The Panama Papers: What next for civil society?


The amazing work done by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and all the journalists around the world who contributed to the release of the 2.6 terabytes of Panama Papers has revealed the murky world of global financial systems. The leaks and analysis reveal the web of companies and tax havens used by law firm Mossack Fonseca to hide money for clients. These clients ranged from heads of state, dictators and their relatives, to members of parliament and government officials.

While high-profile names and high profile fall outs have caught the media’s attention, including Vladimir Putin’s hidden billions, the (now former) Prime Minister of Iceland’s wife’s offshore company, and the secret accounts of FIFA officials, staggeringly, public officials from a huge number of countries around the world have been implicated. This includes companies and accounts owned by relatives of former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak, whose assets were recently frozen again by the EU and cousins of Bashar al Assad. Civil society organisations like EIPR have then used this information to then map the national holdings these officials still have through their networks of secret companies.

Politicians have made a lot of noise about the Panama Papers – albeit mostly focused on tax rather than corruption – but we shouldn’t forget that prior to leak, politicians already knew that dictators and corrupt public officials were using these channels to steal and hide public money. After the Arab Spring and Ukrainian revolutions, countries around the world froze the assets stolen by former leaders and members of their families. While small amounts have been returned, the majority of the assets are still sitting in European and North American banks and property.

World leaders, such as Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron have been talking about closing parts of this system since 2012, yet little has been done.

Even before the release of papers from Mossack Fonseca, CiFAR and other organisations around the world were campaigning for these loopholes to be shut down. Now that the scale of their use is publicly available to all, we will use this momentum and work to close down the systems that allow corrupt public officials to hide stolen public money offshore.

The Panama Papers have shown the scale of the global networks involved in stealing, hiding and spending public funds. The challenge is big, but we believe that by building expertise and creating international networks, civil society can put an end to this practice and ensure that already stolen assets are identified and returned.

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