Update: 18.02.2009

Green light for the return of the frozen Duvalier assets

The assets of former Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier which have been frozen in Switzerland are to be handed over to Haiti. The lawful origin of the assets could not be proven by the account holders (the family Duvalier). This was announced by the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) in a statement on 12 February 2009. The assets, worth some CHF 7 million, will now be used for development projects for the benefit of the Haitian population. Appeals against this ruling may be lodged with the Swiss Federal Criminal Court within 30 days.

Failure in Swiss legislation

The FOJ decision is based on "a certain juridical pottering", said law professor Mark Peith after the February 2009 decision. Already in May 2007, Ambassador Paul Seger, head of the Swiss foreign ministry's international law division, deplored the situation. Seger said the law should be modified so the assets can go directly to the affected nations, if it can be shown that their judicial system’s failure to act is related to a dictator’s politics. Swiss NGOs working on issues related to dictators’ assets welcomed this statement.

Switzerland pays great attention to the problem of dictators' illicit gains, and it would have been the first time Switzerland had to directly return frozen assets to a political leader and not to the afflicted country – a “politically and morally very unsatisfying situation”. And this, because of a failure in the Swiss judicial system. Swiss and Haitian NGOs had called for immediate action: it was unacceptable that a flaw in the Swiss legal system could allow dictators, their families and corrupt government officials to commit human rights abuse and abscond with public funds, they said.

Finally, discussions were more serious at the Swiss Parliament. The so-called Postulate Gutzwiller suggested the idea of having a law that apply for judicial assistance also in case of "failed states". On 5 December 2008, the Swiss Federal Council announced that the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs was to elaborate a legal project that should allow to confiscate illegal assets of politically exposed personalities in order to restituate them to the population of their country of origin.

Epilogue of a 20 years old series

Jean-Claude Duvalier, former Haitian dictator, fell from power and fled the island in 1986. He is accused of having taken 100 million dollars illegally from his country – one of the poorest in the world. According to informed NGOs, Haiti's foreign debt is to 1.4 billion dollars, of which 45% stems from Duvalier's dictatorship. Several accounts were identified in Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich. The Haitian justice system was not able to present any formal evidence of criminal wrong-doing relating to the assets of Duvalier. From there, began a twenty years long story, with ups and downs, until the Federal Office of Justice was able to decide the restitution of the CHF 7.6 million assets, on 12 February 2009. Here are a few steps:

  • In June 2002, the Swiss government seized the assets.
  • Twice, the Swiss government renewed the freezes on the assets. On 3 June, 2007, the CHF 7.6 million was reluctantly been returned to the Duvalier clan. The Federal Constitution does not enable the government to hold funds after such a ruling. On 30 May 2007, developments in the canton of Geneva were so that a Swiss lawyer, who acts on behalf of two Haitians, obtained an order from the court blocking one of Duvalier's Swiss accounts. Negotiations  between lawyers and Duvalier’s family to use part of the dictator’s fortune for state-approved projects in Haiti were to begin. On 1 June 2007 the Swiss government decided to extend a freeze on his bank accounts for a further three months, and on 22 August for another 12 months. During this period the foreign ministry would try to resolve the situation with the Duvalier family and Haiti's government: the aim is to find a favourable solution for the Haitian people concerning the money. Switzerland pays great attention to the problem of dictators' illicit gains
  • On 20 July 2007, Swiss and Haitian NGOs had written to the Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis to ask him to start criminal procedures against Jean-Claude Duvalier.
  • Early July 2008, the Duvalier assets were frozen once more, as part of resumed judicial assistance proceedings.

The Coalition of Swiss NGOs for the restitution of the Swiss Duvalier assets to Haiti welcomed this decision, as well as the decision by the Haitian Government to finally make the application. It opens the door to the trial of the former dictator, they wrote in their press release. The Coalition also said it will continue to fight impunity and make sure assests hidden in Switzerland will be returned in a transparent manner. 

NGO documentation

  • Fonds Duvalier, un premier pas contre l'impunité
    Press release by the Berne Declaration homepage in French by the coalition of Swiss NGOs (no longer available)

FOJ press releases

Parliament documentation

On swissinfo

    Further information

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