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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Türk urges action on corruption and illicit financial flows

Expert meeting on obstacles to repatriation of funds of illicit origin to the countries of origin, and their impact on the enjoyment of human rights [Recording 31 January 2024]

13 February 2024

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights




Distinguished panellists, colleagues and friends, 

Corruption steals for personal gain from the common resources that should benefit all. It bleeds funds from the State's capacity to advance all human rights, including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and the right to development.

Corruption and related illicit financial flows also weaken state institutions and the rule of law, shattering what should be fundamental to any criminal justice system: its impartiality.

High levels of capital flight, and illicit financial flows – a term that includes tax evasion and tax avoidance; kick-backs and other practices known as trade misinvoicing; money laundering; and the transfer of funds arising from corrupt or criminal activities – may amount to billions of dollars every year.

These are not victimless crimes. Women die in childbirth because money is not spent on the provision of basic healthcare. Children's lives are permanently harmed because resources are not devoted to the provision of the quality education that can expand their skills and the opportunities available to them.

For example, UNCTAD has estimated that countries in Africa with high illicit financial flows spend, on average, 58% less on education, and 25% less on health.. Last year, the African Union Assembly committed to strong action to curb illicit financial flows that drain resources from economic and social development, and to recover these stolen assets. I commend the African Group for bringing these issues to the attention of the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly . I also applaud the work carried out by UNCTAD and UNODC to enable targeted action by measuring illicit financial flows, via their Conceptual Framework for the Statistical Measurement of Illicit Financial Flows. I also welcome the recent resolution on measuring corruption adopted by the 10thConference of States Parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption.

 All UN Member States have promised to combat and significantly reduce illicit financial flows, as part of work towards Sustainable Development Goal 16 on justice and good governance; in the UN Convention against Corruption; in the context of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda; and at the Human Rights Council.

But promises need to be backed by action. And action to address corruption and illicit financial flows can face powerful resistance – both at home and abroad.

The Conference of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and its Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Asset Recovery were set up by the UN to advance the recovery of stolen assets. To help advance that work, in 2022, my Office published Recommended Principles on Human Rights and Asset Recovery.

The Recommended Principles cover the full cycle of asset recovery, from the prevention and detection of corruption, to tracing its proceeds; the preservation and confiscation of those proceeds; the return, and subsequent allocation, of those funds. By promoting a human-rights based approach, they ensure that the victims of these crimes are at the core of the whole process.

Recovering illicit funds must be a collaborative effort. No country can effectively eliminate illicit financial flows alone. The cross-border nature of these flows requires close international cooperation.

According to the Secretary-General's Report on international coordination and cooperation to combat illicit financial flows, published in July 2023, there has been an increase in the number of countries engaged in international asset recovery. Efforts to trace and restrain stolen assets across borders have become more common. Between 2017 and 2021, more than $2.3 billion in corruption proceeds were reportedly returned to countries of origin, compared with less than $1.4 billion between 2010 and 2016.

Still, large sums of money of illicit origin remain stalled, hidden, in banks, both inside the country of origin and across the world – where they continue to accrue gains. Your work today, to identify the obstacles to tracing and repatriating this money – and consider how best to address them – could provide important insights on this crucial issue.

There must be accountability, to combat impunity and contribute to reparation of the harm done to victims.

Banking institutions need to fully understand that helping the corrupt to benefit from their crimes damages entire societies.

I want to emphasise this point: combatting illicit financial flows is a cornerstone of the human rights economy, and to building more fair and more resilient societies that invest in human dignity, human rights and justice.

It will help to put an end to preventable deaths; preventable misery; preventable under-development; and preventable grievances, violence and conflict.

I welcome the presence of all of you at this expert meeting, notably UNODC and UNDP, and I look forward to the outcome of your discussion.

Thank you.


Mr. Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (video message)  

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