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What Switzerland can offer the Summit for Democracy

Nationalgardisten im US-Kapitol
National Guardsmen at the Capitol in Washington on January 13, 2021, the day the impeachment began of former president Donald Trump Keystone / Shawn Thew

Switzerland is taking part in the Summit for Democracy held by the United States from December 9-10. The small country wants to seize the opportunity to make its mark internationally.

The two-day summitExternal link was an election promise by US President Joe Biden. The world’s largest economy has invited presidents, prime ministers and ambassadors from around the world. They will discuss how to strengthen human rights and the fight against corruption, and how to deal with rising autocracy and authoritarianism.

Russia, China, Turkey and Hungary were not invited to the summit; India, Iraq, Kosovo and Taiwan were. Conditions to attend include committing to concrete measures to improve democracy at home and globally within the next year.

The initiative comes in the wake of last year’s US presidential elections, which ended with a failed coup by supporters of former president Donald Trump. The US then sent an important signal: the dismantling of democracy does not follow a law of nature and can be stopped.

In doing so, the US created the positive narrative longed for by many: that America, as the oldest and most emblematic democracy, is admittedly tarnished but robust enough to put an end to Trump’s attacks on fundamental values.

With this summit Biden aims to “strengthen people’s self-determination and counter the dangers of autocracy”.

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The role of Switzerland

The summit is an important event for Switzerland. It will provide a platform for the country to showcase its democratic procedures. It is also an opportunity for Switzerland to place itself on the global agenda.

For Simon GeissbühlerExternal link, head of the Human Security Division at the Swiss foreign ministry, the Democracy Summit comes at the right time. 

“Switzerland does not want to simply be an appendage of the Biden summit. Rather, it gives us a new impetus to bundle our previous activities in the field and to contribute constructively and credibly with our model and our know-how,” he says.

Despite its small size Switzerland is a democratic heavyweight. However, it is more known for its security, stability, quality of life and neutrality than for its unique form of participative democracy. The regular popular votes on all sorts of societal issues ranging from the Covid law to taxes are perceived somewhat as a curiosity by outsiders.


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Most people in Switzerland don’t even know that the promotion of democracy is a central pillar of Swiss foreign policy as defined by Article 54 in the new Swiss constitution. This has been the case since 1999. In 2003 the same article was inscribed in federal law.

This will be the first time that the country will present plans on how to fulfil its constitutional duty.

However, the primary goal of Geissbühler and Guy Parmelin, who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, will not be to promote Switzerland’s direct democratic practices at the summit. Rather, they will focus on fundamental values and institutions that are prerequisites for a strong democracy everywhere in the world.

“Here, we have a lot to offer,” Geissbühler says. He cites human rights, conflict resolution, rule of law, protection of minorities, decentralisation and local participation.

The Summit for Democracy on December 9-10 will launch a process that has parallels with the global climate change conferences known as COP (Conference of the Parties). The first world summit on climate protection was held in 1992, and the 26th conference was recently held in Glasgow, Scotland (COP26, read our focusExternal link).

As with the COP process, the first Summit for Democracy now calls on the invited states to commit to concrete measures to protect human rights and democracy. The UN Charter on Universal Human Rights provides the common basis for this.

At the next Summit for Democracy in a year’s time, reports will be presented on whether and how the promised measures have been implemented.  

Invited to the first Summit for Democracy are 110 countries from six continents (see map): 39 countries from Europe, 27 from the Americas, 21 from Oceania, 17 from Africa and six from Asia. It is striking that almost all of the countries that occupy the top positions in the leading international democracy rankings are allowed to have their say at the summit.

But there are also exceptions. For example, US President Joe Biden, who took the initiative for this conference, did not invite moderate-ranking democratic countries such as Tunisia (42nd place in the V-Dem ranking), Burkina Faso (57th) or Lesotho (61st).

At the same time, countries that are among the most undemocratic in the world are allowed to speak. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo (137th in the V-Dem ranking), Iraq (124) and the Philippines (108).

States that score very poorly in the rankings were not invited, including China (174) and Russia (153). They have sharply criticised the democracy summit process. In a guest article in American magazine The National Interest, the diplomats of the two superpowers, Qin Gang and Anatoly Antonov, called the meeting a “product of a Cold War mentality” and emphasised that democracy can be “realised in different ways”.

(Bruno Kaufmann)

Power sharing as a Swiss trump card

Political scientist Daniel BochslerExternal link agrees that Switzerland can be self-confident about its expertise in democracy.

“Switzerland leaves a very large footprint internationally,” says Bochsler, who teaches and conducts research at the Central European University in Vienna, the University of Belgrade and the Center for Democracy Aarau.

He sees Switzerland’s biggest assets in its expertise in conflict mediation and systems of sharing of power, such as it is currently doing in war-torn countries like Libya and Syria.

But it will be difficult for Switzerland to “sell” its constitution to countries that want to manage a conflict. What it can do at the summit is explain and promote how an early mediation process can help avoid conflict escalation, he explains. This typically Swiss procedure has enabled Switzerland to avoid international conflicts since 1519!

As an example of international mediation and peacebuilding, Bochsler cites the Swiss peace foundation Swisspeace, a research institute based in BaselExternal link which aims to promote conflict prevention and conflict transformation.

Some of the most important instruments of Swiss democracy, Bochsler says, are the wide representation of the population in parliament, the right of referendum for a minority in constitutional and legislative changes, and autonomy for linguistic and religious groups. Every national language – French, German, Italian and Romansh – is represented in media, schools and government.

The foundations for Swiss democracy come from what Bochsler calls a “democratic toolbox”. According to him, federalism is the “magic formula” for the stable composition of the government at all levels.

Tradition of neutrality

For Thomas CarothersExternal link, deputy director of research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, promoting the Swiss way of mediation makes sense. This can also be a solution for countries which are currently struggling with severe political polarisation and division.

“Because of its long tradition of neutrality, Switzerland is careful not to let its international work appear to take political sides or endorse particular political systems,” he said.

“Switzerland has a lot of experience teaching how a divided society can work together politically.”

Carothers is calling on countries participating in the summit to make a serious commitment to working together on promoting democracy, rather than just making elegant speeches. He says the key to an honest assessment of progress lies in creating “real momentum for the summit process”.

To ensure that the meeting goes beyond words, Washington is setting clear and binding conditions for the countries: they must commit to improvements in strengthening human rights, fighting corruption and autocracy. Those who do not fulfil their commitments will not be included in the follow-up summit, which, according to the US administration, is to take place in a year’s time.

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