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To make corrupt leaders pay, we should seize and repurpose frozen assets: Senator Omidvar
December 18, 2019
image Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar
ISG - (Ontario)

Recently, The Gambia filed a genocide case against Myanmar to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), alleging the country formerly called Burma has committed mass murder, rape and destruction against the Rohingya people. With a number of other senators, I have called on the Canadian government to act as an intervenor in the case. These were clearly grave crimes perpetrated against a vulnerable and persecuted group of people. The perpetrators need to be held to account, and the international community must not stay silent.

Because of these crimes, more than one million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, where many have since been living in makeshift refugee camps. Most of them will now likely live out their entire lives in a place without safety, housing, health, education or opportunity. Forced displacement is no longer a temporary phenomenon. On average, it lasts approximately 20 years.

Sadly, they are not alone. Globally, there are more than 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Some have crossed into another country seeking protection. Others have stayed in their country of origin but have fled their homes and are internally displaced. A closer look at the numbers reveals a significant gender dimension embedded in this phenomenon: more than half of the 70 million are women and children who have fled their homes because of armed conflict, violence, persecution and human rights abuses, including torture, sexual assault and exploitation.

As the Gambian case begins to weave its way through the long and complicated process of the ICJ, there is more that Canada can do to hold the corrupt leaders to account.

Earlier this year, I tabled a bill in the Canadian Senate that would hold accountable corrupt foreign leaders who have been party to creating displacement. Many of these kleptocrats have enriched themselves and likely have stashed their money in safe havens, such as Canada. Some have been named to the Magnitsky list and under the Canadian Magnitsky legislation, their assets are frozen. But that is all we do: Freeze their assets.

My bill proposes going to the next logical step. It will reach beyond merely freezing the assets and, through court order, seize these assets in order to repurpose them back to help the people who have been forced to run for their lives and seek a safe haven.

Most refugees flee to neighbouring countries. They are not in Canada, Germany, Italy or in Greece. They are in developing countries, such as the Rohingya in Bangladesh, or the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, or the close to four million Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina, or the South Sudanese in Uganda. These are not wealthy countries, and the United Nations can no longer meet all the needs of the displaced. These jurisdictions are metaphorically and literally sinking under the weight of providing for the displaced.

New instruments of accountability and new sources of revenue are needed to deal with the global displacement crisis. According to the World Bank, there is more than $20 billion US of corrupt money pilfered by government leaders floating around in the world, finding safe havens in places such as Canada, Germany, the U.K. and the United States.

If we can get access to at least some of this money and channel it back to provide those who are displaced, we will not only ensure punishment and accountability against such corruption, but also help desperate people by taking some of the onus off the host countries. Plus, we remove dark and corrupt money from Canada.

Through its electoral platform, the newly elected Liberal government has expressed its commitment to this policy. It needs to follow through. If Canada takes the lead, other jurisdictions will follow. Parliamentarians in Germany and the U.K. and the U.S. Congress are interested. Over time, a community of countries can enact similar legislation, the ripple effect will be enormous.

This is not the only action that is required to deal with the complexity of displacement. But it is one more tool in the toolbox. If we follow the money, we can hold corrupt leaders to account and make them pay.


Senator Ratna Omidvar represents Ontario in the Senate.

This article was published in the December 2, 2019, edition of The Globe and Mail.