DOHA, Qatar – U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed American support Tuesday for Arab Spring nations seeking to recover possibly billions of dollars in assets stashed away by members of the toppled regimes.
But one of Obama's senior advisers noted that international legal obstacles still remain to track down and reclaim looted money that is often hidden under false names and dummy corporations.
"This money — potentially billions of dollars — does not belong to those who wielded power. It belongs to the people," Obama said in a video message to open a conference on efforts to trace and recovery state funds from the deposed rulers in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.
The three-day meeting in Qatar's capital Doha marks the latest initiative by Mideast and Western allies to strengthen international cooperation to recover state funds from the deposed regimes in the Middle East.
Obama said the funds are crucial to help rebuild and "help advance transitions to democracy" after Arab Spring upheavals.
Qatar and other Persian Gulf states are strong backers of Syrian rebels fighting the forces of president Bashar Assad. They favor aggressive measures to freeze assets of the Syrian government.
In August, Obama froze all Syrian government assets that are subject to American jurisdiction and blocked U.S. citizens from engaging in financial transactions with Syria.
Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser, said better cooperation is needed to open up legal and economic systems in some countries to help speed the return of stolen assets. Investigators have described complex schemes to mask the state assets such as holding companies, offshore accounts and real estate purchases.
"There is no quick fix to these often complex legal matters," Froman told the conference.
Qatar's justice minister, Hasan al-Ghanem, also noted more international leverage is needed for fiscal disclosure in "safe haven" countries. He did not name specific nations, but places such as Switzerland have taken measures that have included freezing the bank deposits linked to members of the former ruling elites of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. In July, the Swiss government also froze nearly $32 million linked to senior Syrian officials.
"There is no international law that protects these assets," al-Ghanem said. "They are smuggled and illegal. There will be no more safe havens for these assets."