Defence Minister Ueli Maurer has been criticised by fellow politicians and human rights organisations for saying on Thursday on a trip to China that “we were able to draw a line under [the Tiananmen Square massacre] a long time ago”.
Maurer, who also holds the rotating Swiss presidency for 2013, was in Beijing two months after a Chinese state visit to Bern and two weeks after Switzerland and China signed a free trade agreement.
He met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, saying he hoped to solidify the “strong level of development” between the two countries. Maurer described the discussions as “amicable” and “constructive”, which were primarily about the next steps for the free trade accord. Swiss parliament must still ratify the agreement.
In an interview with SRF, Swiss public radio, Maurer said the issue of human rights had been raised during discussions, but that no specific cases were mentioned. He said human rights would be treated more in-depth this autumn, as previously planned.
But asked about a visit to Chinese tank forces – the first time a senior Western politician has done so – Maurer was challenged over whether he was aware of the propaganda value to this visit, given that the Chinese army had fired on its own people in Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of pro-democracy protestors.
Maurer replied: "I think we were able to draw a line under this affair a long time ago."
He stated that the Swiss defence ministry had been in regular contact with China for 15 years and that he had appreciated the Chinese openness in letting him view the troops.
“Scandal and disgrace”
His comments, however, caused some controversy among politicians and human rights groups back in Switzerland.
Carlo Sommaruga, a senior leftwing member of a parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said he was shocked about Maurer's statement to turn the page on the Tiananmen massacre.
He said it was "a scandal and a disgrace" for Switzerland, the country of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. Sommaruga told the Tages-Anzeiger and Bund newspapers that Maurer would have to explain himself at the next committee meeting.
Christa Markwalder, a member of the centre-right Radical Party, described Maurer's statement as "very problematic".
The Swiss chapter of Amnesty International said it was an insult to the victims of the massacre.
However, Hannes Germann, foreign policy expert and senator for Maurer’s rightwing Swiss People's Party, said the statement had to be seen in the context of the free trade deal.
This isn’t the first time Maurer has been criticised for appearing to lack diplomatic awareness. At the beginning of his one-year term as president, he failed to mention the controversial policy towards Jewish refugees during the Second World War during a speech on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He later apologised for that.
In addition, the leaders opened an ongoing financial dialogue between their countries, which will address issues related to double taxation, the internationalisation of the Chinese yuan, and G20 meetings, in which Switzerland is participating for the first time this year.
Xi and Maurer also talked about renewable energy and environmental issues, discussions which the Swiss president said took on an almost “philosophical” quality at times.
On July 6, China and Switzerland signed a long-awaited free trade agreement that is expected to go into effect in 2014. As a result, customs duties on 93 per cent of industrial goods exported to China will be reduced or eliminated, with the exception of Swiss agricultural products. The Chinese negotiated transition periods of five to 15 years for the reduction of many customs charges.
Switzerland is one of just a handful of western countries to have negotiated a free trade agreement with the Chinese; Iceland is the only other European country to have done so.
China is Switzerland’s third-largest trading partner, after the European Union and the United States. In 2012, Chinese exports to Switzerland – mostly consisting of watches, pharmaceutical and chemical products and machinery – increased to $22.8 billion (CHF21.5 billion).
swissinfo.ch and agencies