Saturday, December 05, 2009

On minarets and Nazi gold

Jon Stewart's The Daily Show has a superb nine-minute clip about Switzerland's recent referendum leading to a ban on new building of minarets. This inset picture has been plastered all over Switzerland for months. One might ask: what does this have to do with tax justice? Well, it's about Switzerland, of course. But it's more directly relevant than that.

Watch the clip. (sorry, the embed code doesn't seem to work.) Not only is it extremely funny, but the second part of it (starting about five minutes in) involves Daily Show comedian John Oliver interviewing Peter Maurer, Switzerland's ambassador to the United Nations. Leaving aside the toe-curling comedy involved, this has to be one of the most robust and penetrating interviews of a Swiss public official in a long time, asking directly and unashamedly where Switzerland really stands on the subject of its neutrality and its related long-standing welcome for dirty money, with not only a blind eye resolutely turned, but a welcoming hand extended, to some of the last century's greatest evil. There is not much Maurer can do but squirm.

Switzerland contains many, many fine people, and a very substantial section of its population hates all this bank secrecy and throwing of open arms towards the tides of dirty money. And a very substantial part of the electorate -- a minority, unfortunately -- voted against the minaret ban. But it is necessary, as this clip does, ceaselessly to expose the shameful history of the Second World War, which is routinely covered up by one pernicious false myth in particular - that Swiss bank secrecy was something to do with protecting Jewish money from the Nazis.

On this subject, it's worth repeating in full TJN's letter this year in the Financial Times

Swiss secrecy laws had nothing to do with the Nazis
March 26 2009

From Mr Bruno Gurtner.

Sir, Your correspondent writes, in his article about Swiss bank secrecy (“A vault unlocked”, March 24), that Swiss secrecy laws “date back to 1934, when they were enacted partly to protect German Jews and trade unionists from the Nazis”. This is a big myth. The argument about it being set up to protect Jewish money first appeared in the November 1966 Bulletin of the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (today Credit Suisse). The main reason bank secrecy was strengthened in 1934 was a scandal two years earlier, when the Basler Handelsbank was caught in flagrante facilitating tax evasion by members of French high society, among them two bishops, several generals, and the owners of Le Figaro and Le Matin newspapers. Before that, there was professional secrecy (such as exists between doctors and their patients), and violation was a civil offence, not a criminal one as it is today. Swiss bank secrecy has always been an effective way to attract foreign money.

Many Swiss people are delighted that our country is going to stop blocking the exchange of information with other jurisdictions and will now follow Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development standards. For Switzerland this is a huge step. Other important steps must follow, to tackle other loopholes in the offshore world, such as those provided by British trusts and by other damaging facilities offered in Britain’s Crown Dependencies.

Bruno Gurtner,
Chair of the Global Board,
Tax Justice Network,
Bern, Switzerland"

And if you want more details about this appalling history, which is mentioned but deftly played down and distorted in several Swiss public museums that this blogger has visited, read Tom Bower's Blood Money: The Swiss, the Nazis and the looted billions.

May this history never be forgotten.


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