Is Geneva best known as a hub for international organisations and peace talks, or the role it plays in global corruption and tax scandals?
“For much of the world, International Geneva means a lot of corruption,” Jamil Chade, correspondent for Brazilian newspaper O Estado do Sao Paulo commented recently at a Swiss Press Club discussion amongst journalists on how best to report on the international community in Geneva.
Money-laundering and corruption scandals, often involving illicit bank accounts or property linked to politically exposed people (PEPs) – such as deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier or former Democratic Republic of Congo president Mobutu Sese Seko – have in the past put Geneva in the headlines.
More recently were the cases of stolen bank client data from HSBC’s Geneva branch and whistleblowing information about an undeclared account held by former French budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac.
Chade said about 80% of his reporting from Geneva was linked to corruption stories, where he investigated the financial activities of Latin American “crooks”.
Most recently he has covered the Odebrecht bribery scandal spanning several Latin American countries with funds allegedly deposited in Swiss banks.
Delphine Dezempte, a senior analyst at Alaco, a business intelligence firm that investigates the profiles of public and private individuals, told swissinfo.ch that she had similar impressions.
Lack of transparency
“Even though Geneva has been trying to promote international initiatives, the city remains a place of opaque jurisdiction. Geneva is not always the best in terms of promoting transparency in corporate records, litigation or tax regimes,” she said.
The consultancy Dezempte works for is tasked by Swiss financial institutions and commodities traders to investigate potential clients, in order to comply with Know Your Client (KYC) requirements.
She noted a lack of transparency in the lengthy processes taken prior to freezing of PEP assets – including those of dictators Moammar Gaddafi of Libya and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia – from local banks.
“That clashes with the image Geneva would like to maintain of being an international city welcoming people from different industries around the world.”
That image – packaged by Geneva and Swiss authorities – is to project the city as a centre where governments come to resolve disputes.
Peace talks good for economy
Dozens of international organisations, and hundreds of permanent missions and non-governmental groups are based in the city, and it has been the setting for many peace talks over the years.
The authorities have strong economic incentives to keep them in the city.
According to a 2012 study by the University of Geneva, international organizations, NGOs, missions and consulates spend some CHF3.3 billionexternal link in the canton. And one out of ten jobs is in the sector.
That’s why some find it so important to promote Geneva as an international city.
According to Olivier Coutau, the Geneva government representative to International Geneva, “The name gives a sense of community to all the Geneva-based international actors striving to build a better world. The more they cooperate, the more they share resources, the more efficient they are and the stronger international Geneva is.”