OTAVIANO CANUTO On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake left more than 230,000 Haitians dead and nearly a million homeless. That very day, thousands of miles away, a legal drama was unfolding whose victims would be the same Haitian people. Despite the efforts of Swiss authorities, legal constraints prevented the return of stolen assets held by the family of Haitis ex-dictator Jean-Claude Baby Doc Duvalier in Switzerland, money that could be used for recovery following the natural disaster. The Swiss Supreme Court had ordered the release of $5.7 million to the Duvalier family, saying that the statute of limitations had expired. As soon as the decision was made public, the Swiss officials ordered the assets frozen on a constitutional basis and announced they were working on legislative reforms to make the return of stolen assets easier. The legal challenges revealed by the Duvalier case are not unique. Countries around the world face legal constraints when dealing with stolen assets, especially developing countries with scarce resources to match the skills and creativity of criminals. Every year an estimated $20-$40 billion are stolen from developing countries and stashed away in the developed world. In the past 15 years, only $5 billion have been successfully returned to their countries of origin. The magnitude of the problem suggests that a better approach to combat looted funds starts with preventing assets from being stolen and laundered in the first place. That would place a significant requirement on financial centres and their financial institutions. In the absence of prevention and early detection, there will always be safe havens for the corrupt. A recent US Senate investigation revealed that despite efforts to crack down on money laundering, millions of dollars are still funnelled into the US by corrupt foreign officials through US financial institutions, lawyers, lobbyists and other professionals. The report recommended that the Treasury adopt recent World Bank Group/UN Office on Drugs and Crime proposals to strengthen bank scrutiny of so-called politically exposed persons and to require intermediaries to know their customers and check the source of their funds and wealth. Laws and regulations do matter, but they are not enough if implementation and enforcement dont follow. This requires active participation from private financial institutions as well as gatekeepers, since experience demonstrates that reputational and business risks are not enough to deter the private sector from associating with the corrupt. Fortunately, the recent global financial crisis has spurred the international community to keep the financial system in check and reduce its exploitation by the unscrupulous. During the G-20 summit in September, the worlds leading industrialised and developing economies committed to fight this scourge and reclaim stolen capital for development - an endeavour that puts international financial centres at the front line of the battle. At a time of heightened mistrust of the financial sector worldwide, financial institutions would go a long way in addressing their credibility gap by deepening their commitment to fight corruption. Success will depend on active cooperation between the public and the private sector, along with international organisations and civil society. Financial institutions must become a central part in efforts against theft to ensure there are no financial safe havens for stolen funds. They could begin by taking voluntary initiatives to show they are serious in ensuring that corrupt money stays out of my bank Khaleej Times