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.