February 18, 2013

Switzerland Checks Mercenaries, Partially

The Swiss government has presented a draft law regulating the private military industry but critics argue the law is toothless.

On Mar. 24 2010, a newly founded holding company was registered in Basel’s commercial register. Its name was Aegis Group Holdings AG. A few months later, on Aug. 2, it was noted that the holding had taken control over the London-based Aegis Defence Services Ltd.

AEGIS describes itself as “a leading private security and risk management company.” As such, it has been providing its services worldwide, including in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The company’s relocation caught the government as well as the public by surprise. More private military companies (PMCs) were expected to move to Switzerland, trying to profit from the country’s political stability, low business taxes and its peaceful and neutral image.

PMCs do not differ legally from any other security provider, and firms active in conflict zones are hard to identify in the commercial register. The Federal Department of Justice and Police estimates that the country is home to 20 such companies.

Switzerland has a long history of sending poor farmers as mercenaries to European battlefields. In the late Middle Ages, Swiss cantons took the role of the brokers. The decline of the mercenary business started in the 18th century and ended with the introduction of Switzerland’s federal constitution in 1848. From 1859 on, fighting on foreign battlefields was no longer permitted.

Thereafter, ‘neutrality’ became a fundamental element of Switzerland’s foreign policy and in a mythologised way a central piece of Swiss collective identity. The arrival of Aegis was seen by many as a threat to the country’s neutrality.

Swiss politicians pushed for establishment of a new legal frame for registration and licensing of private security companies. Josef Lang, then national councillor and a leading voice in the Group for Switzerland without an Army (GsoA) demanded a national ban of PMCs.

Swiss Justice Minster Simonetta Sommaruga announced a national “ban on mercenary companies” on Jan. 23. She said Switzerland would no longer serve as a base for activities that violate human rights. But what was announced as a ‘ban’ turned out to be an ineffectual regulation.

The draft law provides for notification and a ban on certain activities – but not of PMCs themselves. It forbids firms or holding companies based in Switzerland to “directly take part in hostilities within an armed conflict abroad.”

“In plain language, this means that the new law allows so-called security companies to act within armed conflicts abroad and to indirectly take part in hostilities,” says Josef Lang. “Anyone believing that in the heat of the battle anyone will differentiate between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ participation has no clue of today’s wars.”

Ulrich Petersohn, senior researcher at Zurich’s Centre for Security Studies (CSS) says that in international law the definition of ‘direct participation in hostilities’ is vague and subject to debate. “And where does self-defence end?” he asks. “Obviously, there’s a twilight zone.”

Petersohn points to a realistic dilemma: “What applies when a military compound guarded by PMC personnel is attacked?”

The new draft law also bans PMCs from “conducting any activities which encourage the commission of serious violations of human rights.” Josef Lang says: “Does that mean that encouraging light human rights violations is permitted?”

The Green Party politician believes the law cannot force Aegis to leave Switzerland. “They’ll simply promise to not directly take part in hostilities in conflict zones and to do nothing to encourage serious human rights violations.” It remains unclear how Swiss authorities could control mercenaries’ activities on the ground.

Albert A. Stahel, Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies based in the town of Wädenswil near Zurich believes that Switzerland’s attractiveness to foreign PMCs may get reduced, but that those already present will not be constrained. “The Federal Council should have proposed a clear a priori ban of PMCs, thereby clearly stating that we don’t tolerate any companies which take part in wars,” he tells IPS.

Petersohn also does not see significant legal constraints coming up for Aegis. “However, the sharpest weapon of the draft law is that on suspicion, lawsuits can be filed.” Companies are eager to avoid negative publicity, and that could put them under pressure, Petersohn says.

Lang holds up the strict regulation in Norway as example. “Instead of forbidding certain hardly definable activities, it would be more feasible to apply a more controllable criteria. Norwegian companies aren’t permitted to carry weapons in foreign countries.”

At the international level, Switzerland along with the International Committee of the Red Cross had launched a process leading to the ‘Montreux Document’ in 2008. This intergovernmental document signed by 44 states contains a compilation of good practices but is not legally binding.

Unexpectedly, the law proposed by the Swiss government does not stick to the suggested good practices. The Montreux Document advocates measures to guarantee transparency in authorisation such as oversight by parliamentary bodies. The Swiss draft law leaves out all transparency measures.

The law would, though, oblige Switzerland-based PMCs to sign the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICOC-PSP), a self-regulatory framework that 592 PMCs have signed.

Stahel considers this approach useless, because there’s no sanctioning mechanism. Petersohn is hopeful that such codes may lead to development of norms that get some degree of compulsion.

ICOC-PSP primarily serves the image of its signature companies and keeps other service providers at a distance. Petersohn stresses that violations of the code nevertheless risk naming and shaming campaigns.

The Swiss parliament will debate the draft law, but isn’t expected to make it any harsher. “A step in the direction was taken,” says Stahel. “However, the glass is still only half full.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.  

February 5, 2013

Davos Puts Protests Behind

Barbed wire and safety fences are dismantled, the police and army are withdrawn and freedom of movement is restored. The 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ended last month with negligible protests against the ‘global leaders’.

Every year in late January, the Swiss mountain town Davos is temporarily turned into a fortress. On the streets, policemen, soldiers and bodyguards outnumber unarmed citizens by far.

More than 2,500 ‘global leaders’ met in Davos this year “to improve the state of the world.” as the WEF claims. It’s difficult to make much sense of this year’s motto ‘Resilient Dynamism’. Nevertheless, a lot was discussed, much optimism spread but no decisions taken; at least in front of the cameras.

Even though temperatures were frosty, sunshine reigned at this year’s annual meeting. At least from the business perspective, the global economic crisis is receding. “The worst is behind us. The optimism for recovery is there,” Axel Weber, chairman of the board of directors of the scandal-ridden bank UBS proclaimed.

Meanwhile Davos mayor Tarzisius Caviezel couldn’t stop raving about the WEF’s economic importance for Europe’s highest city: “The pictures broadcast throughout the world are invaluable advertising for Davos.”

Indeed, visual publicity was much worse a decade ago – trashed fast food restaurants, broken windows, a martial police presence, clouds of tear gas, peaceful protesters beaten and showered by water cannons.

This year, barbed wire was cleverly covered by large white canvas. The security personnel’s only challenge was to guide the countless SUVs and limousines through the town’s narrow streets.

A decade ago, thousands of protesters challenged the ‘global leaders’, threatening to shut down the World Economic Forum. It wasn’t just about expressing alternative opinions in Davos, but about chasing the rich and powerful out of town. “Wipe out WEF” was their slogan.

In past years the police did everything possible to keep protesters away from Davos, and put up with riots in other Swiss cities. Whoever tried to travel to Davos was stopped; trains and coaches were blocked in the lowlands.

About 50 people joined a rally in Davos. Rolf Marugg, secretary of the local Green Party was pleased, though he had expected more. “It’s important that we as locals protest against the meeting, the order of the globalised economy and the often dirty doings of the WEF participants,” Marugg said.

Pointing at the WEF’s rather vague motto, the Green politician said that the world doesn’t need dynamism and resilience but a slowdown and change. “The current crisis proves that those self-appointed global leaders’ only ability is to drive economy, society and the environment against the wall. ‘Resilient Dynamism’ therefore only means to keep up the current crisis system by any means possible.”

Over the last few years, small demonstrations are tolerated in Davos; they no longer constitute a threat. The rally went almost unnoticed. Additionally, Greenpeace temporarily shut down a Shell gas station, criticising the company for planning to drill for oil in the Arctic. In another token protest, three activists approached the congress centre with smoke flares to protest against the exploitation of women in the global economy.

A decade ago going up to Davos in late January was on every left-wing activist’s agenda. David Böhner, now in his forties, was a leading figure in Switzerland’s anti-globalisation movement. “Our protest was fundamentally anti-capitalist and directed against the increasingly powerful multinational corporations,” he said.

“Any social movement needs some kind of point of reference. In our case, the World Economic Forum provided a suitable projection screen.” At that time, no meeting of the G8, the European Union or the WTO was safe from resistance protests.

Böhner didn’t travel to Davos this year. “The demonstrations against the WEF don’t interest me any more.” The political capacity to ignite has long gone, he said, and a ritualised form of protest carries little potential.

It was in the early 2000s that opposition was loudest and most radical. Even though the authorities were quick to deflect from political content by nurturing a debate on violence at the protests, it was then when the activists’ arguments were most heard.

“Another major reason for the decline of the anti-WEF movement surely was the police repression,” David Böhner added. The turning point was in 2004, when 1,082 demonstrators were held in the freezing cold in the town Landquart, 40 kilometres from Davos, after violently being pulled out of a train by the police.

The authorities succeeded, because disputes flared up within the movement. Mobilising for demonstrations in Davos became senseless, unwise and unattractive. In the following years, increasingly smaller rallies were held in other Swiss cities.

Meanwhile, the WEF facilitated media access and invited ‘civil society leaders’ to their debates to counter critique. The Open Forum to run parallel to the WEF was invented.

But despite its polished image, the World Economic Forum remains a dubious platform for politicians and business leaders to consult behind closed doors, far from any accountability. The official programme is just one side of the coin.

On behalf of the World Economic Forum, Nicholas Davis argues that if every meeting was made public, nothing would get decided. “Some conversations – over delicate or sensitive issues – frankly have to be held behind closed doors. Our aim is to be as open as possible without jeopardising our mission to improve the state of the world.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service