| by Upul Joseph Fernando

(February 12, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the United States Department of State, Nisha Desai, had wanted to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa during her recent visit to the country. Diplomatic sources revealed that she was carrying a strong message from America to be given to President Rajapaksa. However, Mahinda, who had already got wind of what was coming, had cleverly avoided seeing her.

Though she was unable to deliver the message to Mahinda, there were crucial pointers to what it could have been in the contents of the press conference she held in Colombo on the eve of her departure. She reiterated to senior government officials during the visit about the 'insufficient progress' to address reconciliation and accountability five years after the war. "We are concerned about the worsening situation with respect to human rights, including continued attacks against religious minorities, as well as the weakening of the rule of law and an increase in the levels of corruption and impunity," Biswal told journalists.

US Government representatives, who visited the country before her always talked about human rights, reconciliation, media freedom and the rule of law. Corruption was included among the contentious issues by Biswal for the first time when she addressed the media. Hence, it deserves to be carefully assessed to find out its underlying ramifications. In orchestrating the events leading to the downfall of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Gadaffi in Libya, America used their corruption as its main weapon for attacking their dictatorial regimes.

The Arab Spring factor

During Arab Spring in the Middle East, corruption of despotic rulers of those countries was effectively used as a weapon to bring about their downfall. When America used human rights violations and lack of democratic governance, countries under attack used to mobilize their people to protest against America and take refuge under the shield of nationalism. However, since of late America has learnt that the best way to counter nationalistic fervour stirred up by recalcitrant political leaders in such countries is to use their corruption as a weapon to attack and suppress them. When the common masses in such countries become aware that the leaders they have vowed to protect from American attacks are in reality plunderers and squanderers of their country's wealth, they feel the Americans are justified in trying to expel them from power for the greater good of the people. In such a scenario, people will give their seal of approval for the American actions to get rid of such leaders. In recent times, several media reports revealed details about secret bank accounts of Sri Lankans maintained in Swiss banks. Investments by Sri Lankan individuals, companies, or the Sri Lankan Government in secret Swiss accounts totalled more than 85 million Swiss Francs in 2011. While liabilities listed against Sri Lanka were 44 million Swiss Francs in the same year, official data from the Swiss National Bank show.

Quoted below is a newspaper report describing regulations Swiss Bank Union is contemplating to introduce for restitution of dictators' assets stashed away in their banks to the rightful owners.
"Switzerland has been one of the favourite hiding places for the ill-gotten gains of the world's dictators. The Swiss Government now wants to facilitate the freezing and restitution of this money with a law that will pioneer new standards internationally.

Yet, even new standards will not resolve all the problems, as has become apparent in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Asset freezing

"In 2011, Switzerland was the first country to freeze the assets of Ben Ali and Mubarak after their fall in Tunisia and Egypt. But instead of plaudits, there was criticism because they had their money in Switzerland in the first place," notes Rebecca Garcia, spokesperson for the Swiss Bankers' Association.

In spite of efforts made by the Swiss Government since the 1980 to freeze what have become known as 'dictators' assets' and return them to the countries they were stolen from, international public opinion still has a rather negative perception of Switzerland in this regard because of the long list of despots who have hidden money in Swiss Banks. Following the Arab Spring, it emerged that about a billion francs had been deposited in recent decades in Switzerland by the rulers of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria.

The Swiss Government is aware of this problem. In May this year it put forward for consultation a draft Bill on the 'Freezing and Restitution and Assets of Politically Exposed Persons obtained by Unlawful Means,' which aims to strengthen the current provisions. The political parties and relevant organizations have until mid-September to discuss the Bill, which could become a model internationally, as experts from the World Bank and other institutions have noted."

Recently, UNP Parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella declared in Parliament that about 400 powerful government henchmen have stashed away plundered money in Swiss Bank accounts.

Biswal had included corruption charge against the government, presumably being fully armed with extensive and reliable information about the widespread corruption for which the present government is responsible. If America will intervene for the restitution of wealth plundered by a corrupt government to the rightful owners of such wealth, the people will accept them with open arms and the plundering government and its cohorts will be labelled as traitors.

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