- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

In a landmark decision, the Swiss Supreme Court has decided to free the bulk of the assets of the late Nigerian President Sani Abacha that were secured and blocked in Switzerland. This decision opens the way for the Swiss government to immediately return more than $450 million to Nigeria. Finding that these funds are of obvious criminal origin, they can now be handed back against the will of Mr. Abacha’s family and even without a Nigerian court decision. The Swiss ruling facilitates the rapid repatriation of the assets to an aggrieved country and its people, and is to be regarded as progressive by international comparison.

Switzerland is the first country to return Abacha funds to their rightful owners. Indeed, the Abacha ruling by the Supreme Court is bound to be a leading case beyond Switzerland in showing the way to other countries how to be even faster and more effective in returning assets of criminal origin to their rightful owners. It is my hope that the repatriation of the stolen assets will be understood as a clear sign that crime does not pay.

Switzerland’s policy of prompt and effective repatriation is meant to be an active support to foreign governments in their efforts to fight crime and in improving good governance. In more general terms, politically exposed persons (PEPs) who illegally enrich themselves at the expense of the state, most notably in poor regions and developing countries, and invest such assets abroad do not only perpetrate criminal acts; they also undermine the efforts of their own country and the international community to combat poverty and create the necessary environment for sustainable development. Moreover, the presence of illicit assets of PEPs poses a serious threat to the integrity of many of the world’s major financial centers. Like other big financial centers, Switzerland has not been immune to this threat, and has been misused for criminal purposes in the past. As a result, in recent years, my country put an even more comprehensive range of legal instruments and measures in place for turning away assets of criminal origin and for identifying, blocking and returning them.

The latest Supreme Court ruling confirms that Switzerland’s financial center does not provide a safe haven for illegal money. On the contrary. It proves that Swiss banking secrecy law does not apply to assets of criminal origin. It is not an obstacle to the investigation of criminal acts and to international efforts to combat crime.

The Abacha ruling and other cases further show that Swiss measures take effect in all stages involving illicit assets, i.e., prevention, identifying, freezing and returning of such assets. Swiss legislation and policy are aimed at handing back illicit assets to their rightful owners. Where monies have been stolen from the public purse, they will be returned to the country from which they have been withheld.

Switzerland believes that the issue of asset repatriation is of concern for international financial centers and developing countries alike. Cooperation among the financial centers — and between them and the developing countries — must be strengthened. There is also an urgent need to combat the causes of illegal capital flows, in particular corruption in the countries of origin. Combating corruption and the principle of the return of the proceeds of corruption are high priorities of Swiss foreign policy. Switzerland played an important role in the development of the 2003 U.N. Anti-Corruption Convention, which enshrined the principle of the obligation to return the proceeds of corruption to the lawful owners. The recent decision of the Swiss Supreme Court contributes to strengthening the practice of restitution — a practice, which, regrettably, has not yet become internationally established.

If progress is to be achieved in combating the phenomenon of illicit assets, more international co-operation at a variety of levels will be required. My country is open and committed to conducting an international dialogue at different levels, to developing relevant recommendations and best practices to deal with the question of the illegal assets of politically exposed persons and to making the return of these funds established international practice.

Micheline Calmy-Rey is Switzerland’s foreign minister.

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