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Why is corrupt money in our banks in the first place?

24th February 2011

For over a decade, Global Witness has targeted policy-makers, international organisations, regulators and the banks themselves in an effort to make it harder for corrupt politicians to stash loot in foreign bank accounts. If such checks had been in place and properly enforced, the stolen assets now being seized across the world would not have been in our banks in the first place.

The events unfolding in the Middle East show that we must act now.  Unless we tackle corruption on this scale, development will not happen and billions of people will continue to live in poverty.  We can persuade the financial sector to clean up its act, but we need your help.  Please click here to donate. Thank you.

Recent unrest in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt has brought a desperate scramble to trace and freeze the assets of politicians believed to have amassed huge fortunes through corruption.

Comment has centred on how this money might be returned to the countries it came from but very few are asking how this money ended up in our banks in the first place.

If there is sufficient evidence that such funds were corruptly earned to warrant them being frozen now that dictators are being forced from office, what questions did banks ask of these customers at the point when they were accepted?

Key recent developments include:

  • A US cable published by Wikileaks suggesting that Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi and his family have amassed such wealth from their control of the country’s oil and other sectors that a US official dubbed them “Gaddafi Incorporated”. As the unrest in Libya continues, calls for these assets to be frozen are increasing. 
  • Following reports that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could have billions of dollars stashed in foreign banks, Switzerland has frozen his assets, and Vince Cable has called for the UK to do the same. The Egyptian authorities have requested the freezing of assets belonging to top officials from Mubarak regime, as well as those of the former president himself, and some of his family.
  • France has opened a preliminary investigation into funds allegedly linked to former President Ben Ali of Tunisia, and has reportedly seized Ben Ali’s “family jet”.
  • The European Union (EU) and Switzerland have frozen the assets of Ben Ali and his wife prompted by suspicions that the two were responsible for the “misappropriation of state funds”.  
  • The EU has also frozen the assets of Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast in an effort to put pressure on him to cede power to Alassane Ouatarra, who is recognised internationally as having won presidential elections in November.

Global Witness has undertaken numerous investigations into how corrupt politicians have accessed the financial system using western banks and intermediaries. Our latest report, International Thief Thief, detailed how two corrupt Nigerian politicians used British banks, including Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and HSBC, to sustain a luxury lifestyle in Britain. The two officials placed some of their funds in the accounts of their wives and close friends.  

Global Witness specialists are available for analysis of the methods used by senior politicians to access the financial system, as well as on the role played by major financial institutions in facilitating this.

For more information or to request an interview, please contact

Robert Palmer +44 (0)20 7492 5860 or +44 (0)7545 645 406 or rpalmer@globalwitness.org

Anthea Lawson +44(0)20 7492 5882 or alawson@globalwitness.org  

Oliver Courtney +44 (0)7815 731889 or ocourtney@globalwitness.org

For over a decade, Global Witness has targeted policy-makers, international organisations, regulators and the banks themselves in an effort to make it harder for corrupt politicians to stash loot in foreign bank accounts. If such checks had been in place and properly enforced, the stolen assets now being seized across the world would not have been in our banks in the first place. The events unfolding in the Middle East show that we must act now.  Unless we tackle corruption on this scale, development will not happen and billions of people will continue to live in poverty.  We can persuade the financial sector to clean up its act, but we need your help.  Please click here to donate. Thank you.