For the first time the Swiss government has defined criteria that would result in convicted criminals being stripped of their Swiss passport if they are dual nationals. The authorities are targeting people who leave Switzerland to fight for terrorist groups such as Islamic State.
The issue has been debated for a long time. The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) is in theory already able to denaturalise dual nationals, based on the 1952 law on the acquisition and loss of Swiss citizenship.
This law is vague, however, stating that the SEM can revoke – with consent of the canton of origin – the citizenship of a person holding dual nationality if his or her conduct is “seriously detrimental to the interests or the reputation of Switzerland”. This has never occurred.
On June 17, the cabinet agreed the regulation, which will enter into force in January 2018. Among other things, it listed offences that could result in someone being stripped of their Swiss citizenship.
These include a serious crime being committed in connection with terrorist activities, violent extremism or organised crime. Also mentioned are genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, violations of the Geneva Convention and other crimes that could apply to Islamic State fighters and jihadists.
Since 2001, 77 people have left Switzerland to fight in conflict areas, mostly Syria and Iraq, according to figures for July from the Federal Intelligence Service. Of these, 29 had Swiss citizenship – and of those 17 had dual nationality.
Dual citizens could also lose their Swiss passport if they “endanger in the long term Switzerland’s good relations with another state by insulting that state”.
In addition, the regulation includes the main offences that were written into the 1952 law with Nazis in mind: attacks upon Swiss independence, banned political intelligence and propaganda that could harm the country.
The regulation will apply only to dual nationals, since preventing statelessness is central to basic international law and the Swiss government regularly rejects bills that violate this.
Citizenship will also be revoked only on condition of a legal conviction. That said, this requirement can be qualified: if the state in which the offence is committed is not in the position to carry out penal proceedings, citizenship can be revoked without a conviction.
Legal experts had said that given the serious consequences – the loss of a passport – the current law left too many important questions unanswered: does a jihadist need to have been convicted? If so, of what? Can it apply to an accomplice, or only an active fighter?
Also, what would happen if both countries of which the offender has citizenship moved to wash their hands of him? Would there be a “denaturalisation race” with the jihadist ending up in the slower country?
In May, before the new regulation was agreed, the State Secretariat for Migration opened legal proceedings against a 19-year-old Swiss-Italian alleged to have joined Islamic State in Syria.
If he is stripped of his passport – despite not having been convicted – it will be the first time the corresponding law has been used in its more than 60-year existence.
According to media reports, the man is thought to have left his home in Winterthur, canton Zurich, for Syria in February 2015.
SEM spokeswoman Léa Wertheimer told Swiss public television, SRF, the suspect was accused of committing “atrocities, human rights violations and war crimes”, which “pose a threat to Switzerland”.
She added she had no information on his whereabouts. However, according to SRF, the man may have been killed a year ago in an air strike on the northern Syrian city of Kobane.