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Swiss support drive to recover looted assets

Switzerland says it is no longer a soft touch when it comes to stolen assets

(Ex-press)

Switzerland has backed an international initiative aimed at helping developing countries reclaim billions of dollars of public money stolen by corrupt leaders.

The government said on Tuesday that the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (Star), launched by the World Bank and the United Nations, was an important step in the fight against global corruption.

"The initiative corresponds with Switzerland's view that progress in the freezing, restitution and use of stolen or embezzled assets demands joint action at the international level," the Swiss foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Switzerland is willing to contribute its experience in this area and to collaborate with the World Bank," it added.

Paul Seger, head of the foreign ministry's international law division, told swissinfo that Switzerland had been involved in drafting the plan, which he described as "very timely, necessary and important".

In recent years the Swiss government has been keen to stress that the country is no longer a safe haven for the ill-gotten gains of corrupt dictators, following the introduction of revised banking and anti-money laundering regulations.

Fighting embezzlement

According to the foreign ministry, Switzerland has returned $1.6 billion (SFr1.9 billion) of stolen funds and now sees itself as a model when it comes to fighting embezzlement and repatriating funds.

Among the successes cited by senior Swiss officials are the handover to Nigeria of $700 million linked to former dictator Sani Abacha, and the return to the Philippines of $684 million stashed in Swiss bank accounts by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

But a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank noted that it took 18 years to repatriate the Marcos money and five years for Nigeria to recover cash siphoned off by Abacha.

Launching the intitiative in New York, World Bank President Robert Zoellick stressed the need for developed and developing countries to improve cooperation over the recovery of stolen assets.

"Many developing countries are haemorrhaging money desperately needed to try to support the attack against poverty," he said. "By one estimate, corrupt money flowing abroad from developing countries is estimated at $40 billion a year."

"Baby Doc" Duvalier

Zoellick, who recently took over at the World Bank, added that the institution was in the early stages of working with Haiti to recover funds frozen in Swiss bank accounts linked to the country's former dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Last month the Swiss government extended a freeze on the accounts – said to contain SFr7.6 million – for another year to allow more time for the Haitian authorities to make their case for restitution of the funds. The accounts were orginally blocked in 2002.

"To be successful we have to get the attention of the developed countries and make sure they understand the gravity of the situation," said Zoellick.

"There have been changes in the behaviour of some like the Swiss, who understand that it's not good for the reputation of major financial institutions, to say nothing of countries, to be associated with billions of dollars of stolen funds from corrupt leaders in poor countries."

Anti-corruption treaty

The Star plan also urges countries to ratify the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which entered into force in December 2005 and is the first legally binding global anti-corruption agreement.

Switzerland signed the treaty in December 2003 but has yet to ratify it. Almost 100 nations have already done so.

Seger pointed out that Switzerland was already party to the European Convention on Corruption and had amended its laws to strengthen the fight against corruption in recent years.

"As experience shows, our authorities can already afford criminal assistance in international corruption cases based on existing laws," he said.

"The preparations for the ratification of UNCAC are underway and we understand from the justice ministry, which is in charge of the matter, that they envisage to present the treaty for parliamentary approval next year."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont with agencies

Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative

According to a joint report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank, the global proceeds from criminal activities, corruption and tax evasion crossing borders every year could be worth up to $1.6 trillion.

The report says every $100 million recovered could fund full immunisations for four million children, provide water connections for 250,000 households, or fund anti-retroviral treatment for over 600,000 people with HIV/Aids for a year.

The Star plan recommends that developed countries fund programmes or directly provide developing countries with technical assistance that would enhance the capability of the criminal justice system to prevent asset looting and recover the proceeds of corruption in accordance with internationally accepted legal standards.

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