October 31, 2012: Swiss banks have prevented over a hundred corrupt Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian, and Tunisian officials from getting their hands on over a billion dollars that was stashed in Swiss bank accounts. This sort of thing didn’t happen in the bad old days. But after decades of pressure, Switzerland has ceased to be the place for dictators to secretly hide the cash they have looted from their countries. In the not-so-distant past a tyrant and his cronies could hide large quantities of cash in Swiss banks, secure in the knowledge that they could use that stolen money to live well if they were forced to flee a rebellion in their homeland.
During the Cold War dictators could play communist nations against Western ones in order to get help to stay in power and guarantee they would have somewhere to flee to in an emergency. The Swiss had long provided neutral and secret diplomatic and banking facilities for the major powers. The Cold War was no different. But once most of the communist governments collapsed in the late 1980s, dictators found they had a lot fewer options. Moreover, the West now had the momentum (with the Soviets gone and the Chinese on the defensive after their bloody crackdown on reformers in 1989) to get an International Criminal Court (ICC) established by the end of the 1990s. Now dictators had fewer places to run and hide and spend their stolen money. The existence of the ICC made it easier to put pressure on countries, especially Switzerland, to force their banks to give up the billions that corrupt officials and dictators stole and stashed there.
There is still some unease about reducing the options for dictators facing rebellion. Now a dictator can no longer jump on his private jet and fly away to comfortable exile. Cornered dictators are more likely to fight to the death. Few will mourn the deceased tyrant but many thousands of their unfortunate subjects and subordinates will perish as well. Faced with this, even the ICC will offer terms and sanctuary can still be found for dictators willing to leave without a bloody resistance. But the huge amounts of stolen money are no longer guaranteed to be waiting when the end comes.
Dictators and corrupt officials (and wealthy tax cheats) everywhere are aware of the new rules and Switzerland is no longer the first choice when one seeks a safe place to hide illegal income. There are plenty of other places to stick dirty money (including some parts of the United States). In light of that many major governments that now have skilled people working full time tracking down illicit accounts wherever they may be. Thus your secret accounts are constantly at risk of exposure and seizure.
Taking this dirty money out of play is important because this money doesn’t just pay for luxurious retirement for bad people, it often pays for terrorism and armed resistance to the new governments established after dictators were driven out. This dirty cash often bankrolls all manner of criminal enterprises. So taking this stuff away from the crooks who stole it is a public service on many levels.
Getting the money back to the country it came from is another matter. Corruption is often still flourishing in the wake of the dictator’s departure. Much is usually made of recovering the stolen cash, “for the people.” In the aftermath of revolution the question often is, exactly which people? If the corruption is not obviously curbed to some degree, the unrest will resume. This, unfortunately, has been an all-too-common pattern. Sometimes the same peacekeepers, now older and wiser, return to the same country to deal with another revolution that went off the rails because of sticky fingers.