Fighting Corruption After the Arab Spring

Harnessing Countries' Desire to Improve their Reputations for Integrity

From Tunisia to Yemen, the corruption of Middle Eastern regimes has played a significant role in motivating the Arab Spring. Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family now face trial in absentia for, among other crimes, money laundering and drug trafficking. Meanwhile, Egyptian courts have charged former President Hosni Mubarak with corruption and sentenced in absentia his former finance minister, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, to 30 years in prison on charges of corruption and embezzlement of public money. Frustration with cronyism and corruption is a key grievance of those protesting in the streets in Libya, Syria, and Yemen as well.

These corrupt leaders have managed to stash much of their collected wealth abroad, despite international obligations designed to prevent such looting. The Arab Spring has thus highlighted the inadequacy of current international efforts against corruption.

If global leaders are serious about strengthening anticorruption efforts in response to the Arab Spring, they should build on recent improvements in an unlikely place: Switzerland. Switzerland recently changed its law about returning corrupt funds and has led much of the international community in freezing the assets of certain deposed leaders, including Ben Ali, Mubarak, and former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. Switzerland took these actions at least in part because it feared that its reputation as a haven for illicit assets could harm its ability to attract legitimate business. The United States and its allies should capitalize on such reputational sensitivities by promoting mutually enforced anticorruption standards and exposing those countries that fail to cooperate. This is the most promising path to inducing countries to prevent corruption and to excluding the proceeds of corruption from the global financial system.

Swiss banks became known as a top choice for corrupt dictators by holding the multi-million dollar accounts of, among others, former Nigerian ruler Sani Abacha, former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, and former Haitian strongman Jean-Claude Duvalier. Thus, it may come as a surprise that last October, Switzerland adopted what is arguably the world’s toughest law for repatriating the ill-gotten gains of corrupt politicians to the people of those countries, allowing the country to return potentially corrupt assets more easily.

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