Anti-minaret vote alarms UN rights experts

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Progress? A Swiss and a Turkish flag at the opening of the minaret in Wangen bei Olten in JuneImage Caption:

Progress? A Swiss and a Turkish flag at the opening of the minaret in Wangen bei Olten in June (Keystone)

United Nations human rights experts have raised concerns over the forthcoming anti-minaret vote and controversial poster campaign in Switzerland.

The remarks were made during a grilling of Swiss officials by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Committee on Tuesday over Switzerland's progress in implementing a UN treaty.

The body of experts monitors states' implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It is holding its 97th session from October 12-30.

An initiative to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland launched by the rightwing Swiss People's Party and a small ultra-conservative Christian party comes to a nationwide vote on November 29.

"Shouldn't this anti-minaret initiative have been declared inadmissible under the Swiss Constitution?" human rights expert Abdelfattah Amor asked the Swiss delegation.

"As to the [related] poster campaign for this initiative, why let towns and municipal authorities determine their own positions? It should be banned. It should be a federal decision based on article 19 of the Covenant."

A handful of Swiss cities in Switzerland has outlawed the posters – the main poster shows a woman in a burka and a Swiss flag with minarets springing out of it – but a similar number have allowed it on free-speech grounds.

Irish expert Michael O'Flaherty agreed the "sinister" poster raised issues under article 19 relating to freedom of expression, which carries "special duties and responsibilities".

"According to the Swiss authorities the initiative does not breach mandatory international law and is therefore permissible," replied Philippe Gerber, from the Swiss justice ministry.

But the government says the initiative does infringe certain human rights, contradicts the core values of the Swiss Constitution and would endanger the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims. The cabinet and parliament therefore oppose a building ban on minarets.

"What would happen if the initiative were accepted?" asked Gerber rhetorically. "The government is confident that it will be rejected... but it's a delicate question that has never been posed before and there is no established practice. It'll be up to the courts to decide."

Defending progress

Defending the country's human rights record before the committee, head of the Swiss delegation Michael Leupold said there had been a number of significant developments since the second ICCPR report in 2001.

Parliament had adopted the legal bases for a complete revamp of judicial structures and new unified penal procedures will come into effect in 2011.

Leupold highlighted the adoption of national laws to fight discrimination against disabled people and to allow registered partnerships for gays and lesbians.

He also recalled that Switzerland had ratified numerous international legal instruments since 2001, including the treaty to establish the International Criminal Court.

Human rights concerns

But as well as concerns over minarets, the UN experts raised numerous questions, including progress on a national human rights institution, the lack of non-discrimination legislation and firearms legislation.

They also wanted to know more about assisted suicide, asylum and migration policies, ill-treatment by police, and non-discrimination and equality between men and women.

One expert expressed concern over rejected asylum seekers who remain in Switzerland without access to the social security system or support, denying them their fundamental rights.

The committee also criticised the lack of protective measures for women migrants who were victims of domestic violence.

As to a national human rights institution, which activists see as a priority, the Swiss delegation explained that following wide consultations the government had created a working group in 2007.

"But it's a complex issue and we still have lots of pending questions," explained foreign ministry legal expert Christopher Spenlé.

Ruedi Tobler, head of a coalition of 14 non-governmental organisations, followed the process and felt overall there had been little progress since the last report.

"We could take the second report's recommendations from 2001 and practically copy them," he told

The main sticking points remained the same: a general lack of implementation of the covenant, the four reservations Switzerland still held, delayed accession to the Optional Protocol to the Covenant [which establishes complaint and inquiry mechanisms], and no national human rights institution or plan of action.

"Switzerland has no internal human rights policy," he bemoaned.

Simon Bradley in Geneva,

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