Ministers, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I should like to start, on behalf of the UK and our G7 partners, by thanking our hosts, the government of the Swiss Confederation, for welcoming us all to Geneva, and stepping forward to hold this Third Arab Forum on Asset Recovery.
I know, from the UK’s experience last year, that it is no small task.
I should also like to thank the co-chairs, the governments of the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Tunisian Republic, for their leadership on this agenda.
On the subject of leadership, our thanks must also go to His Excellency Dr Ali bin Fetais al-Marri for his continuing role in promoting the return of stolen funds to the Arab Countries in Transition.
Finally, our thanks are due to the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative for their critical role in making the Arab Forum on Asset Recovery happen.
This third meeting of the Arab Forum provides an important opportunity for us to take stock, nearly four years after the fall of the Ben Ali regime triggered the events of the Arab Spring.
As you will know, the first Arab Forum, generously hosted by the government of Qatar, was a watershed moment which focused world attention on the proceeds of corruption stolen from the peoples of the Arab Countries in Transition.
The UK co-hosted a second Arab Forum with the government of Morocco, which brought more global financial centres into the forum and expanded the scope of our work.
A great deal of effort has gone into tracing and recovering the state funds stolen by members of the former regimes of the Arab Countries in Transition.
We have taken some major steps forward.
Hundreds of millions of pounds of assets, suspected to be stolen monies, have been frozen. Lebanon has already returned some assets, and I know many other countries are working towards this goal.
In September 2012 my Prime Minister established the Asset Recovery Task Force. It brings together a multi-agency team from across UK law enforcement and prosecution agencies. They work closely alongside their Egyptian counterparts on eight money laundering investigations, and a UK prosecutor and financial specialist have been posted to the region to provide direct assistance.
The Task Force has identified funds in the UK and around the globe, gathered reams of financial information, and shared significant amounts of intelligence with the Egyptian authorities. I have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with my Egyptian counterpart, and mutual legal assistance requests have been made in both directions.
This work forms part of a wider agenda. Tackling international corruption is a priority for the UK and our G7 partners. Last year we agreed at Lough Erne three important actions to increase financial transparency.
First, to bring transparency to company ownership to stop the abuse of shell companies to hide criminal proceeds and evade tax. I am delighted to see that transparency of company ownership is a central feature of this event. Second, to fight tax evasion through international cooperation and information sharing. And third, to publish key government data. And, of course, we should not forget that in 2012 all G7 countries signed up to the Asset Recovery Action Plan, which still serves as the foundation for our efforts on this agenda.
As my Prime Minister said in his video message to the second Arab Forum, we recognise that the UK, along with other global financial centres, needs to put its own house in order to tackle corruption. That is why, in the UK, we are legislating to create a public register of company ownership to put our G7 commitment into practice.
We will also be publishing an Anti-Corruption Plan setting out a whole range of actions which will strengthen our response to corruption at home and abroad. And we are legislating to make it quicker and easier to freeze assets suspected of being proceeds of crime.
We were proud to co-host, along with the government of the United States, the Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery earlier this year in London to advance efforts to recover assets stolen by the former Yanukovych regime.
I am very glad to see that Ukraine is involved in this Arab Forum, as we seek to share best practice from across the globe. There is real political will in the UK, and throughout the G7, to tackle the scourge of corruption, which we all know does enormous harm to citizens, trade and good government.
Since the UK founded its Asset Recovery Task Force to increase and accelerate our effort to return stolen funds, we have learned a lot about the challenges we face. But I think I speak for all of us when I say that I am frustrated at the pace of our progress.
We all knew that returning stolen funds would be hard, and that it would take years, not months. I would like to reflect on three lessons the UK has learned. First, on the importance of deep and real case cooperation. Second, on the importance of understanding each other’s legal frameworks if we are to collaborate effectively. And third, the need to establish what additional assistance should be provided to make a lasting difference to tackling corruption in the Arab Countries in Transition.
Importance of cooperation
Starting with cooperation: there is no shortage of political will in the G7 to move these cases forwards as quickly as possible. I have spoken about the very substantial efforts the UK has made.But our courts will not order the confiscation of assets without an evidential link between criminal activity and those assets. The evidence that will prove that link is to be found in the Arab Countries in Transition.
We cannot secure that evidence alone – we are reliant on close partnerships and a willingness to share. We all need to work better with our partners to share the requisite information to bring these cases to a successful conclusion. We need to be as flexible as possible. I very much hope that a truly collaborative approach will enable us all to share the necessary information. We know this can work.
For example, the UK has confiscated millions of pounds of assets stolen by a former Nigerian State Governor, following extensive cooperation with the Nigerian authorities, and secured his extradition from the United Arab Emirates.
Indeed, major financial centres in the region can play an important part in facilitating the return of stolen assets. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the authorities in the UAE for the recent return of UK criminal assets.
We have been working closely together for many years, and I hope that this is the start of the recovery of considerable sums. These cases prove that deep and close cooperation can produce results. It takes both the requesting and the requested country to be willing to share for us to make real progress. Please help us to help you.
Moving on, it is vitally important that we fully understand each other’s legal frameworks and approaches. This is relevant not only to the field of asset recovery but also to wide areas of judicial cooperation.
All parties need to recognise how each others’ legal systems work and the implications for successful collaboration. For example, in the UK, our courts will slow, or even in some cases prevent, assistance on asset recovery, despite the very great political will to provide assistance, if there is a real risk that cooperation will result in human rights violations.
Finally, I would like to look to the future. Our efforts to recover stolen assets are likely to continue for a number of years. We should use this Forum to agree what assistance G7 countries, and other global financial centres, can provide to the Arab Countries in Transition to facilitate the return of looted state funds as quickly as possible, and to make a lasting difference to tackling corruption in the region.
The UK has already provided financial investigation training both to a Libyan delegation in the UK, and at the Arab Forum ‘Special Session’ held in Sharm El Sheikh last year.
We would like to do more to help build the capabilities needed to investigate complex corruption cases, and use MLA channels effectively to share information.
We could, for example, offer specialist placements in the UK for law enforcement officers and prosecutors so they can develop their skills and better understand the UK system.
But precisely what assistance would be most useful is best determined by the Arab Countries in Transition themselves. I would like to invite their representatives here to use this Forum to tell us what assistance they need to build their capabilities for the long term.
I know that the G7 countries stand ready to assist.
So, to conclude, we are determined to tackle corruption, and return funds stolen from the peoples of the Arab Countries in Transition. This Third Arab Forum on Asset Recovery has brought us all together to confirm our commitment to this common goal. But we are also here to seek practical solutions to the barriers we face. We must use this opportunity to identify and overcome those barriers which are holding back real progress.
Please help us to help you. I hope that all of us make the best possible use of the opportunities to hold bilateral meetings with the many jurisdictions represented here.
By working together and sharing information more effectively than we have done ever before, we can hold the guilty to account and end the culture of impunity that has for so long allowed the corrupt to get away with their crimes.