Kick kleptocrats in the wallet

The world aims to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies with economic sanctions.

Follow the logic of sanctions to reach for a powerful weapon to threaten autocrats and kleptocrats.

Kick them where it really hurts: hit them in the wallet. Don’t just make it hard for them to do business and enjoy their loot. Seize back the ill-gotten profits they’ve looted.

Autocrats respect hard power and cold cash. In the kleptocrat world, that translates as power at home and cash secreted abroad.

Using government to steal from the people and the state—and ever fearful of the future—autocrats and their buddies loot, and then stash the loot beyond the reach of the state they’re robbing.

Putin runs a ‘rogue mafia state’, turning Russia into ‘a gas station with nukes,’ observes the former Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

The big gambit available to the West, Kasparov writes, is to confiscate the cash the rogues stash: ‘Kick Putin’s mafia state out of the international institutions it uses and abuses to spread corruption. Seize the hundreds of billions in assets he and his cronies hide in the West and kick out the oligarchs and their families.’

In journalist and historian Anne Applebaum’s words, the autocrats—‘whether in Russia, China, Venezuela, or Iran’—ignore rules and diplomatic protocol, because lying keeps opponents on their toes and being hated adds to their aura of power:

Putin’s goal is not a flourishing, peaceful, prosperous Russia, but a Russia where he remains in charge. [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov’s goal is to maintain his position in the murky world of the Russian elite and, of course, to keep his money. What we mean by ‘interests’ and what they mean by ‘interests’ are not the same. When they listen to our diplomats, they don’t hear anything that really threatens their position, their power, their personal fortunes.

Such thinking animated the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, when he announced EU sanctions on Russia and then tweeted, ‘No more shopping in Milan, partying in Saint-Tropez, diamonds in Antwerp.’ He quickly deleted the vivid tweet, but it was reproduced by Russia’s foreign ministry, which responded: ‘First time we’re seeing a “euro bureaucrat” celebrating damage done by Brussels to businesses in EU Member-States.’

Going after the cash is complicated and grand corruption skips by a lot of laws.  The 189 countries that are party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption each have laws criminalising corrupt conduct. Yet kleptocrats enjoy impunity because they control the ‘justice’ in the countries they rule.

The war launched by Putin’s dark mind calls for sanctions, containment and new ways to punish and push back. One answer is to create an international anti-corruption court (IACC).

An IACC would be a court of last resort, holding kleptocrats accountable (and grabbing their accounts). The court would recover, repatriate or repurpose stolen assets, punishing corrupt officials but also professional enablers (step forward, lawyers, bankers, accountants and real estate agents).

The IACC could be established by a small number of founding member states, so long as they include several major financial hubs where lots of cash gets stashed (step forward, the UK, Europe and the US).

The existing International Criminal Court doesn’t cover crimes of corruption and amending its statute would require a two-thirds vote by its 123 member states.

The IACC could learn some valuable lessons from the ICC’s shortcomings and be a nimbler beast with sharp teeth. Going after the cash, the anti-corruption court could pay much of its own way.

A campaign for the IACC launched last year when leading citizens from 45 countries (Nobel laureates, former heads of state and government, high court judges, former cabinet ministers, business leaders) signed a declaration of support.

The multilateral model for the fight against grand corruption is the successful international campaign to ban landmines. My nomination for the bumper sticker: ‘Kick the kleptocrats, recover the cash.’

At this early stage, Canada and the Netherlands are the countries stepping up to the diplomatic challenge of establishing the court by treaty.

In Canada’s federal elections last September, the Liberal and Conservative party platforms had commitments to the anti-corruption court. The mandate letter given Canada’s new foreign minister in December included these tasks:

– Working with international partners to help establish an International Anti-Corruption Court, to prevent corrupt officials and authoritarian governments from impeding development that should benefit their citizens; and

– Continuing to support and implement Canada’s Magnitsky Law, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, and promote the adoption of similar legislation and practices globally.

Australia, too, now has a Magnitsky law, named after the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009. Magnitsky gave his name to a 2012 US law aimed at Russian human rights abuses, and then in 2016 to a US law with global reach, covering corruption as well as human rights.

Australia’s law, which took effect on 8 December 2021, provides sanctions for ‘abuses of human rights, serious corruption and significant cyber incidents’. The act is the government’s response to a parliamentary report, Criminality, corruption and impunity: should Australia join the global Magnitsky movement?

Australia’s Magnitsky law offers ‘an illustrative list of themes’ for sanctions: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; threats to international peace and security; malicious cyber activity; serious violations or serious abuses of human rights; activities undermining good governance or the rule of law, including serious corruption; and serious violations of international humanitarian law.

That’s a lot of bandwidth for ministerial discretion, as noted by a range of critics—‘unfettered power’ is one barb.

Magnitsky and the IACC share similar instincts, but are different approaches. One is a national instrument; the other is multilateral. One is driven by Australian government decision and discretion; the other is a new international court seeking to create new global norms. Magnitsky makes it hard to move or spend loot, while the court would grab for the loot.

In seeking to buttress a rules-based international order against Putin and other autocrats, we need to reach beyond the old rules to create new institutions to police the rules.

An IACC couldn’t do much about ‘Putin’s palace’, the US$1.3 billion mansion by the Black Sea; Alexey Navalny denounced the palace as the ‘world’s largest bribe’ as he flew back to Russia to his certain imprisonment. The cold shadow cast by an anti-corruption court would fall on the property and loot beyond the nation being looted. The very idea will madden and frighten autocrats everywhere.

In Australia’s election campaign in April and May, all sides of politics should follow Canada’s example and commit to a court to kick the kleptocrats.