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Council of Europe highlights racism in Switzerland

The Council of Europe says intolerance and xenophobia are common in Switzerland. A Council report published to mark International Day Against Racism criticised Swiss naturalisation policy, which makes it tough to obtain the coveted red passport.

This content was published on March 21, 2000 - 19:42

The Council of Europe says intolerance and xenophobia are common in Switzerland. A Council report published to mark International Day Against Racism, criticised Swiss naturalisation policy, which makes it tough to obtain the coveted red passport.

"Although violent expressions of racism and intolerance remain sporadic in Switzerland, and a rise in antisemitism appears to have peaked," a summary of the report says, "feelings of xenophobia and related intolerance remain present."

The Council's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which drew up the report, says that it is particularly concerned about the difficulties faced by non-Swiss residents seeking naturalisation. It notes that, to obtain citizenship, certain legal requirements have to be fulfilled at the federal level, but that it is actually granted at the cantonal and communal level.

"ECRI is concerned that the system for the granting of citizenship at cantonal and communal level may leave room for discriminatory practices in the granting of citizenship," it said "particularly in cases where citizenship requests are decided upon by a voting procedure of the population of a commune."

Switzerland's Federal Commission Against Racism said it shared the Council of Europe's conclusions on the practice of local residents voting on citizenship applications and on the difficulties faced by foreigners seeking Swiss nationality. In a statement, the federal commission against racism said it was aware of the need to simplify naturalisation procedures in Switzerland, especially for young people.

"Rejecting people from certain countries for no good reason, as is the case in certain communes, encourages fear," the commission said.

Naturalisation procedures have been in the spotlight in the wake of a controversial case in the town of Emmen, in canton Lucerne. On March 12, voters in the town rejected 48 applications for citizenship from long-term residents from Poland, Turkey, and the Balkans. Only eight Italians were granted a Swiss passport.

The Swiss government on Monday also expressed concern about the vote. The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, said she wanted to ensure that the country's naturalisation rules for foreigners did not lead to discrimination. She added that measures were needed to avoid arbitrary decisions based on racial prejudice.

Metzler added that the outcome of the vote in Emmen showed a dangerous tendency, already seen in other towns. When national origin was the only reason for refusal, then this amounted to racial discrimination.

She said that while Switzerland's tradition of direct democracy should be respected, it was legitimate to ask whether democracy meant consulting the people about everything all the time. In the case of naturalisation, a better option would be to limit votes to choosing members of local naturalisation commissions.

The government, according to Metzler, had no intention of interfering in the role of local communities in conferring Swiss citizenship, but had nevertheless set up a working group to look at ways of modifying procedures. Changes could include setting up an appeal mechanism at the cantonal level. The working group was expected to report back by the end of the year.

The Council of Europe report is part of a four-yearly review of the laws of member states. Other countries on which the Council released reports on Tuesday were Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

These reports are critical of widespread discrimination against Roma/Gypsy communities in the three eastern European countries, and says that in Belgium, there is "very important" discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin in employment and extensive exploitation of racism by right-wing parties.

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