The Bush administration said Thursday it is asking countries around the world to join the United States in battling corruption by high-level government officials. Officials say bribery and theft siphon hundreds of billions of dollars from government coffers every year, and that people in developing nations are hardest-hit.
Officials here say President Bush was instrumental in getting an anti-corruption commitment from the G-8 major powers at their summit in St. Petersburg, Russia last month.
They say he now wants to build on that with a new international drive against so-called "kleptocrats" - high-level functionaries in various governments enriching themselves through bribe-taking and outright theft.
There are no reliable figures on the extent of the problem. But the World Bank estimates that a trillion dollars is paid out every year to bribe government officials, while the United Nations has said that $400 billion may have been diverted in recent years from aid programs in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
At a joint press appearance, senior officials of the State, Treasury and Justice Departments said they are forming an inter-agency team to track and prosecute high-level corruption, while reaching out to other countries to join U.S. efforts.
Undersecretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Josette Shiner said the aim is to identify, isolate and punish those involved in corrupt government practices.
"The critical tools will be denying physical and financial safe-haven to corrupt officials," she said. "We will prevent them from laundering their ill-gotten proceeds, bring to justice those who bribe foreign officials, and identify, recover and return to the people of these countries the stolen assets that belong to them.
Undersecretary Shiner said the monitoring group Transparency International estimates that former Indonesian President Suharto embezzled between $15 and $30 billion during his more than 30-year tenure in office, while his Philippine counterpart of the same era Ferdinand Marcos may have stolen five billion dollars.
A State Department fact sheet also identified former Presidents Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Arnoldo Aleman of Nicaragua, Sani Abacha of Nigeria and Alberto Fujimori of Peru as "kleptocrats."
Under questioning, Undersecretary Shiner declined to identify current world leaders who may be involved in corruption, but she made clear the United States believes there are many, including senior figures in Belarus hit with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in June for corruption and human rights abuses.
"What we're saying today is we're putting kleptocrats on notice," she said. "If you're stealing the funds that legitimately belong to the citizens of your county, we will be organized to act on that. So we're not here today to announce a list. But we are here to say that the action we've taken with Belarus is an example of the kind of action that we seek to take.
In the case of Belarus, the United States followed the lead of the European Union in blocking assets of President Alexander Lukashenko and key associates, following what U.S. officials say were fraudulent elections in the eastern European state last March.
U.S. action against international corruption began in earnest in 1977 with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which made it illegal for U.S. citizens to bribe foreign officials.
Undersecretary Shiner said the U.S. Justice Department continues to vigorously enforce that law, with 16 cases prosecuted in the last two years. She said the United States will push and advocate for every country to have a similar law in place.
In a written statement from his Texas vacation home, President Bush called high-level corruption a grave and corrosive abuse of power and a threat to democratic progress. He said promoting transparent and accountable governance is a "critical component" of the U.S. agenda.