Are we making a progress on strengthening the recovery and return of stolen assets (SDG 16.4)?

During this year’s 77th Session of the UN General Assembly, the 19th of September was dedicated to the SDG Moment – an opportunity to look back at the incredible progress achieved already on the path towards sustainable development, and to highlight the considerable challenges still lying ahead. 

So how does the world fair in its commitment to strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets, as outlined in the SDG target 16.4?

The short answer is we do not know. Even though we know that the number of asset recovery cases and information available about them has increased in the recent decade, no systematic and regular collection of data that would measure the progress on asset recovery exists at the moment. This makes it difficult to better understand which policies and strategies work and where we need to step up our efforts.

Commitments to collect asset recovery data

SDG target 16.4 calls for a significant reduction of illicit financial and arms flows, strengthening the recovery and return of stolen assets and combating all forms of organized crime. While the target encompasses three distinct pillars needed for peaceful and just societies, the progress towards this target is measured by indicators against two of these pillars only: a) 16.4.1 Total value of inward and outward illicit financial flows; b) 16.4.2 Proportion of seized, found or surrendered arms of illicit origin.

In other words, the SDGs currently do not create an official mandate and framework to track progress towards asset recovery. Similarly, the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) establishes only broad requirements compelling states for enhancing transparency in public administration and ensuring that the public has effective access to information (e.g. Article 10; Article 13, 1b), and there is no direct requirement to collect or publish data on recoveries.

However, the need to enhance the collection of information on the practice of international asset recovery has been repeatedly recognised in several high-level meetings. The “Addis II” International Expert Meeting on the return of stolen assets from 2019, as well as the UNCAC Conference of the States Parties resolutions 6/3 and 8/9 directly encourage countries to collect and publish information on international asset recovery in corruption cases.

The availability of data to measure progress on asset recovery

These resolutions are currently falling short, however. While it has increasingly become a common practice to publish information about selected recovery cases in press releases, agreements between countries detailing how should money be reused after return are often missing. Moreover, only very few countries publish aggregated recovery information on a regular basis.

Recognising the disconnect between these international commitments calling for better data availability and the lack of data made available by jurisdictions themselves, civil society and multilateral initiatives have been trying to collate the scattered information or directly survey relevant agencies to fill in the gap.

For example, empowered by the direct mandate of the CoSP resolutions 8/9 and recently 9/2, the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, together with UNODC, were tasked ‘to expand the global knowledge and data collection on asset recovery and return’ and directly surveyed all UNCAC member states.

The data the survey collected is the only worldwide large-scale aggregated overview of the state of asset recovery between 2010 and 2021 and includes the volumes of assets frozen, seized and confiscated in relation to corruption offences, as well as the number and types of assets and cases they are linked to. The answers of 78 countries which responded to the survey (from which 59 reported involvements in at least one cross-border asset recovery case) offer interesting and invaluable insights, especially with regards to the variety of countries which have been dealing with recovery. However, as the authors also emphasize, the data is incomplete and far from representative.

For example, while Switzerland is a leading jurisdiction in the field of asset recovery and has been known to participate in numerous returns (as highlighted in CiFAR’s database of Swiss asset returns), it only submitted information about three cases to the StAR Initiative survey.

It is unclear how agencies responding on the behalf of states chose the cases to be reported on, but the survey highlights the difficulty that some countries have domestically to successfully identify cases of freezing, confiscation and return pertaining to corruption. While international anti-corruption asset recovery cases might exist in countries, it is not possible to report this information, because this information is not disaggregated on the level of corruption in national databases. This is in line with CiFAR’s research in Germany, which found that it is not possible to identify and report on foreign MLA requests related to asset recovery in the country.

Political commitment and action are needed

The absence of an SDG indicator to measure progress on asset recovery and the reliance on voluntary approach of countries to publish more information makes any systematic efforts to measure the progress on international asset recovery impossible.

The activities of multilateral organisations, international initiatives and civil society in gathering information about asset recovery cases have been invaluable in creating insights into the recovery and return of stolen assets but the data is very limited and anecdotal.

A political commitment is needed to compel countries to publish more information on a regular basis and thus enable the creation of standardised databases, comparable across countries and across time, which can in turn help to identify trends and measure progress on strengthening the recovery and return of stolen assets. This is not only vital to ensure stronger institutions and sufficient finance for the SDGs but for a successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a whole.