A new book exposes the dark history of gold laundering in Switzerland and the modern challenge of cleaning up a lucrative industry. This is the story of the Alpine nation’s dominance over global gold trade.
Written by Swiss anti-corruption watchdog Mark Pieth, Gold Laundering – the dirty secrets of the gold trade and how to clean up shines a light on the key players in the gold industry, the different risks associated with large-scale versus artisanal mining, and the shortcomings of various international regulations and certification schemes.
How did we get here? In a discussion with swissinfo.ch, Pieth explained the history of how Switzerland came to be at the heart of a highly profitable but opaque trade. These are some of the key historical moments in the Swiss gold story, according to him.
World War II – Swiss neutrality and Nazi gold
It is a dark chapter of history for which Switzerland has not been judged kindly.
Pieth says that Switzerland benefited from its neutrality during World War II by purchasing vast amounts of gold from Allied and Axis powers. It exchanged the precious metal for Swiss francs, the only free convertible currency at the time outside the American dollar. This trade benefitted Germany in particular, effectively turning Switzerland into an enabler of the German war effort. The Swiss acquired 79% of all German gold delivered to foreign countries, with 90% of that ending up in the Swiss National Bank and the remainder in commercial banks. It is believed that Swiss banks bought CHF1.7 billion ($1.7 billion) worth of Nazi gold, including gold that Germany plundered from the reserves of conquered countries, notably Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway. Some of this gold was confiscated from private persons or removed from victims of concentration camps. After the war, the burning question was how much Switzerland knew about the gold and when. The Alpine nation agreed to pay reparations worth CHF250 million and also promised to identify dormant accounts which were heirless.
“The Swiss were the principal bankers and financial brokers of the Nazis, handling vast sums of gold and hard currency… Neutrality collided with morality; too often being neutral provided a pretext for avoiding moral considerations.” – Stuart Eizenstat, US attorney and diplomat who served as US Undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade.
Gold trade hub boosts apartheid regime in South Africa
Pieth also points out that gold trade was crucial for the survival of the South African apartheid regime. When the London Gold Pool (a gold trading hub) folded in 1968, three Swiss banks seized the opportunity to create the Zurich Gold Pool. Banks UBS, Credit Suisse and SBV (the Swiss Bank Corporation) convinced South Africa to market its production through Zurich in what became known as the “South African coup.” In addition to selling arms to South Africa, Switzerland marketed the internationally sidelined nation’s gold and diamonds. Close to 80% of the gold imported from South Africa during the 1980s was re-melted and stamped with a Swiss quality seal by refineries established by the commercial banks.
Pieth notes in his book that the former chairman of the Swiss National Bank, Fritz Leutwiler, saved South Africa from bankruptcy by helping restructure its public debt. Fear of being held to account for supporting apartheid led Switzerland to stop publishing official trade statistics on gold from 1981.
“It appears that commercial banks and officials in Switzerland were acting as gold launderers during one of the most delicate and morally dubious times in history,” concludes Pieth.
This was a crucial moment for the development of the Swiss refinery industry, he adds, as each of the three commercial banks in the Zurich Gold Pool acquired or created its own gold refinery. The practice of re-melting and re-stamping problematic gold was repeated when the Dubai-based refinery Kaloti lost its Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) accreditation because it failed to meet sourcing standards. Refineries certified by the Swiss London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) stepped in to save the Kaloti gold.
Tapping into conflict gold amid genocide in eastern Congo
The Swiss Attorney General established in 2013 that Argor-Heraeus, one of the big four Swiss refineries which used to be owned by the Union Bank of Switzerland (now UBS), had indeed refined several tons of gold from eastern Congo amid a genocide that killed as many as six million people. The refinery was investigated for aiding and abetting in pillage as a war crime on the basis of a complaint presented by the NGO Trial International and material delivered by the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC. The Attorney General concluded in 2015 that although Argor-Heraeus should have known the origin of the gold (officially declared to originate in Uganda which unlike its neighbour had almost no gold of its own), it did not have actual knowledge. The decision has been criticised as political and raised questions over the line between “turning a blind eye” versus “should have known.”
Murky practices continue
Pieth notes that Switzerland-based refineries today claim that the quantity of problematic gold in their supply chains is negligible even if the risk cannot be entirely excluded. Swiss NGOs such as Public Eye and the Society for Threatened Peoples beg to differ and have done so over multiple reports flagging human rights and environmental issues from Peru to Togo. In his book, Pieth unpacks the problems in the supply chains of refineries Metalor and Valcambi in South America and Africa, highlighting as he goes the limitations of existing due diligence standards and opportunities to interpret existing rules more strictly.
“If only half of what the media and NGOs report is correct, current due diligence standards and especially their implementation needs to be seriously reviewed,” writes Pieth. He believes that Switzerland, home to four of the world’s largest refineries and the importer of up to 70% of the world’s gold, must raise the bar.
Yet the Swiss government has repeatedly been reluctant to adopt stricter regulations on precious metals out of concern for allowing the industry to remain competitive. The main debate about responsible supply chains in Switzerland is whether due diligence requirements need to be made mandatory. This question that could be laid to rest in an upcoming popular vote on the Responsible Business Initiative, which sets out to do just that.
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