The United Nations' special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diène, has called on the rightwing Swiss People's Party to withdraw a controversial election poster.
He warned that the poster, depicting three white sheep booting a black sheep out of the country, would only provoke racial and religious hatred. The Swiss authorities say it is up to the courts to decide.
Speaking at a meeting of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council on Friday, Diène said freedom of expression should not be used to incite racial and religious hatred.
"Taking these posters down would be more in line with Switzerland's image as a country that respects human rights," he added.
Diène had sought explanations last month from the Swiss government about the poster, which have been plastered across the country and the Swiss press.
They attracted the ire of the Federal Commission against Racism, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities as well as a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It was the NGOs that asked the special rapporteur to step in.
The "black sheep" posters underpin a People's Party initiative to expel foreign criminals, which was launched on August 1 – Swiss National Day – ahead of next month's parliamentary elections.
The People's Party secured 26.2 per cent of the vote four years ago – the largest share of the vote – and the latest polls show a similar level of support for the party this time around.
The Swiss government replied to Diène on Wednesday, highlighting the importance of freedom of expression. The official response on Friday at the UN was no different.
Ambassador Blaise Godet defended Switzerland's democratic institutions and direct democracy, adding that their application implied a transparent public debate about even the most controversial issues.
He admitted though that this debate sometimes involved "exaggerated" and "regrettable" opinions.
"In Switzerland as in other countries, globalisation has led to an identity crisis that can be exploited politically," he said.
"But experience has shown that common sense usually prevails and political debate allows us to correct any excesses of our democratic system."
Godet said that it was up to the courts to decide whether a political act contravened Switzerland's anti-racism legislation.
The People's Party has already refused to consider pulling down its posters. "That an international organisation wants to have its say on how the Swiss election campaign is run just takes the cake," said party spokesman Roman Jäggi on Friday.
According to Jäggi, Diène wants to restrict freedom of expression. "Our posters don't break any laws," he added.
The party has promised to heighten the intensity of its campaign and that even more of the controversial posters will be put up.
Diène has criticised Switzerland in the past. In a report released last year, he pointed the finger at what he said were discriminatory tendencies.
He further maintained that racism had become an instrument in political debate.
"In Switzerland, talk about the defence of national identity has assumed greater importance in political discussions and in the media, which shows a political climate influenced by xenophobic tendencies," the UN envoy explained at the time.
swissinfo with agencies
Reported racist incidents in Switzerland (according to the Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism)
2006: 88 cases, including 23 of verbal racism
2005: 111 cases, including 44 of verbal racism
2004: 109 cases, including 29 of verbal racism
2003: 116 cases
2002: 128 cases
The People's Party and foreigners
Recent policies of the rightwing Swiss People's Party with regard to foreigners in Switzerland include:
Foreign residents who commit crimes in Switzerland should be expelled after serving their sentences. If they are minors, the parents should be expelled with them.
The construction of minarets – the traditional tower of a mosque – should be forbidden in Switzerland.
When foreign residents of a commune want to acquire Swiss citizenship, the commune should continue to have the right to put their applications to a popular vote.
Foreigners who do not learn the language of the area in which they are resident must leave the country.
The federal election result based on interviews carried out at the end of August by the gfs.berne polling institute on behalf of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation:
Swiss People's Party 25.6% (compared with 2003 elections: -1.1%)
Social Democrats (centre-left) 22.6% (2003: -0.7%)
Christian Democrats (centre-right) 15.0% (2003: +0.6%)
Radicals (centre-right) 14.7% (2003: -2.6%)
Greens (centre-left) 10.7% (2003: +3.3%)
This is the first time Christian Democrats have ever been ahead of the Radicals in the polls.
The Greens have climbed back above the 10% threshold
Projected turnout: 55%