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Friday, 10 April 2009

New UN Pact Aims to Stop Leaders Looting Coffers

By Adriana Barrera


Countries around the world on Tuesday signed a landmark U.N. convention against corruption which aims to help them recover money pillaged by unscrupulous leaders and hidden in foreign banks. Mexico and the United States were among the first countries to sign the treaty on the first of a three-day U.N. forum in Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. More than 90 countries are expected to sign up to the pact in the course of the event. "Corruption is now repudiated in any form, and international cooperation is considered a key element of our respective efforts to combat this scourge," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said before signing the treaty. Countries like Mexico and Nigeria, which have seen billions of dollars embezzled by officials, have pushed for a cross-border anti-graft treaty to help nations recover plundered assets from foreign bank accounts. The draft, agreed by 192 countries, criminalizes bribery, money laundering and embezzlement of public funds. Under the treaty, illegally acquired assets can be seized and fugitive officials extradited. States will be obliged to prevent corruption rather than merely prosecute offenders. However, the treaty does not bind signatory states to create new anti-corruption laws or punish countries that fail to enforce them. Anti-graft campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the pact but said supervisory mechanisms must be put in place for it to have any teeth. "The convention is a very complex instrument. It's not the point of arrival but of departure," said Eduardo Bohorquez, head of the Mexican branch of Berlin-based sleaze watchdog Transparency International. "If local governments do not do their utmost to ratify it and ensure it is respected" it won't be much use, he added.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox, whose election in 2000 ended 71 years of unbroken rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, said uprooting graft meant building a new legal culture. "The issue of corruption is a real scourge for our economies and development," said Fox, whose war on corruption was a cornerstone of his administration. "Strengthening the fight against corruption is to strengthen our fight against poverty." Mexico is still trying to recover millions of dollars -- allegedly in drug money and public funds -- deposited in Swiss bank accounts by Raul Salinas, the jailed brother of the disgraced former president, Carlos Salinas. But that is small fry compared to billions of dollars believed to have been funneled into foreign banks by the late Nigerian dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, and his associates during his 1993-1998 rule. The British offshore banking haven Jersey has returned $149 million to Nigeria but more remains hidden in accounts in Switzerland, Britain, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. Switzerland has pledged to return some $640 million which it froze after an embarrassing probe revealed Swiss banks had accepted funds from Abacha before his death in 1998. However, legal complications have hindered the handover. The convention will enter into force once the congresses of 30 states have ratified it, which U.N. officials say could take two years.

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