Human rights in Switzerland fail to impress

An inmate looks out from the new Brenaz prison in canton Geneva Keystone

While Switzerland enjoys a solid reputation for championing human rights on the international stage, some experts warn the domestic picture still needs work.

This content was published on January 31, 2009 - 11:12

The criticism was levelled at a meeting in Bern this week involving the Swiss foreign ministry, the United Nations and advocacy groups including Amnesty International.

"People still think Switzerland is perfect," said Daniel Bolomey, secretary general of Amnesty International Switzerland.

"OK, it's not bad, but we have problems with racism and attitudes toward immigration and with people seeking asylum. We have a very good reputation internationally but on the ground level things don't always happen."

Bolomey and six other experts were taking part in a workshop entitled "Human Rights: Is Switzerland at the height of its reputation?"

There was no clear answer to that but panellists noted Switzerland could make improvements in the coordination between institutions and in promoting women's and migrants' rights.

"Right now there's no common view," Bolomey said. "We need to have a more integrated human rights policy so that what happens on an international level is applied throughout the country."

Keeping a clean house

The discussions on how to bolster human rights within Switzerland come eight months after Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey was grilled during a United Nations periodic review on the matter in Geneva.

At that time, 42 countries probed Switzerland's human rights record, and delegates from the UN Human Rights Council made numerous comments about the "xenophobic climate" in the country.

Though the UN's overall report card issued last summer was very favourable, Switzerland was presented with 32 recommendations on how to make improvements, 12 of which the Swiss government rejected.

Switzerland won't be up for another Universal Periodic Review for another four years. In the meantime, Switzerland needs to shore up human rights policies and institutions at home, lest the country appear hypocritical when doling out recommendations to others, panellists said.

"The sole fact of being reviewed can have a real effect that encourages people to make steps to promote and protect human rights," said Muriel Berset, a Swiss human rights diplomat.

Swiss officials plan to study the human rights records in Canada, Russia, Cuba and China, among others, during the next round of reviews before the Human Rights Council session that starts in Geneva on Monday.

National institution

One of the more glaring problems with promoting human rights in Switzerland is there is no national body to coordinate efforts between federal authorities and cantonal governments, Bolomey said.

While canton Geneva has a human rights office, others have none, and inconsistencies in how international treaties on human rights are enforced throughout the country arise. A new national human rights institution could fill those gaps.

"It could be the centre to help cantons and the confederacy implement solutions," Bolomey said. "Sometimes what happens internationally doesn't happen on the street."

At Switzerland's periodic review in May, France, Algeria, Canada, Germany and Slovenia - speaking on behalf of the European Union as a whole - lent support to such an institution. Bolomey says it could be launched with a budget of SFr1.5 million ($1.3 million) a year.

Calmy-Rey has ordered a committee to conduct a feasibility study on the creation of such an institution. The findings could be presented in just a few weeks' time.

Health and human rights

Siri Tellier, director of the UN Population Fund based in Geneva, said looking at a country's policies toward its mothers in terms of access to prenatal care, family planning and a flexible job market could help gauge one aspect of its human rights standing.

Tellier produced a graph from a 2008 report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that looked at family policies in developed countries and compared the percentage of women in the workforce with their fertility rates.

While around 70 per cent of women are employed in Switzerland, the total fertility rate hovered under 1.5 children per mother last year, well below the median. By comparison, more than 80 per cent of women work in Iceland, where the fertility rate is more than two children per mother.

The discrepancies hinge largely on the scale of the social network in place – such as day care and a flexible work schedule – that can help women be mothers and workers together, she said.

But prodding others to take steps in this area can sometimes be tricky, Tellier said.

"It can be very embarrassing for countries to be criticised over women's issues," she said. But the topic could also create common ground.

"When you speak of women dying during pregnancy, that's an issue everyone can relate to," she said.

swissinfo, Tim Neville

Reviewing Swiss human rights

In June 2006, the Human Rights Council replaced the widely discredited and highly politicised UN Human Rights Commission that had been around since 1946. One of the council's duties is to conduct a Universal Periodic Review of all 192 members of the UN to scrutinize their human rights records at home. Countries can only be reviewed based on the human rights treaties they have ratified.

Member states are divided into groups of about 16 countries for the procedures. During a two-week review session, a council working group looks at the human rights record for each country within that group. Each country's review typically lasts three hours.

Muriel Berset, a human rights minister with the Swiss Mission in Geneva, said small countries are empowered to criticise powerful ones by delegating one country to speak for a region.

Switzerland was reviewed in May. At that time the country rejected 12 of the 32 recommendations that other countries made, including one to ratify a UN treaty on migrants' rights. At that time, the foreign ministry said it was "incompatible" with federal laws already in place.

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