Tax haven whistleblowers: where are the human rights organisations?

December 12th, 2014

This article is cross-posted from the Tax Justice Network‘s blog with their permission. 


We are big fans of human rights organisations, generally speaking, but we’re going to say some uncomfortable things about some of them here.

Yesterday we noted that Rudolf Elmer, the Swiss whistleblower who has been persecuted for years by the Swiss tax haven industry, via the Swiss courts and other arms of Swiss state, collapsed in court during a trial where he is accused of breaking Swiss banking secrecy laws. He has already spent five months in prison and he faces more: read the background here.

The Swiss establishment and media has mostly focused on Elmer the man, rather than the wider issues: many powerful people in rich and poor countries were implicated in the leaks.

Elmer’s case is complex and he has made some mistakes, but ultimately this is the case of a tax haven showing its long claws and sharp teeth and attacking those who bring transparency.

This is troubling enough in itself. But the next question we want to ask is this: where are the human rights organisations on his case?

Why are they not jumping up and down about these issues? Why are they not putting pressure on the Swiss government, and providing moral and material support to Elmer? He has complained privately to us that he cannot get the international support he needs. If there is one kind of organisation that should be engaging on cases like his, it is human rights organisations (and the likes of TJN too, of course, but our resources are pitifully small, and unable to cope with such a project).

Elmer is not the only Swiss tax haven whistleblower. There is Hervé Falciani, who blew the whistle on the financial crimes of HSBC Switzerland, and is now in hiding in Spain: news of renewed persecution emerged today. See this interview to get a flavour. Have human rights organisations weighed in to support him? We don’t think so, but we will also provide them with opportunities to comment and disagree with us (get in touch: write us a guest blog!), and on cases such asChristoph Meili (who exposed appalling Swiss banking Nazi gold crimes) or Bradley Birkenfeld, the UBS whistleblower.

And it’s not just about Switzerland, nor, to be honest, is this just about whistleblowers.

When, for example, did a human rights organisation complain about the fact that the Cayman Islands has a law where you can go to prison not just for revealing confidential private sector information, but merely for asking for it? (And Cayman is far from the worst offender.) When have they taken large accountancy firms to task for their roles in setting up complex schemes that suck billions of dollars in revenues from developing countries, depriving their citizens of basic rights like water and healthcare?

Large human rights organisations (see a long list of large and small ones here) seem to have gone AWOL in the case of many tax haven-related abuses. A few lesser-known groups are, it is true, starting to engage in this field – see our Human Rights webpage for more details of the first flowerings in this area – but the big hitters do not seem to be there yet. We are at the beginning of a long road.

Now here comes the particularly harsh question, and commentary.

Tax havens involve, or are protected by, some of the most powerful countries in the world. SeeBritain’s role here, for instance, or that of the United States.

Human rights organisations are extremely good at criticising the governments of poor countries around the world – and rightly so. But are they prepared to take on the bruisers in the West: to challenge those governments in rich countries that are also substantially funding them?

We at TJN think this is a big test of their mettle.

Take Africa, for instance. Large human rights groups have weighed in very effectively on the looting of that continent, on many occasions. They have even criticised western multinational corporations where they have been complicit.

But have they criticised those countries and law and accountancy firms that are helping shelter the funds looted from Africa? Have they commented widely on the secrecy that breeds political impunity that enables Africa’s wealthiest and most powerful élites to loot their countries and get away with it?

There’s been a bit of it, but we have not yet seen the level of engagement that is now required.  We are confident that it will come: the arguments are, well, unarguable.

In fact, a great opportunity exists here for human rights groups in this terrain, not just by virtue of the rich research and advocacy possibilities.

Governments in poor countries — particularly the repressive ones — tend to have a heavily conflicted relationship with human rights organisations. This is inevitable, and it is in one sense a measure of these organisations’ success in pointing fingers and speaking truth to power.

But it would also be useful for them to find ways to have more collaborative engagements. This agenda – tax havens – could be a way to create a basis for a new kind of relationship with the governments of developing countries. By pointing the finger at tax havens and the rich-world countries that protect them, they may well find that many people in the governments (and societies) of developing countries will start to see the potential for a shared agenda, where the corrupt oppressors aren’t just located in poor countries.

We at TJN have been very successful in changing perceptions of corruption in exactly this way: this was one of the purposes of our Financial Secrecy Index, which was designed to take a more holistic look at the drivers of corruption. (There’s a new book on this coming out soon too.)

In fact, human rights organisations will find instances of oppression and human rights abuses in tax haven after tax haven. Take Jersey, for example, the most British of all tax havens, and the most important single haven to Britain. Here’s an excerpt from a plea made by politicians in Jersey, not so long ago:

““Our island’s ‘justice’ system has become a tool of oppression rather than arbiter of fairness and protection for all ordinary citizens.  Complaints alleging corruption being brought to a number of politicians can now simply no longer be ignored. The reported abuses are as diverse as the members of the public bringing them to us.”

Then, from the press release itself:

“Our Law Office has become the tool of choice for the clique at the apex of power to try to silence and, if necessary, drive from office or ruin those who dare challenge the established order.

This is not bombast. Go to Jersey, speak to financial dissidents, and you will see what we mean. This island feels very British indeed, but under the surface it is a different creature altogether, with a silent stream human rights and other abuses beneath the surface.

There is work to be done here. Whether it is supporting whistleblowers like Rudolf Elmer, of working on UN sanctions, or on an ocean of economic crimes committed around the world, it is time to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in.

Tax justice and human rights: watch this space.

And do read our Human Rights edition of Tax Justice Focus, our newsletter.

Written by Nicholas Shaxson

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