Equatorial Guinea v France: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

This has been quite the delay, but I am back to blogging (I can almost hear the roar of jubilant crowds…). Given the state of the world, there is economic crime news aplenty, and so I will be posting regularly over the next several weeks.

Perhaps the most bizarre development of the past month or so has been the unexpected airing of Season 2 in the never-ending saga of Equatorial Guinea v France, set in the grand halls of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The original case had it all: a flamboyant vice-president of an oil-rich country (coincidentally, the son of the country’s president), allegations of corruption and money laundering, a long-running — and ultimately successful — attempt by several civil society groups to excite French law enforcement with those allegations, and a last-ditch bid by the beleaguered vice-president’s home country to present his mansion as part of the premises of its diplomatic mission to save its from confiscation.

Sadly for Equatorial Guinea, its claims fell through, and the confiscation and sale of Vice-President Obiang’s Parisian mansion is set to proceed on the basis that it, according to a French court judgment, constitutes the proceeds of misappropriation of public funds. That gives rise to the inevitable question: Once the property is actioned off, who gets to keep the money?

‘Send it back to us,’ says Equatorial Guinea, and now sues France to compel it to return the proceeds. The claims are brought under the UN Convention Against Corruption, which provides that, in some circumstances, confiscated proceeds of corruption must be restored to the country of origin.

The challenge for Equatorial Guinea is that these circumstances manifestly do not include confiscation over the objections of, and court cases brought by, the country of origin. Strikingly, in its application instituting the proceedings Equatorial Guinea relies on what is effectively a non-mandatory provision in Article 57(3)(c) of the Convention:

‘In all other cases, [the state that confiscated the assets shall] give priority consideration to returning confiscated property to the requesting State Party, returning such property to its prior legitimate owners or compensating the victims of the crime.’

On Equatorial Guinea’s case, France did not afford such ‘priority consideration’ to its request to return Vice-President Obiang’s confiscated property. For sure, this may not be the most compelling argument ever to grace the ICJ’s courtroom, but I suspect Equatorial Guinea’s legal advisors may have had limited say in whether this case deserves to be resurrected.

In the meantime, Vice-President Obiang’s father — in power since 1979 — is running for re-election as president, and we will all be waiting for the result with bated breath.

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