I have recently become a fan of the Geneva public transport system, perhaps too late, but better late than never. In particular, I find taking the new 27 bus line from Carouge to Cornavin an absolute delight. There are plenty of pros and cons and valid criticisms of Mme. Kunzler and the TPG changes, but for me, when I am not in a hurry, the 27 is ideal.
The 27 leaves on time every 15 minutes from Carouge, with so few passengers that I have the feeling I have my own chauffeur. I have more than enough time to read my morning paper as the driver waits patiently to cross the Wilsdorf Bridge. For the passengers who calculate the exact 20 minutes from Carouge to the train station as advertised, they should have realized, like the TPG that this would never happen. But for the relaxed, well-informed passenger like me, there is much to do in the 30 odd minutes from door to door.
Questions are now being asked why the United States (among other countries) continues to “pick on” Switzerland. Whether it is banking secrecy or offshore accounts, the feeling is that the United States is acting like a bully and that Switzerland is an innocent victim.
A recent headline in the Tribune de Genève caught my attention:“Pierre Vincenz, directeur du groupe Raiffeisen, estime que la Suisse a trop tardé avec l’Union européenne.“ M. Vincenz goes on to explain that for several years it was clear that Swiss banks would not be able to continue to do business with non-declared money in a grey zone. He advocates a more pro-active policy, clearly regretting that his voice had not been listened to before about opening discussions concerning the automatic exchange of information, which he thought inevitable.
The recent bombings in Boston have unleashed a torrent of commentaries. While investigations are ongoing concerning the backgrounds of the suspects with no definitive answers yet about motivations and affiliations, the fact that the brothers were from Chechnya and Muslim has opened a Pandora’s Box of speculation. One simple point can be made at this point beyond the specifics of this case: There has been a fundamental shift in the nature of deadly attacks, often attributed to “terror.”
Following September 11, the United States declared a “war” on terror. Without a clear definition of terror, the focus of the war narrowed down to one organization, Al Qaeda. The organization and its leaders, we were told, were based in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. There was an enemy; there was a location for its headquarters (Bin Laden’s cave). As in all traditional wars, the opponents were identified, their location fixed. The battle lines were drawn, and the soldiers sent to eliminate the foe.
Thirty-seven French Ministers have officially published their individual worth following a directive from President Francois Holland. The discovery that some were wealthy was not surprising; Laurent Fabius headed the list with 6 million Euros. What was surprising was the reaction here in Geneva.
According to the Tribune de Genève of April 16, a cross-section of local elected officials rejected or voiced skepticism regarding greater transparency. The reactions varied from doubts about the real value of certain declarations to a robust rejection of making public what in Switzerland has always been considered the private sphere. The head of the Radical group in Parliament is quoted as saying, “What will have to become public after the net worth? A health report or sexual orientation?” The Mayor of Geneva, Rémy Pagani is quoted as bluntly saying that the demand for greater transparency from public officials is “a radical intrusion into the private sphere. For me, political considerations stop at the entrance to my door.”
On top of the continuing assault on Switzerland’s bankers and its banking secrecy tradition, outcries are now being raised against lawyers, many in Geneva, who have helped clients place their assets offshore to avoid paying taxes. Because of the financial crisis, officials in various countries are trying to find ways to recover money sitting in virtual companies in tax havens around the world.
The lawyers defend themselves by saying that they have done nothing illegal; the movement of money to properly registered companies does not break the law in either the sending country or the receiving one. Their spokesmen, often quite eloquently, make the simple case that there is a distinction between something that is illegal and something that is immoral. “I have done nothing outside the rules,” they plead, “and morality is highly relative. You can change the laws in the future, but for the moment we have done nothing wrong.”
For an American, as well as basketball fanatics around the world, March Madness refers to the final tournaments to determine the national collegiate champions. (Full disclosure: I am definitely biased and particularly enthusiastic this year since my alma mater, Amherst College, just won the Division III title.) The main focus of attention is the men’s Division I competition. It is not only that roughly 50 million people watched the final game, but that office pools have complex betting schemes on who will get into the draw, and various winners. This is a craze that sweeps America every spring.
I am not someone who easily sings the praises of France. Cocorico is not my style. However, on a recent trip to Paris I was most pleasantly surprised in two of my favorite haunts.
Security is a major if not the major topic of conversation in Geneva. Citizens are worried about their basic safety, from unexplained violence to robberies to excessive noise. Security will certainly be a major item in the forthcoming cantonal elections. Newspaper headlines scream that Geneva has become the Bronx, although as a resident of the Bronx, I find this comparison outdated and imprecise. Is it reasonable to compare a canton of 400,000 people with a borough of approximately 1,500,000?
There is another comparison that crops up that I find equally disturbing. Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York from 1994-2002, is often credited for cracking down on crime in New York City.
Globalization and the Internet appear to have made the world a smaller place. Planes easily take us to faraway places in a matter of hours; a tap of the computer keys puts us in contact with people thousands of kilometers away. Technically, the world has become more interconnected.
But is this really so?
The stunning results of Oskar Freysinger in the recent election in Valais, the surprising showing of Team Stronach in Austria, the Tea Party in the United States, and the unexpected success of the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo in Italy point to a recent populist emergence. While the causes of this emergence are not difficult to elaborate – high rates of unemployment, lack of leadership at the local, national and international levels, poor economic results, growing insecurity – the very nature of populism is not easy to describe.
The controversy surrounding Yvan Perrin’s candidacy to be Conseil d’Etat in Neuchatel has touched a profound taboo in Switzerland, the separation between the private and public. Already during the DSK scandal in the New York hotel, questions were raised about how much the public should know about a politician’s private life. Now with the revelation of reports on Perrin’s December 19th hospitalization, once again questions are being raised about the right to privacy of the individual and the right of the public to know about politicians’ private lives.
Local and national news have been buzzing about the 72 million franc golden parachute for Novartis’ Daniel Vasella, the upcoming Minder referendum on limiting pay for executives and the Geneva Parliament’s vote on extending payments for the unemployed. The first and second focus on the growing inequality between the salaries of executives and workers, the third on the period of benefits for those out of work.
Switzerland was invited to attend the recent G-20 meeting in Moscow. Perhaps as a payback for its creative diplomatic efforts to help the Russian Federation become a member of the World Trade Organization, or perhaps for its role in hosting the ongoing Georgian-Russian talks in Geneva, the Russian Government invited Switzerland to participate in the gathering of central bankers and finance ministers from the world’s largest economies for the first time. While Switzerland’s relations with the United States and some European neighbors are tense over banking secrecy, there is reason to be proud to see Mme. Widmer-Schlumpf, Swiss Federal Councilor and Head of the Federal Finance Department, sitting at the table with representatives from major powers.
During a sparkling winter Saturday morning at the beginning of school holidays in Geneva, 70 people gathered last week in the Villa Moynier to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Speeches were given by the Mayor of Geneva, the Vice-President of the Red Cross, the former President; present were a former Conseiller d’Etat and other dignitaries. A plaque was unveiled in memory of Gustave Moynier. A conference was presented on the dangers to health and sanitary conditions during current conflicts. Statistics were given about medical personnel being attacked, hospitals being destroyed, those in need being denied assistance.
A sense of the tragic was an important element in ancient Greek theatre. From the opening of Oedipus Rex, for example, the chorus tells us that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. No need to read 666 pages in Joel Dickers “La Verité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert” to know who killed Nola. In ancient times, the tragic hero fought against his or her inevitable destiny which was known from the beginning. The struggle against destiny was what was tragic, not the end result which was announced by the Chorus in Act I. (How many people would have read the entirety of Dicker’s brilliant novel if they had known from the beginning who was guilty? Then again, how many impatient moderns flipped to the end of the book first to find out who did it, thereby ruining the lovely suspense the talented author weaves for 666 pages?)
By chance, I happened to be reading Edward Gibbon’s monumental, classic account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire while watching Roger Federer’s semi-final match against Andy Murray at the Australian Open. I was reading Gibbon as part of a reflection on the role of the United States in the world following the jamboree of President Obama’s inauguration. Gibbons’ work, much like Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, analyzes long cycles in history and the inevitability of rise and fall. According to Gibbon empires like Rome and with Kennedy France, England, Spain, Holland and the United States, have certain internal contradictions which lead to their eventual decline. There is a tragic sense that nothing can change this destiny.
Headlines are screaming about Algeria’s raid in a remote gas field facility in the desert to free hostages. “Lack of Warning on Rescue Effort Highlights Limits of Algerian Cooperation” tops an article by Michael Gordon and Mark Mazzetti in the January 17 New York Times. “Early reports of casualties follow surprise assault to free hostages at gas field” highlights a front page story in the January 18 International Herald Tribune – the global edition of the New York Times.
All of a sudden, Algeria is in the news. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in December 18, 2010, rulers have been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Uprisings have occurred in Bahrain; a civil war is taking place in Syria; there have been serious attempts at reforms in Morocco. And Algeria? The complaint against Algeria’s acting unilaterally without informing other countries lacks an understanding of Algeria’s history. With so much attention on the Arab Spring focused on other countries, people forgot the importance of Algeria.
A debate is raging about President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next United States Secretary of Defense. Behind this debate is another debate about the future role of the United States in the world. On the one hand, conservative critics are accusing Hagel of being reluctant to intervene militarily to protect Israel or to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. On the other hand, progressives are cheering the potential national security team of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan as being realistic about the limited possibilities for projecting U.S. power. Their preference for “light footprints” or “leading from behind” is seen in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s bellicose foreign policy.
After the Newtown shootings, several cities in the United States offered rewards for citizens to turn in their firearms. Many people did. But the fundamental laws on purchasing weapons have not changed and probably will not change. Since December 14, there have been 400 gun related deaths in the U.S. The more recent shootings in Daillon also raise the question of access to weapons. Although the situation in Switzerland is far from the situation in the United States – 2.3 million weapons among a population of less than 8 million compared to almost one weapon for 300 million citizens with shooting rampages very rare -, one could reasonably ask whether Newtown and Daillon will affect gun legislation in Switzerland. The answer is probably not. In 2011, Swiss citizens rejected a proposal to tighten gun laws.
The United States government narrowly avoided the fiscal cliff. At the last moment, the very last moment, members of Congress and the President agreed on a package that avoided tax raises and drastic cuts in spending. That is definitely positive. However, the measures taken, unlike the Grand Bargain hoped for, fall well short of a sweeping reform. Indeed, the measures passed are to some extent temporary since hard decisions on spending cuts were put off for two months when the question of the debt ceiling will also come up.
Just prior to the holiday season is perhaps not the best moment to talk about gun control. But the recent shootings in Connecticut, with over 20 children killed, once more raises the question of why the United States cannot pass serious gun control laws. Since the murders in Colorado in 1999, there have been over 31 “incidents”. And the killings seem to be happening at a more rapid pace. In 2012 alone, Oregon, Minneapolis, Tulsa, Wisconsin, Colorado and Seattle have been the sites of shootings. Americans own 300 million weapons; 30,000 people are killed every year.
No one can deny the importance of constitutions; they are the documents which establish how an organization functions. They are, in essence, the backbone of the rule of law. For both civil society and governments on all levels, constitutions certify how organizations carry out their functions no matter who is in charge.
How are constitutions written? Who writes them? Recently in Geneva, a long process took place to write and have approved a new Constitution for the Republic and Canton. The Constitution that was replaced dated to 1847. The Assembly of 80 who wrote the Constitution was elected from 527 candidates and represented 11 groups who worked for 4 years. The Constitution was approved by the citizens of Geneva. Think of the number of democratic processes that took place: The members of the Assembly were elected, different parties participated, hearings were held, information sessions took place, a website and film kept the population informed, a final version was voted on, there is an additional five years to put all the changes in place.
As we watch the horrifying pictures of the carnage in the recent Israel-Hamas confrontation, we should concentrate not only on the terrible loss of life and damage, we should also focus on the role of the media. This is not to minimize what we are watching and listening to. Rather, it is to realize that the media plays an important role as a projection of force for both sides.
After the satisfying election of Barack Obama – no euphoria this time – and the rejection of the Republican Party’s unilateral platform, it is interesting to return to an article in the October 31 Tribune de Genève to review the obstacles facing a true U.S. internationalism, if not obstacles to a successful Swiss OSCE Presidency in 2014. Indeed, if there has been much publicity surrounding Swiss-U.S. tensions on fiscal matters, this incident points to the difference between the two countries in their understanding of the rule of law.
To review the facts: Hugues Hiltpold, a fellow Carougeois, Conseiller National with an American mother, was part of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation team to monitor the recent presidential election under a mandate from the Confederation but at the invitation of the United States.
“A Second Chance for Obama” screams the post-election headline of the The International Herald Tribune – the global edition of the New York Times. Peter Baker’s lead article describes how the “Costly fight may return gridlock to Washington” because of a divided Congress. A second chance for Obama to do what? Gridlock among whom?