The week in Switzerland

A long-awaited distribution plan for the $1.25 billion (SFr2 billion) settlement reached by Swiss banks and Jewish organisations to settle Holocaust era claims was announced this week.

This content was published on September 16, 2000

The plan was put forward in the United States on Monday, more than two years after the accord was reached. It proposes assigning $800 million to cover the claims of Holocaust victims or their heirs who failed to recover assets from dormant Swiss bank accounts.

The remainder of the funds will go to people forced to work as slave labourers in Swiss firms in Germany during the Second World War, as well as to refugees who were turned back at the Swiss border.

Claimants have two months to comment on the proposals.

The Swiss president, Adolf Ogi, was in China this week for a three-day visit to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Switzerland was among the first to recognise Communist China after the 1949 revolution.

Ogi was accompanied by a high-level delegation of businessmen seeking greater access to China’s markets for insurance and watches. China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) dominated the talks Ogi had with the prime minister, Zhu Rongji, and the president, Jiang Zemin.

Zhu called on Switzerland to adopt a "flexible attitude", while Ogi said he hoped Switzerland would be able to approve China’s WTO membership as soon as possible. Only Switzerland and Mexico have yet to approve Beijing’s WTO bid.

Jiang responded to questions about human rights in China by saying his aim "was to feed and clothe 1.2 billion Chinese. Everything else is secondary, because only this can guarantee stability."

The Swiss federal prosecutor, Valentin Roschacher, travelled to Moscow for talks with Russian officials about two cases of alleged high-level corruption involving Swiss firms.

The first involves $62 million in bribes allegedly paid by the Mabetex company to Kremlin officials to secure lucrative renovation contracts. According to a Swiss request for legal assistance, which was leaked this week, the former Kremlin property manager, Pavel Borodin, was the main beneficiary. He has denied the allegation.

The other case concerns the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian airline, Aeroflot. Roschacher’s visit was initiated by the Swiss, who have complained that Russia has been slow to pursue the investigations.

Opec’s decision this week to boost oil exports by 800,000 barrels a day received a lukewarm response in Switzerland.

"The decision will not significantly affect prices," said Rolf Hartl, head of the Swiss Oil Association. Although truckers did not take to the streets as in many other European countries, they appealed to the government to reduce taxes on fuel.

The government on Wednesday pledged to continue holding talks with truckers, but ruled out any cut in the 59 per cent levy on fuel.

Scientists in Geneva also made the headlines this week. The European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) decided to keep its Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider open for another month, after physicists recorded the first measurements of a particle believed to be responsible for all mass in the Universe.

The delay will give the scientists the chance to try to find more proof of the existence of the Higgs-Boson, whose existence was theorised more than 30 years ago. However, it is unlikely they will have enough time to find the proof they need.

Once the LEP is closed down it will be at least five years before a new machine is built and experiments resume, leaving the field open to rivals at the Fermilab in Chicago. The first to identify the Higgs-Boson are likely to be strong contenders for a Nobel prize.

Another Geneva scientist, the astronomer, Michel Mayor, was awarded one of the prestigious Balzan prizes for his achievements in making it possible to detect the first planet around a star other than the Sun.

With all eyes turning to Sydney for the Olympic Games, the Swiss-branch of the Society for Threatened Peoples this week called on the Australian government to give the Aborigines the constitutional right to self-determination.

It also urged the Swiss government not to conclude new economic agreements with Australia, as long as it fails to meet international human rights standards.

But the main attention was reserved to the sports men and women at the games. The Swiss media has been closely following their final preparations for the big event.

The excitement was dampened by two disappointments: the withdrawal due to injury of the 400 metres specialist, Mathias Rusterholz, and the decision by Marc Rosset, Switzerland’s top men’s tennis player, to pull out because of exhaustion.

Rosset and his doubles partner, Roger Federer, were considered contenders for a medal in the tournament, but Rosset’s withdrawal came so late that Switzerland was barred from sending a substitute.

by Malcolm Shearmur

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