbornly liquid.

How much each might have stolen is hard to estimate, but one recent study compared the amount of revenue generated by oil sales from Libya with the amount spent by government and found an annual shortfall of billions of dollars -which, we can assume, ended up in the pockets of the Qaddafi family.

Qaddafi's peers may have been less heinous, by a degree or two, but we can assume that the people of those recently liberated countries have lost not just decades of freedom but tens, probably hundreds of billions of dollars to corruption. And they are not alone: the countries in question are surrounded in the corruption tables by plenty of others where those in power continue to steal from the state. All in all, the theft is comfortably in the trillions. It is the biggest crime on the planet.

For those who would recover some of the proceeds, the task is prodigious. First they have to find the money, which will have been buried, by skilled professionals, in a vast, featureless landscape of offshore companies and bogus funds and impenetrable trusts. That process can take many years, even when the work is being conducted by investigators who are similarly skilled - and it is a sad, obvious truth that no dictator in his right mind trains up teams of crack financial detectives.

And once they have found some money, they need to demonstrate its ownership and its criminal origin before they have any chance of getting it back, neither of which is easy. The result is that money urgently needed to rebuild constitutions, infrastructure and societies may take a decade to be returned, and that recovery rates are likely to be mere pennies in the pound.

Developed countries have been getting better and better at combating fraud and corruption within their borders but have made little progress on fighting international financial crime. There is a compelling, urgent case to create an international commission responsible for asset recovery, where lawyers and investigators could share their experience and governments could pool information. The Egyptian team responsible for recovering Mubarak's billions needs concerted help from abroad, but despite the best efforts of a handful of people that help is proving patchy and scant. If developed economies fail to act, an extraordinary opportunity to support democratic processes, diminish corruption, and encourage enduring stability will be lost.