March 13, 2014

Swiss Step Up Arms Exports, Peacefully

Switzerland has eased its restrictions on arms exports – in order to save a few thousand workplaces. Critics fear that Switzerland’s credibility as an international peace broker will now suffer.

Switzerland’s army doesn’t go to war – but its military equipment does. In 2011, Saudi Arabia used Swiss Piranha tanks to crack down on protests in Bahrain. Libyan rebels used Swiss ammunition against Muammar Gaddafi’s troops, and Syrian rebels have been throwing Swiss hand grenades against President Bashar Assad’s soldiers.
Only a few weeks ago, videos circulating on the internet offered proof that Swiss sniper rifles where used against civilians on Kiev’s Maidan square. Many died in brutal police action.

Switzerland, a neutral country at the heart of Europe known for an active promotion of a peace policy in diplomatic forums, is in fact the world’s fifth-largest producer of small arms. It ranks eighth in arms exports per capita, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

Last year, 34 percent of exported military equipment consisted of ammunition. Other major exports were fire control systems, weapons and armoured military vehicles. In all 73 percent of military exports went to European countries.

But in 2013, Swiss arms exports dropped from 700 to 461 million Swiss Francs (524 million dollars). The country’s three-biggest arms producers, General Dynamics European Land Systems – Mowag, RUAG, and Rheinmetall Air Defence sacked 415 employees.

The lobby of the 70 Swiss arms producers called for the government to act. It demanded the lifting of export restrictions.

Judging whether or not the Swiss arms industry is on decline depends on how one reads the statistics. Ten years ago, these companies exported less than in 2013 and long-term statistics show that the high export values 2008-2012 were exceptional.

Further, arms exports statistics do not include “special military goods”, a category designed for dual use goods. Under this category, Swiss companies last year additionally exported military material worth 405 million Swiss Francs (461 million dollars).

Dismissing the alarming rhetoric of cuts and a crisis by the arms lobby, the Swiss Peace Foundation (SPF) says the sector is  “ridiculously insignificant”, as it accounts only for 0.33 percent of Swiss exports, and employs less than 10,000 people.

SPF director Heinz Krummenacher told IPS the Swiss arms industry should be dissolved totally or at least produced only for the domestic market.

The Swiss government had tightened export restrictions in 2008. A year later Swiss voters turned down an initiative by the pacifist Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) for a ban of Swiss arms exports. On Mar. 6, the Swiss parliament narrowly gave in to the demands of the arms lobby, and eased arms exports regulation drastically.

Under the former regulation, arms exports to countries known for systematic and grave human rights violations were forbidden. Also, arms exports to countries engaged in an internal or international, armed conflict were not permitted. The new clause will be more elastic.

Now, permits will be denied if there is “a high risk” in the receiving state that the military equipment will be used for serious human rights abuses, if the country is “illegally” engaged in an international, armed conflict or if an internal, armed conflict prevails. The “high risk” provision especially leaves room for manoeuvre.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) assesses risks of human rights abuses in potential receiving states and issues export permits. Alain Bovard, arms expert at Amnesty International Switzerland is sceptical about these investigations.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen how little they help. Despite thorough investigations, Swiss assault rifles were exported to Ukraine and have now been used against civilians.”

In the end, it’s all about how specific criteria are checked and assessed. “The human rights criteria hasn’t always been carefully evaluated,” Bovard says.

Switzerland has been using post-shipment verification clauses to make sure that delivered military equipment isn’t re-exported by the receiving states. In practice, these clauses have often been ineffective.

Boxes full of Swiss hand grenades, which were found last year in the Syrian civil war, were originally purchased by the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, Swiss ammunition was detected in the hands of Libyan rebels that was originally delivered to Qatar. Both countries signed a non-re-export clause.

“It’s illusive to believe that Swiss authorities are able to control whether exported Swiss weapons and ammunition are used for human rights abuses,” Stefan Dietiker, secretary general of GSoA, tells IPS. “Once they’ve left our country, they’re gone, no matter how many clauses the purchasers sign and how many promises they make.”

Besides the material consequences of the Swiss parliament’s decision to ease its arms exports regulation, critics stress its symbolic effect. “The decision contradicts Switzerland’s foreign policy goals which prioritise protection of human rights,” says Amnesty International’s Bovard.

He points to Switzerland’s important role in negotiating and pushing the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). ATT is a landmark effort to regulate the global arms trade, which more than 100 states signed in 2013. The treaty currently awaits ratification. Switzerland has offered to host the ATT secretariat.

“Switzerland loses credibility,” says Alain Bovard. Switzerland, he says, must have stricter arms exports regulation than ATT’s minimum standards demand.

He also worries about the country’s reputation. “Having close arms trade ties with countries like Saudi Arabia, which systematically violates human rights, damages Switzerland’s image.”

Economic Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann insisted through the parliamentary debate that Switzerland would continue to keep up its humanitarian tradition – while not neglecting its security interests. “It’s not about surrendering the protection of human rights for the sake of preserving work places,” he stressed.

Critics like Stefan Dietiker say Switzerland has to make up its mind. “Ultimately, we have to decide whether we want to deliver weapons or protect human rights.”

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

February 23, 2014

Swiss Vote for New Squeeze on Migrants

Swiss voters have approved an initiative by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) aimed at limiting immigration. The result not only threatens the free movement of people, but all agreements between Switzerland and the European Union. The voting results have been a shock for open-minded Swiss citizens, foreigners living in the country and the whole European audience.

In all 50.3 percent of the Swiss voted in favour of the SVP’s “initiative against mass immigration”, which demanded the introduction of quantitative limits and quotas for foreigners and a renegotiation of the “Agreement on the free movement of people” with the EU. The Swiss government now faces the difficult task of introducing the new constitutional measures at the legislative level.

Several foreign ministers of EU member states, and the European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the EU, have regretted the Swiss decision. In its initial statement, the EC wrote that the introduction of quantitative limits to immigration “goes against the principle of free movement of persons” and that the EC intends to “examine the implications on this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.”

Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, said that as long as the Swiss government didn’t suspend its bilateral agreements with the EU, they would remain valid, signalling that the EU for now will not terminate either the agreement on the free movement of people or any of the other accords.

However, Schultz stated that it would be “difficult to limit the free movement of citizens and not limit the free movement of services, for example.” He made it clear that if Switzerland is no longer able to fulfil the conditions of the agreement, all other bilateral agreements were at risk.

Currently, about 430,000 Swiss citizens live in the EU, while more than a million EU citizens call Switzerland their home, and another 230,000 commute to their Swiss workplaces daily. Major sectors of the Swiss economy such as construction, the hotel and restaurant industry, and health services depend on foreign workers.

There’s been strong resistance in Switzerland to joining the EU. However, the two entities are bound by at least a hundred bilateral agreements. As regards trade in goods and services, Switzerland is the EU’s third-largest economic partner, while 57 percent of Swiss exports in goods go to EU member states and 78 percent of its imports come from there.

For Andreas Kellerhals, Director of the Europe Institute at the University of Zurich (EIZ), the EU’s reaction to the Swiss vote isn’t just a strategic threat. “In the eyes of the EU, the Agreement on the free movement of people isn’t negotiable, as freedom of movement is one of its four basic pillars,” Kellerhals told IPS. He points out that in 1999, the EU only agreed to the bilateral path because the Swiss gave in to an accord on the free movement of people.

The Federal Council is now exploring ways to put its relationship with the EU on a new footing, as it hardly sees how immigration quotas could be compatible with the principle of free movement of people. “Legally, that isn’t possible,” Kellerhals agrees. “Technically, Switzerland could set the quotas high enough so they couldn’t be exceeded; however I don’t think the EU will accept that.” Further, that strategy would jar with the SVP initiative and allow the right-wing party to further criticise and pressure the Swiss government. No matter how the Federal Council negotiates with the EU, it can only lose.

For foreigners living and working in Switzerland, the vote was a disaster. Or, as Rita Schiavi, member of the executive board of the largest Swiss trade union Unia puts it: “A slap in the face of nearly two million migrants, who have a huge hand in making Switzerland as prosperous at it is.” Schiavi told IPS that migrants are frustrated and alienated.

In concrete, the SVP demands a return to the so-called Saisonnierstatut, a regulation for seasonal workers that had been in place for seven decades. It means that migrant workers wouldn’t be allowed to bring with them their families, that they would depend on their employers, and would risk losing their stay permits in case of unemployment. “Those who have voted for the SVP initiative regard migrants not as human beings, but as pure workforce,” said Schiavi.

Returning to some kind of Saisonnierstatut wouldn’t just harm affected migrants, but the Swiss economy as a whole. Swiss companies have a strong desire for skilled foreign personnel, who in the future may find Switzerland less attractive than before, despite higher wages.

Switzerland’s economic lobby has long fought the initiative against immigration, as a return to quotas and contingents would complicate their business and reduce planning reliability. “Multinational companies may relocate or strengthen their branches abroad which could threaten the jobs of Swiss employees, too,” said Schiavi.

In Schiavi’s opinion, urgent political action is now required to deal with those worries and fears that had motivated voters to approve the SVP initiative. It’s measures that trade unions have demanded for many years: “We need to reduce wage dumping, improve job protection, introduce measures in the housing sector and set a national minimum wage,” said Schiavi.

For the moment, half of the Swiss population is licking their wounds, while the other half led by the SVP triumphs. Nevertheless, the right-wing effort to regain control over immigration and the Swiss-EU relations may lead to the opposite: to a massive loss in sovereignty. Soon the Swiss delegation travelling to Brussels may have no option but to hope for the EU’s goodwill.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service

February 15, 2014

European Ruling Ignites Freedom Debate

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in relation to a Turkish national has kicked up a new row on anti-racism legislation. The court ruled in December that Switzerland violated the right to freedom of speech of the Turkish national Doğu Perinçek by convicting him for calling the idea of an Armenian genocide an “international lie”.

In 2007, a court in the Swiss Canton of Vaud had found Perinçek guilty of racial discrimination as defined by Section 261 of the Swiss Criminal Code, ruling that the Armenian genocide was a proven historical fact. Already in 2003, the Swiss National Council had acknowledged the Armenian genocide.

Perinçek subsequently appealed in Switzerland’s Federal Court, which dismissed his claims. After that, Perinçek took his case to the ECHR in Strasbourg.

In its ruling, the ECHR found that Perinçek’s conviction by the Swiss court was wrong, as it violated Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights on freedom of expression. The court argued that Perinçek had never questioned the massacres and deportations perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, but had denied their characterisation as “genocide”. He didn’t mean to incite hatred against the Armenian people, the ECHR pointed out.

In fact, Perinçek’s view corresponds with Turkey’s official stance that is widely shared by the Turkish public, all main political parties as well as the state-run Historical Society. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry called the ECHR decision “a victory for the rule of law.”

Schools and universities in Turkey teach that the killings of Armenians were neither deliberate, nor orchestrated by the Ottoman leadership in Istanbul. Further, Turkish historians doubt that up to 1.5 million Armenians had died, as many Western scholars claim.

However, Turkish estimates vary, starting around 10,000 Armenian casualties. Turkish historians argue that most of the death occurred due to illness and malnutrition.

Beyond Turkey’s eastern border, lobbying for worldwide genocide recognition is a fundamental part of Armenia’s foreign policy. Until today, diverging interpretations of what happened in Armenia during and after the First World War strain bilateral relations.

The ECHR highlighted that it wasn’t called upon to address either the veracity of the massacres and deportations perpetrated against the Armenian people or the appropriateness of legally characterising those acts as “genocide”. It doubted that there could be a consensus on the issue.

The Switzerland-Armenia Association (SAA) said it was “deeply disappointed and appalled by the ECHR verdict.” Dominique de Buman, Swiss national councillor and co-president of the SAA told IPS: “The ECHR ruling isn’t just a setback for human dignity, but also contradicts a European Council Framework Decision that ordered member states to ensure that publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were penalised.”

Such framework decisions do not pose a legal basis for the ECHR, however. De Buman also referred to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. “Don’t forget that the convention was adopted in reaction to the Holocaust as well as the Armenian genocide,” he told IPS.
The ECHR ruling has sparked a debate in Switzerland on whether or not the government should appeal the decision and if and how Swiss anti-racism legislation may be amended.

Councillor De Buman told IPS he was optimistic that an appeal could lead to a further examination of the case, as the ECHR ruling wasn’t unanimous: “Two of the seven judges had expressed a joint concurring opinion. They stated that there existed an international consensus regarding the characterisation of the massacres against the Armenian people.”

Judges András Sajó and Guido Raimondi would welcome a Swiss appeal to the Grand Chamber, as so far the court has never taken a view on the massacres and deportations of the Armenians. “It’s our symbolic and moral obligation to define and qualify these events,” they wrote. Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice hasn’t yet taken a decision in that regard.

The ECHR ruling plays into the hands of right-wing groups such as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who have repeatedly tried to knock down the country’s anti-racism legislation. Consequently, the party’s long-time leader Christoph Blocher demanded a change of the criminal code. Legally, the ECHR ruling doesn’t force Switzerland to amendments.

Silvia Bär, the SVP’s secretary general, told IPS that the party is preparing a parliamentary request to specify or even abolish Swiss anti-racism legislation. “We reject racism. However, the current application of the legislation is getting increasingly absurd and incorrectly limits the right to freedom of expression.”

According to Bär, the anti-racism legislation is being misused to discipline and sanction unwelcome opinions. In addition, the SVP demands that Switzerland resigns from the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and that it dissolves the Federal Commission against Racism (EKR).

Martine Brunschwig Graf, National Councillor for the Liberals and President of the EKR has doubts about these intentions. “The ECHR ruling is complex and doesn’t put the Swiss anti-racism paragraph in question,” she told IPS. From 1995 to 2012, Swiss courts have sentenced accused persons in 310 cases under that paragraph. Brunschwig Graf calls the legislation an indispensable instrument: “The fight against racism requires prevention at all levels, but also repression if certain limits are surpassed.”

Among the other parties, the Swiss anti-racism legislation enjoys broad support. Hansjörg Fehr of the Social Democrats told the Swiss national radio that if the criminal code was to be changed, then “we need a passage that explicitly punishes the denial of the Armenian genocide.”

The debate is expected to ignite at the next parliamentary session in March.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service

January 25, 2014

Swiss Spring for Syrian Refugees Passes

Switzerland facilitated family reunification for Syrians in September. So far, more than 1,100 Syrian refugees have benefited from the programme, while thousands are waiting at Swiss embassies in the region, hoping for a similar chance. Surprised by these numbers, Switzerland put an end to the programme.

Several European countries responded to an appeal by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees  (UNHCR) last summer to admit Syrian refugees. Switzerland announced it would accept 500 “especially vulnerable refugees” over three years.

Further, the country that hosts about 2,000 citizens of Syrian origin pledged to open its borders for their relatives. By the end of November, Swiss embassies in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan had granted 1,600 Syrians a three-month entry visa.

At least 1,100 of these have already travelled to Switzerland. A further 5,000 Syrians have applied for appointments at Swiss embassies to file similar visa requests.

Either Swiss authorities were surprised by these numbers, or considered their humanitarian action short-lived. Already in early November, they introduced bureaucratic hurdles: Swiss-based Syrians who had invited their relatives now needed to meet certain financial requirements.

“Looking at the size of an average Syrian family, these requirements constitute a killer criteria,” said Beat Meiner, secretary-general of the Swiss Refugee Council (SFH). “Few of the Swiss-based Syrians have enough money to clear these hurdles.”

Meiner’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Even worse, a month later Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga cancelled the family reunification programme entirely. “We assume that most of those Syrians who are entitled to apply for entry visas and face immediate distress have made use of our eased visa requirements,” she argued.

Ashti Amir, a Kurdish Syrian who fled to Switzerland for political reasons more than a decade ago and now runs the charity SyriAid, has a different perspective. Since September, he managed to get the families of one of his brothers and sisters to Switzerland. Amir told IPS that he still had two brothers and his parents back home in Aleppo and wanted to get them to Switzerland, too.

“Escaping from there and travelling to an embassy abroad is not only difficult, but very costly,” he said. Amir knows dozens of other compatriots who have relatives in danger in Syria whom they want to rescue.

Another sister of his as well as a sister-in-law are stranded in Istanbul with their families, waiting for an entry visa to Switzerland. They had applied for an appointment before Switzerland cancelled its reunification programme, and Amir is optimistic that they’ll finally be granted a visa.

“But if not: where should they go? Their long stay in Turkey has eaten up their savings.”

SFH’s Beat Meiner says that many Syrians have embarked on a dangerous trip to Swiss embassies in the Middle East, assuming they can successfully apply for an entry visa there. “Some of them are blocked now: they may neither come to Switzerland, nor return to Syria,” he says.

He’s convinced that Swiss humanitarian action could have been prolonged and that considerably more human lives could have been saved.

Besides that, Switzerland also hesitates to treat about 2,000 asylum requests by Syrians who had fled to the country individually rather than as families. Some of them have been waiting three to four years for a decision.

IPS met Ziad Ali and his family in central Switzerland. Originally from Malikiyah in the northeast of Syria, Ali moved to Damascus as a youth, where he earned his living as a taxi driver. “As a Kurd in Syria, you took any job you may get anywhere,” he says.

Before he fled the country, Ali worked in Idlib region as a gardener. He was arrested at a demonstration in
Qamishli and then tortured in a prison in Deir az-Zour in Syria.

After his release, escaping the country appeared to him the only option. His wife and their two children reached Switzerland in June 2011, while Ali followed in January 2012.

Ali says the fate of his sister and his father, who were arrested by the Syrian regime in 2011, is constantly on his mind. He hasn’t heard from them since then.

His daughter Fatima and his son Mohamed go to school locally and already speak better German than Kurdish. A year ago, their youngest brother Azad was born. The family lives in a barracks established for asylum-seekers, occupying three rooms.

Their asylum request is still in limbo, leaving the family in constant insecurity about their destiny.

Moreno Casasola, secretary-general of the refugee rights organisation Solidarité sans Frontières, says that asylum requests of Syrians are mostly put aside by the Federal Office for Migration. Like any other European country, Switzerland fears that answering asylum requests positively would attract even more Syrian refugees.

Federal Office for Migration spokesperson Michael Glauser acknowledges that asylum requests of Syrians aren’t treated with priority. He denies, however, any decision moratorium. Glauser asserts that Syrian asylum-seekers enjoy Switzerland’s protection – and for the moment haven’t been sent back to Syria.

Ziad Ali and his family, along with other Syrian asylum-seekers, have protested in front of the Federal Office for Migration in Bern, demanding a speedy decision on their request. Getting at least temporary official admission would give them a perspective for the next few years and facilitate hunting for a job.

Despite his desperation, Ziad Ali hopes for a positive outcome. He says he wouldn’t mind returning to Syria once the war has ended, if Kurds were treated fairly. “But the longer my children live here, the more difficult it would be for them to return.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service

January 24, 2014

Big Gap Surfaces in Davos

As self-appointed global leaders gather at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and discuss ‘The Reshaping of the World’, a stone’s throw away non-governmental organisations named this year’s winners for their dreaded Public Eye Awards.

The jury chose the American textile giant Gap, while 95,000 online voters honoured the Russian energy company Gazprom.

“Sadly, there’s still a need for campaigns like ours that demand corporate accountability,” Silvie Lang said on behalf of the organisers, the Berne Declaration (BD), a Swiss NGO working for equitable North-South relations, and Greenpeace Switzerland.

“We are here to remind the corporate world and those hiding behind closed doors in Davos that the social and environmental consequences of their business activities affect not only people and the environment, but also the reputation of their company.”

Participating in the WEF is no option for the BD. “This kind of inclusion is far less effective than fundamental critique from outside,” its spokesperson Oliver Classen told IPS. “Davos is the global showcase for symbolic policy where arsonists dress up as firemen for a few days.”

This year, international NGOs proposed 15 nominees for the two shame awards, ranging from Glencore Xstrata and BASF as representatives of the extractive industry to pesticide producers and the U.S. garment company Gap. The latter was eventually chosen for the jury award.

On behalf of the jury, Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said: “We shame Gap for its monstrous and disingenuous business practices consisting of hindering legally-binding agreements to substantially ameliorate working conditions.”

Gap declined to show up and receive the award. Instead, Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity and Liana Foxvog of the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) collected the prize.

Akter, a relentless grassroots activist, is herself a former child garment worker. “I sewed clothing for multinational corporations and made less than 10 dollars a month for 450 hours of work,” she said. Today, the minimum wage in Bangladesh is 68 dollars a month. “Due to inflation, it’s not much more than I used to earn,” Akter said.

Her main concern isn’t the low wages, however. “When workers speak up with concern about safety risks, they aren’t listened to.”

Three years ago, 29 workers were killed in a fire at one of Gap’s Bangladeshi supplier factories. After that, labour groups and unions negotiated with Gap to put an end to the constantly climbing death toll in the garment industry.

In all 1,129 Bangladeshi workers died in a deadly fire in a garments factory last year.
In a press statement, Gap stressed that it is a founding member of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety: “The Alliance is a serious and transparent, binding commitment on the part of its members to make urgent improvements to worker safety in Bangladesh.”

For Foxvog, the Alliance is “hardly more than a facelift.” She vowed to take the award directly to the Gap headquarters in San Francisco.

“We don’t want the companies to leave our country,” Akter said. “We want jobs, but they must be jobs with dignity. Global corporations must stop profiting off this low-road system.”

A third of the 280,000 people taking part in the online voting chose the energy giant Gazprom for the people’s award. That was not surprising, as the company had been in the spotlight for the past few months.

In September, Russian security forces arrested 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists during a protest against oil drilling at their offshore platform Prirazlomnaya. In December, Gazprom became the first company that started to drill oil in the Arctic.

According to Greenpeace, Prirazlomnaya is far from some ultra-modern drilling unit. The absence of a publicly available and convincing response plan for any oil spill in one of the world’s most extreme environments worries activists deeply.

Greenpeace argues that Gazprom’s reliance on traditional clean-up methods would simply not work under icy conditions.

IPS requested Gazprom to comment on receiving the anti-award for “irresponsible business conduct at the cost of people and the environment.” Gazprom spokesperson Sergey Kupriyanov did not elaborate on its response plan, but stressed that the company was fully committed to the highest ecological standards.

“Therefore we are quite puzzled by the decision of the Public Eye Awards jury which seems to be motivated by anything but ecological concerns,” Kupriyanov told IPS.

He said that the Prirazlomnaya platform had been specifically designed for operation in the most hostile climate. “The applied drilling techniques prevent subsurface water pollution and the mixing of drilling and production waste with sea water.

“Specially designed oil spill prevention and response plans ensure that the platform crew is well equipped for emergency situations,” Kupriyanov told IPS.

Greenpeace’s Naidoo said his organisation considered calling for a boycott of Gazprom and its partner Shell, who had last year received an anti-award in Davos. “Our peaceful protest in the Arctic raised a lot of awareness,” he told IPS. “About five million people have signed up for our Arctic campaign, while the best of it is yet to come.”

Using the shame award to raise further awareness may be easier for the organisations dealing with Gap, as its consumer base differs much from that of Gazprom. Nobody depends on Gap clothes, but many depend on Gazprom’s oil and gas.

Criticising the energy giant my fall on deaf ears. “Even Gazprom, Rosneft or Chevron aren’t completely immune from public pressure though,” argued Naidoo. He said that these companies had so far ignored one thing: “Relations and reputation are a capital which is just as important for success as conventional capital.”

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service

January 22, 2014

Elites Will ‘Consider Inequality’

With no acute crisis on the radar, this year’s Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) will move away from the response mode of the past years and “look for solutions for the really fundamental issues,” its founder Klaus Schwab said at the pre-meeting press conference.

“We cannot afford to allow the next era of globalisation to create as many risks and inequities as it does opportunities,” Schwab wrote in a blog post a few days earlier. “Today we face a situation where the number of potential flashpoints are many and are likely to grow.”

Even Schwab and his organisation have finally realised that globalisation has increased global inequality and that its consequences have not been managed and mitigated well on the global level.

According to Schwab, the WEF is the “biggest assembly of political, business and civil society leaders in the world.” For decades, he has been gathering the world’s richest and most powerful people and companies once a year in the mountain resort of Davos under the banner of “improving the state of the world”.

This year, the annual meeting beginning Wednesday takes place for the 44th time. Schwab welcomes around 2,500 participants, among them more than half of the CEOs of the 1,000 largest companies of the world, over 30 heads of state, and numerous leaders of international institutions.

A report published by the WEF has spoken of widening income disparities. The report states that increasing inequality impacts social stability within countries and threatens security on a global scale.

“It’s essential that we devise innovative solutions to the causes and consequences of a world becoming ever more unequal,” its authors wrote.

With a well-timed report, the renowned aid and development charity Oxfam International picked the issue up this week. According to Oxfam, the world’s richest 85 people own the wealth of half of the world’s population – a fact that the charity’s executive director Winnie Byanyima called staggering.

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality,” she said. Oxfam locates the roots of the widening gap in fiscal deregulation, tax havens and secrecy, anti-competitive business practice, lower tax rates on high incomes and investments and cuts or underinvestment in public services for the majority.

According to Oxfam, the richest individuals and companies hide trillions of dollars in tax havens around the world. “In Africa”, the report says, “global corporations – particularly those in extractive industries – exploit their influence to avoid taxes and royalties, reducing the resources available to governments to fight poverty.”

Over the last years, tax avoidance has become a major focus of non-governmental organisations especially in countries like Switzerland, where some of the world’s biggest companies involved in raw materials mining and trade have their headquarters.

“Tax avoidance and harmful tax incentives are strongly linked with inequality,” said Martin Hojsik, tax campaign manager of ActionAid International, an international coalition fighting poverty across the globe.

“With a lack of revenue caused by tax dodging, developing countries in particular have very little resources to finance essential services like education and health care,” he told IPS.

ActionAid doesn’t participate at the WEF, which Hojsik calls a talking shop for elites in a fancy resort. “Real progress requires commitment from governments and processes that are inclusive of all stakeholders including people living in poverty,” he said.

Hojsik has no illusions about Davos: “This year, Deloitte, a company among other things advising companies how to avoid taxes when investing in Africa, is tweeting about income disparity on their #DeloitteDavosLife event, clearly showing some of the absurdity.”

Unlike ActionAid, Oxfam will take part at the global leaders’ meeting. The charity is asking participants to pledge to supporting progressive taxation, to making public all the investments in companies and trusts, to demanding a living wage in their companies and to challenging governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection for citizens.

Oxfam’s effort is doomed to fail. A look at the WEF’s more than 260 sessions shows that hot potatoes like tax avoidance won’t be addressed. Even though there is a workshop specifically on the extractive industry, it aims only to discuss how the industry may drive growth in the future in the light of rising concerns over scarcity and environmental deprivation.

Hardly any of the workshops scheduled specifically address developing countries. There’s a session on the post-2015 development goals, however. It asks how a new spirit of solidarity, cooperation and mutual accountability may carry those goals from vision to action.

Peter Niggli, director of Alliance Sud, an alliance of the six biggest Swiss charities, isn’t attracted by such debates. Alliance Sud doesn’t go to Davos.

“We lobby at the Swiss government which makes more sense,” he told IPS. As a discussion forum, the WEF in Niggli’s opinion doesn’t have any influence at all on defining the post-2015 development agenda.

Niggli said that it is in any case not the WEF’s official programme with all the debates and workshops that draws businessmen and politicians, but the opportunity they have to meet others informally or set up new projects behind closed doors.

Surely it also isn’t the fake refugee camp the WEF has set up in Davos that draws the global elite. “We are simulating the experience of a Syrian refugee in a Jordanian refugee camp,” Schwab said. “It is so important that people can really imagine what it means to be a refugee.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency has appealed for 6.5 billion dollars for Syrian refugees. International donors have pledged 2.4 billion dollars so far. If the WEF is serious about “improving the state of the world”, its wealthy members could come up with the lacking sum.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service