New head of Amnesty aims to mobilise Swiss

Manon Schick wants to raise awareness of the importance of activism

The new director of the Swiss section of Amnesty International tells about the importance of showing solidarity for movements all around the world.

This content was published on February 27, 2011 minutes

Manon Schick, the organisation’s spokeswoman who takes over the top spot on Tuesday, also talks about the human rights situation in Switzerland and the problem of “increasingly racist and xenophobic” political language.

Amnesty International this year turns 50. As part of the celebrations, people all around the country will be invited on May 20 to drink a “toast to freedom”, recreating the event that resulted in British lawyer Peter Benenson founding the organisation in 1961 (see box). On March 1 you become the head of Amnesty International Switzerland. What’s going to change?

Manon Schick: I don’t think much will change inside Amnesty International Switzerland – I’m already on the board and I don’t want to change everything when I become director. But of course I’m quite different from my predecessor [Daniel Bolomey], a man who’s almost 60: I’m a young woman, so of course I have a vision of Amnesty which may be a bit different.

I was also a volunteer for many years, so I want to mobilise people – and not only Amnesty members – and tell them how important it is to be an activist for human rights. How do you mobilise people?

M.S.: It’s quite difficult at a time that isn’t very favourable for human rights. For ten years we’ve had the War on Terror and a big backlash in terms of human rights issues, for example the convention against torture was almost destroyed by places like the United States.

So it’s not an easy task, I’m aware of that. But I think it’s important to show people in Switzerland that even if we hold a demonstration, against Libya for example, and we have the feeling that it’s not helping, we know from people within Libya that they are very keen to know that there is a mobilisation all around the world – that there is solidarity with their movement.

We have to take the opportunities we have in Switzerland – freedom of expression and so on – for people who don’t have this opportunity. The Swiss government likes to portray Switzerland as a bastion of human rights. How interested in human rights are the Swiss in general?

M.S.: I think they are very interested. There is very big support for Amnesty International – and also for other human rights organisations – in Switzerland. We have more than 45,000 members in Switzerland and more than 100,000 donors. The percentage of the population that is keen to support Amnesty is very high compared with other countries, for example France or Germany, which have almost the same number of donors despite much larger populations.

I think this is a sign that even if people in Switzerland don’t have much time to go out onto the street or write letters or whatever, they are still interested in supporting human rights. In Amnesty’s annual report for 2010 you said Swiss public discourse was increasingly racist and xenophobic. What did you mean by that?

M.S.: Amnesty is not alone in making this observation. In political debate there are more and more sentences like ‘there is an Islamicisation of Switzerland’ or ‘there is a big risk to Swiss values’. Previously these comments weren’t so common.

It’s got worse in recent years because political parties are trying to use xenophobic feelings among the population just to gain votes. One would get the impression that there’s a big problem between Muslims and other religions in Switzerland, but it’s not true.

The political parties have a big responsibility here, and they mustn’t simply play a game which is dangerous for the harmony between Swiss people and foreign people or between religions in Switzerland. Is this the biggest human rights challenge facing Switzerland?

M.S.: It’s one of the biggest. The other is a problem we’ve had for about 30 years: migrants. The situation has deteriorated a lot. Over the past 30 years the asylum law has been changed and almost always been made worse.

The situation now is very, very difficult for migrants in Switzerland – some asylum seekers don’t have the right to a fair process and legal advice and when their appeal is rejected, they don’t have the right to a dignified life: families might be forced to live on SFr10 ($10.70) a day – even if they don’t have any papers to go back to their country. This is unacceptable for a country like Switzerland. Whenever Amnesty criticises something in Switzerland, many readers write in and say you are defending foreigners who want to undermine Swiss values. How do you respond to them?

M.S.: It’s always very easy to criticise China, or now Libya or Tunisia, because everyone knows that the situation there is very bad, but no one wants to be told that even in Switzerland there are some problems.

I always say, OK, Switzerland is a country where it’s nice to live and where almost all human rights are respected, but it’s not enough – we have to have a consistency between the way Switzerland acts abroad, saying human rights are very important, and the way the Swiss authorities act inside Switzerland, for example with vulnerable populations like migrants.

It’s also about credibility. We can’t always criticise what the United States are doing in Afghanistan or Guantanamo and then decide to ignore some minor problems in Switzerland. We have to be critical of all countries all around the world.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by British lawyer Peter Benenson, who said he was travelling on the London Underground in November 1960 when he read of two Portuguese students who had been sentenced by the Salazar regime to seven years of imprisonment for allegedly “having drunk a toast to liberty”.

Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for its campaign against torture.

According to its 2010 report, it has 2.8 million members or supporters in more than 150 countries.

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Manon Schick

Manon Schick was born in 1974. After studying human sciences at Lausanne University, she worked as a journalist for the French-speaking weekly magazine L’Illustré and Lausanne radio.

In 2003 she travelled as a volunteer with Peace Brigades International to Colombia, where she worked with local human rights organisations.

She has been involved with Amnesty International since she was 22. In 2004 she became spokeswoman and in 2007 she joined the board of directors for the Swiss section.

On March 1, she takes over at the top from Daniel Bolomey, also from the French-speaking part of the country, who has been head of Amnesty International Switzerland since 2001.

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