GENEVA – Leaders of the G-20 have now declared that “the era of banking secrecy is over,” and have threatened to take action against “non-cooperative jurisdictions, including tax havens.” No one should include Switzerland among these, for the Swiss government has already offered to improve international cooperation by adopting the OECD’s standard on international administrative assistance on tax issues.
To appreciate the implications of this, it is important to know the background. Swiss banks are obliged by law to extend a very high degree of bank-client confidentiality to all their clients, both Swiss and foreign. Any banker who reveals details of his clients’ affairs to unauthorized third parties is committing a criminal offense in Switzerland.
But this bank-client confidentiality has never been 100% absolute, and Swiss legislation makes absolutely clear what it protects and what it does not protect. It poses, for example, no obstacle whatsoever to a criminal investigation.
One characteristic of Swiss law is that it distinguishes between tax evasion and tax fraud. Submitting an incomplete tax return, for example, would be tax evasion and is handled through administrative measures, including severe fines if necessary.