Within a half hour of Mubarak’s resignation on Friday, Switzerland had acted.
“I can confirm that Switzerland has frozen possible assets of the former Egyptian president with immediate effect,” a Swiss government spokesman told Reuters, without saying more.
Later in the day, a Geneva-based news site said an “estimated CHF3.6 billion [$3.7 billion] in assets that may have been deposited by Hosni Mubarak and those close to him were frozen within 30 minutes of the announcement of his resignation.”
The speed of Switzerland’s move was striking. And it was the best news to those in Egypt who’ll be hunting for Mubarak’s treasures. And yet, we thought, how much more important if Switzerland’s announcement had come a month earlier. Or even a year earlier, or a decade.
To its credit, Switzerland isn’t looking for excuses these days to hold back. On a single day last month, the country’s federal council froze suspected assets of Tunisia’s deposed president and the incumbent of Ivory Coast who lost an election but refused to go. The Swiss president, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said then that the asset freezes were intended to “encourage” the countries to seek help in possible criminal cases against the men.
Swiss policy has given corruption fighters plenty to cheer about. Still, it takes a revolution, coup, or similarly cataclysmic event before the Swiss and others will act against self-enriching rulers. So the question is, will the time ever come for preemptive action? For the freezing of assets while the incumbent still sits on the throne, otherwise undisturbed?
The question is crucial. Once corrupt rulers lose access to their plundered wealth, they lose a major source of their illegitimate power. Money not only talks, it keeps rulers in office long after they’ve gone stale. Loot fuels patronage. It buys loyalty and, of course, anti-personnel hardware. Take away the offshore billions and suddenly the emperor has no clothes.
Preemptive asset freezes would trigger regime changes and potential shifts in regional balances of power. That’s too much blowback for Switzerland or other individual countries to risk, unless they’re acting according to international norms and expectations.
Right now, no one can say for sure whether grand corruption violates international law. Some academics, diplomats, and politicians argue that yes, according to the Rome Statute, grand corruption is a “crime against humanity” and therefore within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in the Hague. That, however, isn’t the public consensus within the international community. And until it is, countries aren’t likely to act preemptively to freeze the ill-gotten gains of leaders who are still in charge.