An Op-Ed by Professor Mark V. Vlasic: The “Evil” Swiss Banker?

When I joined the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative, a joint World Bank-United Nations initiative to help recover stolen assets from past dictators and grand corruption cases, I figured my first target would be the “dirty”/“evil” Swiss banker. Made famous from Bond films, the Da Vinci Code, and of course—litigation regarding the Holocaust and so-called “Nazi Gold”—much of my views of Switzerland as a “safe haven” for illicit assets were well established based upon portrayals in the media. As the first head of operations at StAR Secretariat, then, I was ready to take on the challenge of Swiss stonewalling on asset recovery. It was much to my surprise, however, when I met my first senior Swiss officials—Ambassadors Valentin Zellweger and Paul Seger (at a conference in Switzerland focused on kleptocracy and asset recovery), they were not only pleasant and open—but pro-active and enthusiastic about the Swiss role in stolen asset recovery.

Indeed, it is due to the tireless work of such public servants that the Swiss government has played an important role in asset recovery cases in recent years. For example, by working with Haitian and StAR officials, the Swiss were able to secure an order to return millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains from former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a kleptocrat who allegedly funded his lavish lifestyle with illicit assets from his time in power. The Swiss government froze millions in assets and, through a special law devised with “out of the box” thinking to help solve some of the challenges of asset recovery—the Return of Illicit Assets Act (RIAA)—Swiss officials helped pave the way to returning millions of Duvalier’s illicit funds to its rightful owners: the nation and people of Haiti.

After the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Swiss officials worked with other public servants, including those from StAR, to help the Tunisian government to recover two executive jets, worth an estimated US$30 million, linked to the family of ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Switzerland also quickly froze over $60 million in funds held in Swiss bank accounts linked to the Ben Ali family. In addition, to deter banks from enabling such corruption and asset theft, the government reprimanded and fined three major Swiss banks for improperly handling accounts belonging to family and close friends of Ben Ali. And these are not one-off cases. According to Swiss officials working on asset recovery matters, Switzerland has helped return nearly $1.7 billion to countries affected by graft or corruption.

Edmund Burke once opined that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing.” Thus, whatever the perceptions may be, I am pleased to have learned that are good men (and women)—public servants on both sides of the Atlantic, in the United States, and in Switzerland—doing their part to fight the evils associated with illicit assets and grand corruption. Let there be more, and let them all be recognized.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, worked on the Haiti/Duvalier asset recovery team while serving as head of operations of the World Bank’s StAR Secretariat. A former White House Fellow to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Slobodan Milosevic prosecution team member, he served as international legal adviser to the Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery team, and leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.

An Op-Ed by Professor Mark V. Vlasic: Stolen History: Why we Should Care about Saving Syria’s Antiquities?

Art is often a forgotten victim of wars. As the toll of human suffering builds, worrying about the fate of paintings, sculptures, and antiquities might seem frivolous, even callous. But there is good reason to care about preserving culture both in conflict and after — and there are plenty of proponents of this view, including among governments. For instance, the upcoming movie Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, tells the true story of the group of individuals tasked by the U.S. government during World War II with finding art stolen by the Nazis and returning it to the rightful owners.

Today, a new conversation about how to protect the priceless when people are trying to survive is playing out, this time with regard to war-torn Syria. At a gathering this fall in New York, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the U.S. Department of State, and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced the publication of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects, which aims to prevent the transport and trade of Syria’s invaluable cultural goods.

Syria is rich with ancient and medieval treasures: Greek and Roman cities, Byzantine villages, Bronze and Iron Age sites, centuries-old castles, and ornate Islamic art and structures. But the State Department says that nearly 90 percent of these invaluable historical sites and objects are within areas of conflict.

Much like the Nazis, looters have taken note and ruthlessly pillaged Syrian cultural sites, seeking to sell treasures on the black market. Just last spring, a cobble-stone, columned street built by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the city of Apamea was plundered and damaged. Architectural gems have also fallen prey to armed conflict. In April 2013, the nearly 1,000-year-old minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque collapsed during an intense battle.

With these problems becoming more serious, the Red List is an initiative that notifies law-enforcement personnel, customs inspectors, art dealers, auction houses, and museums around the world of the types of pilfered objects that may be on the market and moving through legitimate shipping channels.

Speaking at one of America’s premier sanctuaries for cultural heritage, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard explained that the Red List includes nearly every object imaginable, such as ancient writings, vessels, coins, stamps, sculptures, and accessories. Giving notice helps prevent stolen objects from becoming ill-gotten spoils of war.

Red Lists have been created before for other countries. In the past five years, lists have helped French officials identify and recover cultural goods from Iraq and Togo. In 2007, Switzerland stopped the illegal online sale of a cuneiform tablet, one of the earliest examples of written language, thought to have been smuggled out of Iraq. More recently, U.S. customs inspectors recovered and returned stolen Afghan items, including a Roman wine pitcher, taken by looters. ICOM envisions the Red List for Syria will lead to similar success stories.

The rationale behind the Red List, however, extends beyond a desire to keep things where they belong. Indeed, there are other important reasons to protect Syria’s historical gems.

The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

The Red List is also part of a larger project to combat corruption and poor governance that benefits from illicit commerce, which the World Economic Forum estimates might include up to 15 to 20 percent of annual global trade. Illicit trade networks, which facilitate the exchange of trafficked persons and wildlife, ill-gotten funds, and cultural objects, also allow corrupt leaders and officials to retain and grow their power. And the need for international cooperation to combat regional and global illicit trade is paramount.

This is the reason that, halfway around the world from New York, political leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Pathfinder Dialogue in Bangkok met almost simultaneously to the Red List gathering. On the APEC agenda was a discussion of the global fight against illicit trade and corruption. Dialogue participants shared their best practices and agreed to support the drafting of new international documents and investigations to combat illegal commerce.

Together, the Pathfinder Dialogue and the Red List demonstrate the importance that the international community places on preserving art and artifacts. And as Monuments Men shows, this support is nothing new.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then supreme allied commander in Europe, took a particular personal interest in protecting, preserving, and repatriating cultural property in World War II. Led by American and British soldiers, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the Allied military effort included a collection of 345 men and women from 13 countries who recovered thousands of stolen artworks between 1943 and 1951, including works by Johannes Vermeer, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.

Their efforts to protect and preserve Europe’s cultural history — now on display in the great museums of Europe — are a living legacy to those striving to protect Syria’s cultural relics. Much like our collective efforts in the 1940s helped preserve the foundation of European cultural identity, preventing looters and illicit markets from robbing Syria of its past will protect an important component of the country’s future, peaceful identity.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, served as head of operations of the World Bank’s StAR Secretariat. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Slobodan Milosevic prosecution team member, he served as international legal adviser to the Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery team, and leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.

Thousands of Protesters Gather Outside Stockholm to Rally Against Racism

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Thousands of Swedish citizens gathered in the streets of Stockholm on Sunday in an effort to protest widespread racism, in response to a neo-Nazi attack on a similar rally held last weekend.

Neo-Nazi’s attacking demonstrators back on December 15th. (Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Last weekend, approximately thirty neo-Nazis attacked an anti-racism demonstration in the Stockholm suburb of Karrtorp by throwing bottles and firecrackers at the protestors. Scuffles quickly ensued, and two people were stabbed, while twenty-six of the neo-Nazis were detained by police officers.

Organizers of Sunday’s protest suggest that over 16,000 protestors participated in the rally. The protestors could be heard chanting requests for fellow citizens such as, “End racism now”, and “No racists on our streets.” Several Swedish musicians and politicians were on hand. The musicians performed on a stage assembled on a football field. The politicians represented both the current-ruling center-right coalition and the center-left opposition.

“I want to contribute to a broad revulsion against Nazism and racism. Last week’s attack was sad. The lesson learned is that the fight for the equal value of all humans must carry on, or we won’t manage the fight against xenophobia,” Swedish Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag stated.

Sweden has seen a rise in support for the far right Anti-Immigration party as immigration has grown. These Swedish Democrats have reached roughly ten percent in the polls ahead of a parliamentary election next year. Stockholm experienced the worst riots in years this past May in mostly-impoverished immigrant Stockholm suburbs, as youths threw rocks at police officers and set cars on fire for over a week.

Sections of Karrtorp, which does not have a particularly large immigrant population compared to other areas of the city, were sprayed-painted with swastikas and Nazi slogans in response to last week’s protest.

Similar lower-key anti-racism rallies were held in support at several other Swedish cities on Saturday and Sunday.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Thousands Rally Against Racism in Sweden – 23 December 2013

Haaretz – After neo-Nazi Attack, Thousands Rally in Sweden Against Racism – 23 December 2013

The Local – Anti-Racism Rally Attracts Thousands in Stockholm – 22 December 2013

Reuters – Thousands of Swedes Rally Against Racism – 22 December 2013