The opening of the new Swiss Center of Expertise in Human Rights (SCHR) in the capital Bern could lead to the creation of a permanent body in five years’ time.
But its director Walter Kälin tells swissinfo.ch in an interview the government will only pursue the project if the centre proves its worth and passes the hurdle of parliamentary approval.
For the past ten years, human rights organisations have been calling for an independent national body to monitor abuses in Switzerland. The United Nations Human Rights Council also recommended the creation of such an institution in its latest periodic review of the Swiss situation.
The SCHR is an intermediate solution chosen by the government to convince the country’s politicians of the need for a body fulfilling the criteria set out by the UN.
Kälin, a professor of international law and human rights specialist at Bern University, says its first task will be to gather a complete picture of the situation in Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: How do you explain that the government chose to move ahead with just a pilot project?
Walter Kälin: What I can say is that during the consultation process, it was highlighted that Switzerland already possesses a number of instruments at the federal level, such as the racism commission, as well as those on migration and equality. Others also said that the Swiss judicial system had the tools to deal with abuses.
The cantons in particular weren’t sure it was necessary to create another institutional body.
This is why the centre must prove its worth. A truly independent body will require a parliamentary decision and a legal basis, and politicians won’t agree unless we can demonstrate a true need.
In four years’ time, there will be an evaluation of our activities and the government will decide how to proceed.
swissinfo.ch: What is the role of the centre supposed to be?
W.K.: We don’t have an institution in Switzerland that can provide systematic and practical support to the authorities, non-governmental organisations and companies facing human rights issues. The centre will, for example, help cantons coordinate some of their activities.
Generally speaking, our centre will support the application of recommendations made by the United Nations’ human rights bodies, something that has yet to be done systematically.
swissinfo.ch: In a conservative political climate where human rights are often perceived as foreign meddling, how do you plan to overcome this resistance?
W.K.: The current political climate is difficult. Some politicians believe human rights are forced upon us by foreign bodies. But our current constitution guarantees these fundamental rights and many of them were in the first federal constitution in 1848.
We should be proud of our tradition of freedom and defence of human rights. In our globalised world, human rights have become universal. We cannot isolate ourselves and ignore the debates within international institutions.
Switzerland also has a real interest in protecting human rights around the world as they influence issues such as refugees and migration. And we cannot promote human rights abroad and claim they are of no interest to us at home.
swissinfo.ch: What are the main human rights issues in Switzerland?
W.K.: Finding out exactly what they are will be our first task. We will look at the recommendations and criticism from international bodies and see if they are borne out by reality. One of the challenges for Switzerland is to harmonise respect for human rights with the practical necessities of politics at the local and national levels.
Much of the criticism we face is centred on our relationship with foreigners, be it racism, asylum policy or other factors.
Protection of women has also been highlighted in the past. Switzerland has a problem with domestic violence. Some cantons have done a good job fighting it, but others have not been so efficient. But respect for human rights includes protecting people.
We face the same issue when it comes to trafficking of women, a new kind of slavery. Prostitution in Switzerland is probably affected, but we don’t have sufficient reliable data to work with. It’s the same when it comes to abuses committed by police against foreigners.
One of the problems we have in Switzerland is lack of statistics concerning human rights abuses. Either they don’t exist, or they only concern some cantons, and this is one of the issues we will have to tackle.
The mission of the Swiss Center of Expertise in Human Rights is to strengthen Switzerland's national capacities for implementing human rights by providing information, advice, tools and forums for stakeholders.
The government provides basic funding, which is pooled with the resources already committed by the participating educational institutions backing the centre.
Cantons, cities, municipalities, the private sector and civil society will also contribute financially on the basis of the mandates awarded to the SCHR.
The centre's mandate is set out in a framework agreement.end of infobox
Born in 1951, Kälin studied at the universities of Fribourg, Bern and Harvard.
Since 1985, he is a professor of international and constitutional law at Bern University.
He is an internationally recognised expert on human rights.
In 1991 and 1992, he was the special rapporteur on the occupation of Kuwait and Iraq for the UN's Commission on Human Rights.
Between 2003 and 2008, he was the first Swiss member of the UN's committee for human rights and helped set up the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.
From 2004 to 2010, he was also the UN secretary-general's representative for the human rights of internally displaced persons.end of infobox
Adapted from French by Scott Capper, swissinfo.ch