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Swiss hope to lead by example in fight against racism

The federal commission against racism wants other countries step up efforts to combat discrimination

(swissinfo.ch)

Switzerland is hoping to persuade other countries to tackle racism at a federal level. The government wants other nations to follow its example by creating dedicated bodies to investigate racism and devise policies against it.

The government said this week that its federal commission against racism, set up in the mid-1990s, had achieved notable successes in combating discrimination, and could serve as an example to other countries.

It said it intended to launch the proposal at the United Nations conference against racism, due to take place in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001.

Doris Angst, general secretary of the federal commission against racism, said the body's success in tackling racism lay mainly in its ability to intervene to prevent abuses.

"It's a characteristic of Switzerland that a phenomenon such as racism is often hidden," Angst told swissinfo. "But in our specific role, we can talk to the people concerned and put the finger on developments that we consider harmful."

She cited one case in which the commission had publicly named and shamed a school in canton Lucerne after it instituted a policy of segregating Swiss and foreign children into different classes. The policy was scrapped shortly afterwards, and pre-empted other cantons from following suit.

The commission is now considering new measures to tackle racism, including more support to victims of racism and a further efforts to clamp down on racist Internet sites. Angst said the government also intends to promote such measures at the Durban conference.

She said Swiss computer specialists were well placed to offer technical expertise in fighting cyber-racism, which is difficult to tackle legally, if its source lies outside the country.

"The majority of racist websites are located in the US," she said. "But the US government holds the principle of freedom of speech above everything else and refuses to close down the sites. That's why technical measures become important."

Wednesday's meeting in Zurich also discussed how to spend a budget of SFr15 million ($8.8 million), which the government set aside for the fight against racism last month.

Most of the money, which will be spent over a period of five years, is to be distributed through projects run by local initiatives and non-government organisations (NGOs).

Possible projects include a telephone helpline, and counselling centres for victims of racism, as well as the setting up of teams of experts to help communities, schools and companies deal with racism.

"One problem in the fight against racism is that it is easy to preach to the converted, but difficult to reach the culprits," Angst said.

This is why the SFr15 million fund will mainly go towards projects run by local NGOs. One example is the Forum against Racism, a church-funded NGO which helped to organise Wednesday's meeting.

"Racism is less of a problem of structures than of mentalities", explained spokeswoman, Muriel Beck. "NGOs with their bottom-up approach are better suited to fight racism than government bodies."

by Markus Haefliger


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