Historically, a Swiss bank has been the bank of choice for corrupt leaders wanting to hide money. The reality is quite different today. Just ask Tunisia’s ousted strong man Ben Ali, deposed Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich, or the relatives of deceased former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier, of the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, or of Hosni Mubarak, the recently passed Egyptian president. All believed money stolen from their nations’ citizens was safe in a Swiss bank.
At the time, they were not wrong. Dating back to when its secrecy rules protected the wealth of France’s Catholic kings from the prying eyes of nosey Protestant journalists, Swiss law permitted banks to take money with few questions asked and sanctioned those disclosing information about an account or its holder. Strict bank secrecy laws gave the Swiss financial industry an enormous advantage over other financial centers; it’s one reason why today financial services plays an outsized role in the Swiss economy — accounting for 10 percent of the GDP, twice the average of other OECD nations.
As the Duvaliers, Abachas, and Murabanks of the world learned to their chagrin however, over the past decade Swiss policy has made a sharp U-turn. Despite the weight of history and tradition, and the economic interest of so many Swiss citizens, current Swiss policy not only no longer condones the deposit of stolen assets in its banks, it now demands that banks and others in the financial services industry come to the aid of governments searching for money stolen by former rulers and cronies. No other nation today goes to such lengths to help countries recover stolen assets.
Swiss lawyers François Membrez and Matthieu Hösli document this extraordinary change in Swiss policy in How To Return Stolen Assets: The Swiss policy pathway. Just published by the Geneva Centre for Civil and Political Rights, the two explain how Swiss asset recovery law has turned Switzerland from the destination of choice for stolen funds into the least hospitable jurisdiction in the world. The paper is an essential guide to Swiss law on asset recovery and provides a blueprint for other nations wanting nothing to do with stolen assets.