Cross Border Asset Tracing and Recovery: Navigating International Legal Complexities

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In the complex world of global finance, vast sums of money can cross borders instantly, making the pursuit of illicitly acquired wealth both challenging and essential. This is the realm of cross-border asset tracing and recovery, where forensic accountants, legal experts, and international law enforcement collaborate to track money trails left by corruption. 


Asset tracing and recovery involves meticulous analysis of financial records and legal documents, requiring experts to navigate complex international legal systems. Navigating international law’s complexities in asset recovery is challenging, as jurisdictions have varying legal frameworks and cooperation mechanisms. This article explores the strategies, challenges, and successes in cross-border asset tracing and recovery, highlighting its importance and complexities. 



A primary consideration in an asset recovery case is devising an effective strategy to follow the flow of assets from their original form to their current state. This process is crucial to establish the connection between the assets in question and the parties involved.  The general processes and avenues include the following: 



2.1.1.     Asset Tracing: Collection of Intelligence and Evidence. 

Evidence is collected and assets are traced by forensic accountants, law enforcement officers, legal experts’ technology experts (cybersecurity and data analysts), either under the supervision of or in close cooperation with prosecutors, or by private investigators and other parties involved in such actions. Forensic accountants play a pivotal role in collecting intelligence and gathering evidence during an asset tracing process. They meticulously analyse financial records, including bank statements, tax returns, and transaction histories, to trace the flow of funds. By employing sophisticated accounting techniques and software, they can identify patterns and anomalies that suggest the concealment or misappropriation of assets. Their expertise allows them to reconstruct complex financial trails, linking assets to their original sources and uncovering any attempts to obscure ownership. Additionally, forensic accountants may work closely with legal teams to ensure that their findings are presented effectively in court, often providing expert testimony to support their analyses.

Private investigators and legal experts complement the efforts of forensic accountants by employing a range of investigative techniques and legal strategies. Private investigators gather intelligence through methods such as surveillance, public records searches, and interviews with relevant parties. They might track physical assets, such as real estate or luxury items, and document their findings to build a comprehensive picture of the asset trail. 

Legal experts, on the other hand, navigate the complex web of jurisdictional regulations and legal frameworks to facilitate the recovery of assets. They ensure that all collected evidence is admissible in court, leveraging their knowledge of financial laws and regulations to challenge fraudulent claims and secure asset recovery. Together, these professionals create a robust and multidisciplinary approach to asset tracing, maximizing the chances of successfully recovering hidden or misappropriated assets.

Beyond gathering publicly available information and intelligence from law enforcement or other government agency databases, law enforcement can also utilize special investigative techniques. Some of these techniques, such as electronic surveillance, search and seizure orders, production orders, or account monitoring orders, may require authorization from a judge.

2.1.2.     Securing the Assets

Once assets are identified and traced, securing them is a multi-faceted process involving legal action, physical control, and financial safeguards. Legal experts play a crucial role in obtaining court orders, such as freezing orders or injunctions, to prevent the dissipation or transfer of the traced assets. These legal measures ensure that assets remain within the jurisdiction and cannot be further concealed or liquidated. Lawyers work diligently to present compelling evidence to the court, demonstrating the need for immediate action to protect the assets. Additionally, they may engage in negotiations or settlements with the parties involved to secure the voluntary return of assets, thereby avoiding prolonged litigation.

Physical and financial control measures are also implemented to secure the assets. For tangible assets like real estate or luxury items, private investigators or security professionals might be employed to take physical custody or to monitor the assets closely. Financial institutions are notified of court orders to freeze bank accounts and restrict any transactions involving the traced funds. In cases involving digital or electronic assets, cybersecurity experts may deploy measures to prevent unauthorized access or transfers. Throughout this process, continuous monitoring and compliance checks are essential to ensure that the assets remain secure until they can be lawfully returned to their rightful owners. This coordinated approach between legal, investigative, and financial experts ensures the effective protection and eventual recovery of traced assets. 


2.1.3.     International Cooperation

The importance of international cooperation in asset recovery cannot be stressed enough. It is crucial for successfully recovering assets that have been transferred to or hidden in foreign jurisdictions. It is necessary for gathering evidence, implementing provisional measures, and eventually confiscating the proceeds and instruments of fraudulent crime or misappropriation of funds. Through mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) and frameworks established by organizations like INTERPOL, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and the United Nations, countries can share crucial information, financial records, and intelligence. Such cooperation allows for coordinated investigations, enabling authorities to track and recover assets that have been moved across borders to evade detection. Joint efforts help in freezing and confiscating assets in foreign jurisdictions, ensuring that legal actions are respected and enforced globally. 

2.1.4.     Court Proceedings

Courts play a pivotal role in the asset tracing process by providing the legal authority and enforcement necessary to secure and recover assets. They issue critical orders such as freezing orders and injunctions to prevent the dissipation of assets, adjudicate disputes to determine rightful ownership, and enforce judgments to ensure asset restitution. Court proceedings may also involve criminal or Non-Conviction-Based (NCB) confiscation/forfeiture, or private civil actions. These proceedings aim to recover assets through orders of confiscation, compensation, damages, or fines. Confiscation can be either property-based or value-based. Additionally, courts provide essential legal oversight, ensuring that the asset tracing process adheres to legal standards and protects the rights of all parties involved. This authoritative role ensures that asset tracing efforts are legally sound and effective, facilitating the recovery of misappropriated assets. 

2.1.5.     Enforcement of Orders

When a court has ordered the restraint, seizure, or confiscation of assets, steps must be taken to enforce the order. If the assets are located in a foreign jurisdiction, a Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) request must be submitted. Authorities in the foreign jurisdiction may then recognize and enforce the order by either 

a.    directly registering and enforcing the order from the requesting jurisdiction in a domestic court (direct enforcement); or 

b.    obtaining a domestic order based on the facts of the order provided by the requesting jurisdiction (indirect enforcement).



There are various legal mechanisms for pursuing asset recovery. They include the following: 

       Criminal Forfeiture

       Non-Conviction Based [NCB] Forfeiture

       Private Civil Actions, including insolvency process

       Administrative Confiscation/Forfeiture 



The primary difference between Criminal and NCB-asset forfeiture lies in the procedures used to forfeit assets. Criminal forfeiture requires a criminal trial and conviction, whereas NCB asset forfeiture does not. Additionally, there are several procedural differences that generally characterize the two systems.

Criminal forfeiture is an ‘in personam’ order, meaning it is an action against a person. It requires a criminal trial and conviction and is often part of the sentencing process. In some jurisdictions, a lower standard of proof (the balance of probability) is applied for the forfeiture process compared to the criminal portion of the trial. Nevertheless, a criminal conviction necessitates that the government establishes guilt “beyond reasonable doubt” or to the extent that the judge is “intimately convinced.” Criminal forfeiture systems can be either object-based or value-based. In object-based systems, the prosecuting authority must prove that the assets in question are the proceeds or instrumentalities of the crime. In value-based regimes, it is sufficient to forfeit the value of the offender’s benefit from the crime without proving the connection between the crime and specific property.

On the other hand, NCB asset forfeiture, also known as “civil forfeiture,” “in rem forfeiture,” or “objective forfeiture” in some jurisdictions, is an action against the asset itself rather than against an individual. It is separate from any criminal proceeding and requires proof that the property is tainted, meaning it is the proceeds or an instrumentality of crime. Typically, the criminal conduct must be established on a balance of probability standard of proof. This lowers the burden on the government and allows for forfeiture even when there is insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction. Since the action targets the property, the owner, as a third party, has the right to defend it.


Asset concealment involves various techniques used to hide assets from creditors, tax authorities, or legal judgments. These techniques can range from relatively simple strategies to highly complex schemes involving multiple jurisdictions and sophisticated financial instruments. For more enquiries on asset concealment techniques, please send us a mail. 


Some of the key acts in Nigeria’s legislative framework for asset recovery are:

a.    Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] Act 2004

b.    Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offices Commission [ICPC] Act 2000

c.    Nigeria Financial Intelligence Agency Act 2018

d.    Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act 2019

e.    Money Laundering [Prevention and Prohibition Act] 2022

f.      Terrorism [Prevention and Prohibition] Act, 2022

g.    Asset, Tracing, Recovery and Management Regulations 2019

h.    Proceeds of Crime [Recovery and Management] Act, 2022 

With the promulgation of the 2019 Regulations and the 2022 Act, Nigeria’s anti-corruption war, precisely its coverage of the proceeds of crime, has advanced with noticeable vigour. The 2019 Regulations retained all the powers of law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies in their extant laws as it relates to asset recovery. The Regulations also, inter alia, provides for the oversight of the non-conviction based (NCB) forfeiture by the Attorney General as it requires the application of civil procedure in the recovery of specific assets. In addition, the 2019 Regulations recognized the need for agencies to provide details of all seized and forfeited assets to the databank established by the Federal Ministry of Justice. 

The 2022 Act, in its promulgation, provides for an effective legal and institutional framework for the recovery and management of the proceeds of crime. It also provides for a non-conviction based procedure for the recovery of proceeds of crime, including preservation, forfeiture, and management of properties reasonably suspected to have been derived from unlawful activities, confiscation of the proceeds of crime from a convicted person, investigation, searches, and seizures in connection with the recovery of proceeds of unlawful activities. Further to this, the act established a designated account to be known as the ‘Confiscated and Forfeited Properties Account’ to be maintained at the Central Bank of Nigeria and managed by the head of the ‘Relevant Organization’ who shall be responsible for providing reports to the Minister of Finance. 

In terms of specialized legislation, Switzerland’s RIAA (Restitution of Illicit Assets Act) is particularly notable. It targets politically exposed persons, offering a clear and focused framework for recovering assets linked to political corruption. Also, when it comes to mutual legal assistance, Switzerland’s International Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act (IMAC) is highly efficient. It handles requests swiftly and reliably, processing about 1,500 MLA requests annually.

Also, in the United Kingdom, the introduction of Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) by the Criminal Finances Act has significantly bolstered the UK’s asset recovery framework. UWOs compel individuals to explain the origins of their wealth, indirectly facilitating the tracing and recovery of assets. In contrast, Nigeria does not have an equivalent measure, which limits its capacity to address issues of unexplained wealth effectively. Furthermore, the UK benefits from a highly regulated financial sector, which enhances the implementation of asset recovery laws. This regulatory environment ensures greater compliance and enforcement, contributing to the efficacy of asset recovery efforts. Nigeria, on the other hand, faces significant challenges with enforcement and regulatory compliance, which impede the effective recovery of assets.


Asset tracing and recovery are critical components of combating financial crimes, including money laundering, corruption, and fraud. However, the effectiveness of these processes is significantly hampered by jurisdictional challenges, primarily stemming from differences in legal systems across countries. These differences create substantial barriers to international cooperation, complicate the enforcement of laws, and ultimately impact the ability to trace and recover assets. Some of these jurisdictional challenges include:

5.1.         Legal Definitions and Standards

One of the most fundamental challenges arises from the variation in legal definitions and standards. Different countries have distinct legal frameworks that define and regulate asset forfeiture, money laundering, and related offenses. For instance, the threshold for proving a crime, the type of evidence required, and the legal grounds for asset seizure can vary significantly. In some jurisdictions, asset forfeiture is contingent upon a criminal conviction, while others allow for civil forfeiture, which does not require a criminal conviction but relies on the balance of probabilities. These differences can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings when countries attempt to cooperate in asset recovery cases. For example, an asset forfeiture order obtained in one country may not be recognized in another if it does not meet the latter’s legal standards. This lack of harmonization makes it difficult to pursue a seamless, transnational approach to asset recovery.

5.2.         Bank Secrecy and Privacy Laws 

Bank secrecy and privacy laws present another significant jurisdictional challenge. Some countries have stringent bank secrecy laws that protect the confidentiality of account holders and their transactions. Such secrecy laws hinder international cooperation in asset recovery efforts. When one country requests financial information from another, the latter’s privacy laws may prevent the disclosure of this information. In jurisdictions like Switzerland, regardless of the provision of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption [UNCAC] 2003 which prevents the reliance on bank secrecy to prevent mutual legal assistance, Swiss authorities will not lift bank customer secrecy for a foreign investigation unless the conduct under investigation also qualifies as a criminal offence under Swiss law.

While these laws are designed to protect privacy, they can also be exploited to conceal illicit assets. Jurisdictions like Switzerland and the Cayman Islands have historically provided robust banking privacy, making it challenging for foreign authorities to access necessary financial information.

5.3.         Limited International Cooperation and Mutual Legal Assistance 

Effective asset recovery often hinges on international cooperation and mutual legal assistance. However, the process of obtaining assistance from foreign jurisdictions can be fraught with challenges. Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties [MLATs] are intended to facilitate cooperation, but they are often slow and bureaucratic. Requests for legal assistance can take months or even years to process, during which time assets can be further hidden or dissipated. Moreover, political and diplomatic considerations can influence the willingness of countries to cooperate. Some countries may be reluctant to assist in asset recovery efforts if they perceive the requests as politically motivated or if the assets belong to influential individuals or entities. This lack of consistent and timely cooperation undermines the effectiveness of asset tracing and recovery efforts

5.4.         Corruption

Corruption within law enforcement, judiciary, or political systems can significantly hinder asset recovery efforts. Corrupt officials can obstruct investigations, delay legal proceedings, or provide inside information to those hiding assets. This corruption can be pervasive in some jurisdictions, making it difficult to pursue asset recovery effectively.

5.5.         Enforcement of Foreign Judgments 

Enforcing foreign judgments is another significant challenge in the asset recovery process. Even when authorities obtain court orders or judgments for asset recovery, enforcing these across borders can be problematic. One primary issue is the need to ensure that the foreign order complies with the domestic legal framework, which can lead to delays and legal complexities. Additionally, varying standards of evidence, differences in legal definitions, and procedural requirements can create obstacles. Protecting fundamental rights and ensuring that enforcement does not violate national or international human rights obligations further complicate the process. Diplomatic and political considerations can also impact the willingness and ability of states to enforce foreign orders, requiring careful negotiation and cooperation between countries. 




In 2002, a task force was established in Zambia to investigate corruption allegations against the former president Frederick Chiluba and his associates during the period 1991–2001, to assess whether criminal proceedings could be brought, and to determine the best options for recovering assets. The task force comprised of the Zambian Anti-Corruption Commission, Auditor General’s Office, Zambian Financial Intelligence Centre, International investigative firms, domestic & international legal advisors/law firms, and cooperating financial institutions. 


In 2004, the Attorney General of Zambia initiated a civil suit in the United Kingdom to recover funds transferred to London and across Europe between 1995 and 2001, including a residence valued at more than 40 times his annual salary. These proceedings were launched in addition to ongoing criminal proceedings at the time in Zambia. 


The decision for a civil suit in Europe was driven by four factors: 

1.     Most defendants and evidence were in Europe, making European courts more suitable,

2.     Domestic prosecution was often impractical. 

3.     Zambia lacked the agreements and capacity for effective international cooperation. 

4.     London was chosen because most diverted funds were said to have passed through UK law firms and banks, and UK court decisions would be enforceable in Zambia.

The High Court of London found sufficient evidence of a conspiracy to transfer approximately $52 million from Zambia to a bank account operated outside ordinary government business—the “Zamtrop account”—and held at the Zambia National Commercial Bank in London. Forensic experts traced the monies received in the Zamtrop account back to the Ministry of Finance. They also substantially traced the funds leaving the Zamtrop account, and they revealed that $25 million was misappropriated or misused. In addition, the High Court found no legitimate basis for payments of about $21 million made by Zambia pursuant to an alleged arms deal with Bulgaria and paid into accounts in Belgium and Switzerland.


The Court held that the defendants conspired to misappropriate $25 million from the Zamtrop account and $21 million from the arms deal payments. The Court also held that the defendants had broken the fiduciary duties they owed to the Zambian Republic or dishonestly assisted in such breaches. As a result, the defendants were held liable for the amounts and assets corresponding to misappropriated funds. 


This case is a classic example of asset tracking and asset recovery across in and across different countries/jurisdictions.         



In conclusion, the intricate domain of cross-border asset tracing and recovery is a testament to the complexities inherent in the globalized world of finance and law. The journey from identifying concealed assets to their eventual recovery involves navigating a labyrinth of legal frameworks and jurisdictional challenges. Successful asset recovery hinges on a thorough understanding of the diverse concealment techniques employed by wrongdoers and the robust legal strategies necessary to counter them. The processes of asset recovery and forfeiture are critical tools in the fight against financial, demanding a concerted effort from legal practitioners, forensic experts, and international cooperation. The evolving landscape of international law provides a framework that, while challenging, offers pathways to reclaim assets siphoned across borders.

Ultimately, the pursuit of cross-border asset tracing and recovery is a dynamic and ongoing endeavour. As global financial systems continue to evolve, so too must the methods and legal instruments used to protect and recover assets.


For more information on matters related to asset tracing, recovery and other related matters, please send us a mail: [email protected]

Allen and Brooks

Allen and Brooks

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