Can Switzerland compel its citizens to do public service?

Volunteer firefighters at work: a popular initiative advocates for mandatory civic duty as a way to increase volunteerism to solve problems like staff shortages in certain sectors. Keystone / Lukas Lehmann

A popular initiative and a move in parliament aim to make it mandatory for all Swiss to do civic duty that benefits the community and the environment. The goal is to save the militia system and plug staff shortages in key sectors. But the idea may just run counter to international law, which bans forced labour. 

This content was published on February 18, 2020 - 15:15

A Swiss association for the promotion of militia service called wants to launch a popular initiative in 2020 that would oblige every Swiss citizen to perform militia service. This could be done either as military service or as an equivalent service of civic duty. Parliament would determine the extent to which foreigners would be allowed to volunteer, outside the army. 

In doing so, the initiators want to raise the profile of militia service, contribute to solving existing "collective ecological and demographic challenges" and "recognise women as full citizens". 

In Switzerland, only men with a Swiss passport are currently obliged to serve in the military. Women are allowed to perform military service on a voluntary basis. 

+ Learn more about Switzerland's militia system

By "demographic challenges", the initiators are mainly referring to the crisis in the care sector.  

"The health system is facing serious cost and staffing problems," says Noémie Roten, co-president of the association. She points to a study that suggests civic duty could alleviate these issues in long-term care. 

More workforce through compulsory service 

Last year, parliamentarian Beat Vonlanthen of the centrist Christian Democratic Party introduced a motion for the government to look into the issue. He asked the government whether mandatory civic duty might be a way to strengthen the militia system and meet new social challenges. He requested an assessment of whether, given the country’s aging population, such a service could increase staffing levels in care and nursing. 

The government accepted and the defence ministry will publish a report at the end of 2020.  

"The question of the compatibility of civic duty with international law will be clarified," Lorenz Frischknecht of the defence ministry told 

Crisis in the Swiss militia service 

In Switzerland, it is commonplace to take on public service work on a part-time and voluntary basis. The Swiss Army, for example, is organised on the basis of a militia. Civilian service (not to be confused with civic duty) is an alternative option for conscripts in the armed forces. 

In recent years, the militia system has suffered from a lack of volunteers, particularly for political functions. The army has also faced staffing problems as more conscripts are being reassigned to civilian service and others are being dispensed from short-term refresher courses. 

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Could civic duty be considered forced labour? 

Indeed, there is a catch to the idea of mandatory civic duty. According to international human rights conventions, such as the European Convention on Human RightsExternal link and UN conventions, no one may be obliged to do forced or compulsory labour. Military service and alternative civilian service undertaken for moral reasons, services in the event of emergencies and disasters, and services that are part of the duties of citizens are not considered forced labour. 

Civic duty is not an exception to the forced labour ban under international law. In a report commissioned by the government, a research committee left open the question of whether a blanket obligation to serve is compatible with the forced labour ban. 

Nevertheless, the initiators are convinced that civic duty does not constitute slavery or forced labour in the sense of the international conventions.  

“Civic duty is consistent with human rights and does not constitute forced labour,” says Roten, who adds that on the contrary, it would bring more freedom because people would be able to choose from many different types of service. 

Duration and content are key 

Rainer J. Schweizer, a law professor who has studied issues related to mandatory services, is more sceptical.  

"I am not sure it makes sense to try to fill gaps where there is a personnel shortage with a civic service," he says. However, he believes that a smaller part-time commitment to the common good, such as civil protection, would not pose a problem. 

Under international law, work and services that "are part of normal civic obligations" are not considered forced labour.  

"In some mountain communities, villagers may be forced to erect protection structures against a torrent if floods occur repeatedly," explains Schweizer. 

He stresses, however, that it is not acceptable to exploit the work of a person on compulsory service to make up for a labour shortage in industry, hotels or restaurants. "Or if the service lasts so long that the freedom to choose an occupation is effectively restricted," he adds. He notes, however, that the idea of civic duty has the advantage of guaranteeing gender equality and allows for the inclusion of foreigners. 

Initiative unlikely to succeed 

The fate of the popular initiative depends on how it is interpreted. Since the initiators openly admit that they want to solve personnel shortages, such as in the care sector, they may come up against the ban on forced labour, which is intended to prevent the exploitation of labour. 

Parliament declares popular initiatives null and void if they violate mandatory provisions of international law, of which the ban on forced labour is one. However, this has happened in only a few cases in the past. It is therefore quite possible that the fate of a civic duty initiative will ultimately be decided by voters.

And, according to Schweizer, it has little chance of being approved, because civic service does not correspond with current Swiss mentality.

"The average Swiss citizen today wants above all to earn money and provide for themselves and their family, not to serve the public at large." 

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