States urge Swiss to improve human rights record

The US said it was concerned by restrictions on religious traditions, such as the Swiss ban on new minarets like this one at the Grand Mosque in Geneva Keystone

United Nations member states have urged Switzerland to step up its fight against racism, discrimination and human trafficking, create a proper national rights centre and improve equal rights at work as well as religious freedoms.

This content was published on October 29, 2012 minutes

On Monday Switzerland defended its national human rights record for the second time before the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in a peer review process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR); its last appearance was in 2008.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, head of the Swiss delegation, described the three-and-a-half-hour review consisting of oral and written recommendations and questions from 80 states as “intense”.

But it was also an “opportunity” for Switzerland to improve its human rights standards back home and something “the government took very seriously”, he said.

“The Swiss government believes the level of human rights protection in Switzerland to be good. But no country, even the ones where human rights are the most respected, can or should be complacent,” he added.

Overturn minaret ban

During the review most countries welcomed overall human rights advances in Switzerland since 2008.

But many said they were concerned by the lack of progress in a number of areas, in particular the fight against racism, discrimination and xenophobia.

India joined a chorus of states recommending the introduction of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that could be applied nationwide.

The United States, Norway and a handful of Arab states recalled the 2009 popular initiative vote banning the construction of new minarets in Switzerland, which they saw as a restriction of religious freedoms.

While Turkey called for the ban to be overturned, the Norwegian ambassador urged Switzerland to “put in place institutional guarantees to ensure that its human rights commitments are protected against popular initiatives that may violate these commitments”.


States welcomed Switzerland’s ratification of a number of international human rights treaties since 2008, such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

But it said Switzerland could go further by ratifying others such as the first Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Despite the new treaties, the issues of gender equality, women’s rights and domestic violence against foreign women and disproportionate use of force by police officers were raised by several states.

Burkhalter said he was hopeful of further ratifications of UN conventions on disabled people’s rights and on forced disappearances but he said talks over the civil and political rights covenant were blocked.

Various countries also urged Switzerland to transform the newly created Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights (SCHR) into a proper independent national agency which complied with the Paris principles governing the status and functioning of national human rights bodies. The SCHR is currently a five-year pilot project; Burkhalter said a decision on its future will be taken in 2014.

Take its time

“The Swiss UPR should not just be a periodic opportunity, but a permanent one,” Manon Schick, the head of a coalition of 47 Swiss non-governmental organisations involved in the second UPR, told a press conference.

Schick, who is also managing director of the Swiss section of Amnesty International, called for better follow-up of Switzerland’s UPR report, something which Burkhalter also insisted upon. She also regretted that Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Swiss justice ministry, was not present as most recommendations fell under her responsibility.

The coalition head said a future national human rights centre should be a priority. She also called for a “convincing solution” to ensure compatibility between popular initiatives and international human rights treaties, as well as anti-discrimination legislation, “which was cruelly lacking”.

NGOs are currently working on a new anti-discrimination project, which has frequently been  turned down by Swiss parliament. Burkhalter said he didn’t think such legislation would be more effective than the current body of laws.

Summing up the foreign minister said Switzerland was advancing at its own pace and there was no point in hurrying things along too quickly.

“Switzerland is used to taking its time. You need time to integrate new directives and it’s very dangerous to go too quickly as you risk the Swiss population digging its heels in and becoming even more suspicious of international institutions – so there’s no need to panic,” he told reporters.


“We heard these criticisms of us but in fact it’s a problem of partial understanding of the Swiss political system and direct democracy.”


The first four-year review exercise of all 193 UN member states began in April 2008. The records of states were examined using a common mechanism, regardless of their size, wealth, military or political importance.

The second four-and-a-half-year UPR cycle began on May 21. Switzerland’s second review took place on October 29.
Before each appearance the state under review submits a national report spelling out the steps they have taken to implement accepted recommendations from the first review. This is complemented with a UN report and summary of stakeholder information (NGOs, etc.).
The review is facilitated by groups of three states members of the council, or troikas, which act as rapporteurs. Nigeria, Belgium and Costa Rica will supervise the Swiss presentation.

During the session, an interactive dialogue between the country under review and the council takes place and later a working report is adopted for each country.

In the first UPR cycle Switzerland accepted 23 out of 31 recommendations made by the council to improve respect for human rights nationwide.

The 2nd UPR session will lead to a second series of recommendations to be selected by October 31. The Swiss authorities will give a first evaluation of what can realistically be implemented; there will then be a consultation period with the cantons, NGOs and public debates.
The final outcome of the second UPR and report will be adopted by the plenary of the council at its session  25 February to 22 March 2013.

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