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Parliament blocks access to apartheid-era archives

Swiss researchers have not had access to documents concerning Swiss business policy towards South Africa

(Keystone)

The House of Representatives has voted to deny access to company archives for researchers probing Switzerland’s ties with apartheid-era South Africa.

The move comes just two months after the government limited access to federal archives on bilateral ties with the white regime in Pretoria between 1948 and 1994.

The House rejected a proposal by a Green Party parliamentarian, demanding access for researchers to both public and private documents.

“Hardly a month goes by without learning new things about the links between Switzerland and the apartheid regime,” said Pia Hollenstein. “Outside pressure forces us to be transparent.”

Restricted access

However, opponents said they were satisfied with the current restrictions.

"This initiative wants to changes the rules of the game while it is underway," said Jean-Paul Glasson of the Radical Party.

"We should let current studies run their course and avoid a continual repetition of historical investigation."

Alexander Baumann of the rightwing Swiss People's Party said the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, was also against raking up the past.

"Mbeki stated publicly that he wanted to concentrate on today's issues and not let discussions in other countries upset the process of reconciliation in South Africa," he said.

Lawsuits

Since the end of apartheid, questions have repeatedly been asked about the relationship between the former South African regime and Switzerland.

In April, the government blocked access to federal documents concerning apartheid-era South Africa which named Swiss businesses.

It said the decision was taken to protect Swiss companies facing class-action suits in the United States.

Nine Swiss companies – including the banks UBS and Credit Suisse, as well as Novartis and Nestlé – are among a group of international firms targeted by class-action lawsuits filed by victims of the former South African regime.

They are accused of propping up apartheid and discriminating against black employees.

Two US lawyers, Michael Hausfeld and Ed Fagan, filed the suits against 20 banks and multinationals last November.

They are seeking damages on behalf of thousands of victims of apartheid, claiming that the firms bear direct responsibility for some of the personal injury suffered.

However, the South African government does not support the lawsuits and Mbeki has stated publicly that legal action is not the right way forward.

Academic ties

The federal archives were opened in May 2000 as part of a national research programme into relations between Switzerland and South Africa during the apartheid era.

The three-year programme has made relatively little headway because of Swiss companies’ reluctance to open their archives to scrutiny.

The investigation, organised by the Swiss National Science Foundation, is scheduled to finish this year and a full report is expected in 2004.

swissinfo with agencies


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