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Switzerland needs to step up work to curb illicit financial flows – UN expert

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GENEVA / BERN (4 October 2017) – The Swiss Federal Government has taken steps to curb illicit financial flows over the past few years, but more remains to be done to tackle issues including an ongoing risk of money-laundering, a UN expert has said at the end of his first official visit to the country.

“Progress has been achieved, but further efforts are necessary to make sure that dirty money stemming from tax evasion and corruption is not entering the Swiss financial market,” said Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights.

“Illicit financial flows undermine the rule of law and human rights. In particular, they reduce the ability of developing countries to finance essential public services, such as health care, education and basic social security schemes,” he added.

Illicit financial flows are a global problem affecting developed as well as developing countries. They are facilitated by weak institutions and lack of good governance in countries of origin and financial opacity in countries of destination.

“Despite significant efforts in adopting legislation and improving procedures to detect suspicious transactions, the risk that the Swiss financial market is used for money laundering remains,” said Mr. Bohoslavsky.

“This is particularly highlighted by the involvement of several Swiss banks in the Petrobas corruption scandal and in the suspicious cash flows linked to the Malaysian sovereign fund 1MDB. It is especially troubling that these events are not from years ago – the money was still being accepted until quite recently.”

The expert underlined that criminal sanctions in Switzerland for assisting foreigners to evade taxes remained relatively weak. “Criminal liability only arises if the tax evaded in a foreign jurisdiction exceeds 300,000 CHF,” he noted.

Mr. Bohoslavsky said the staffing, resources and powers of the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA) needed to be proportional to the size of the Swiss financial market, and those who infringed standards needed to be named to ensure individual corporate accountability.

“In my view there is a clear political will of the Government to return stolen assets to the legitimate owners,” he added. “Since 1986, $2 billion of illicit assets belonging to authoritarian rulers have been returned.  In this respect I would like to encourage other countries to follow the good example of Switzerland.”
Favourable tax arrangements have made it attractive for multinational corporations to establish their headquarters in Switzerland, but have provided incentives for profit-shifting, affecting tax revenues in foreign countries, he noted.

“I call upon the Swiss authorities to carry out a social and human rights impact assessment of the proposed corporate tax reform package, which should include an analysis of how the reforms will impact on tax revenues available for the realization of economic and social rights within Switzerland and for individuals living abroad, in particular in developing countries,” Mr. Bohoslavsky added.

The expert welcomed the Government’s adoption of a National Action Plan for implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights last December, but said the plan proposed few regulatory measures to improve business respect for human rights and no particular action points related to the Swiss financial sector.

“In my view there is a need to develop a common understanding of and more consistency in what it means to include human rights due diligence in the financial sector,” the expert said. “Discussions between major international banks, including UBS and Credit Suisse in the Thun Group are helpful in achieving this. This should be complemented by a banking sector agreement on responsible business conduct between the Government, Swiss banks and human rights organizations.

“I welcome the fact that an increasing number of banks and pension funds in Switzerland have decided to make respect for human rights a criterion for their investment decisions and would like to encourage other institutional investors to follow this trend,” the expert concluded.

Mr. Bohoslavsky, who visited the country at the invitation of the Swiss authorities, met State officials, including representatives of various Federal Departments and other public institutions. He also held meetings with leaders in the banking, financial and trading sectors, civil society and academic experts. The meetings took place in Bern, Basel, Geneva and Zurich.

His findings and key recommendations will be presented in a comprehensive report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018.


Read the expert’s full end-of mission statement.

Mr. Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky (Argentina) was appointed as Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council on 8 May 2014.  Before, he worked as a Sovereign Debt Expert for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) where he coordinated an Expert Group on Responsible Sovereign Lending and Borrowing. His mandate covers all countries and has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 34/3.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights country page: Switzerland

For more information and media requests please contact:
Frédérique Bourque (+41 22 917 9946) or Gunnar Theissen (+41 22 917 9321), or write to ieforeigndebt@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Bryan Wilson – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9826 / mediaconsultant2@ohchr.org)  

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