Swiss open human rights dialogue with Iran

Young Iranians held in a Tehran prison, after being arrested at a student protest Keystone

A Swiss foreign ministry delegation has travelled to Iran to open dialogue on human rights.

This content was published on October 13, 2003 - 12:15

The visit comes amid mounting international concern over the Islamic state’s nuclear programme, commitment to fighting terrorism and treatment of dissidents.

The visit also comes 12 years after Bern started similar talks with China, which have been criticised by some human rights groups.

Switzerland has looked after American interests in Iran since relations were broken off between the two countries after the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Simon Amman, one of the officials on the two-day trip, says this good relationship between Switzerland and Iran was central to the decision to send a government delegation there.

“The human rights record of Iran is not very good at the moment and at the same time Switzerland and Iran entertain good relations,” he told swissinfo.

Prison standards

Ammann says the main aim of the trip is to hold discussions with a view to improving the human rights situation in the country.

The delegation, headed by diplomat Peter Maurer, will be holding talks with high-ranking Iranian officials on corporal punishment, including the use of stoning, and prison standards in Iran.

Ammann says the Swiss will also be discussing the possibility of helping to train prison officers.

The foreign ministry official says the project is a long term one and although Switzerland is a small country on the political scene, he is convinced it can make a difference.

“Switzerland maybe doesn't have huge weight, but there are other countries including the European Union, Japan, Australia which have started human rights dialogues with Iran,” explained Ammann.

“We work as so-called like-minded states and I think together we should have quite a lot of weight,” he said.

China – a success?

Twelve years ago Bern started similar talks with China, which is accused of having a poor human rights record.

But rights campaigners say very little has been achieved in this time.

The project, which still ongoing, is coordinated by Pascale Baeriswyl from the Swiss foreign ministry.

She says there have been successes, notably in the release of political prisoners in Tibet. And she points out that Switzerland was the first country to start a human rights dialogue with the communist country.

But Baeriswyl says it was never Switzerland’s aim to impose changes.

“With a human rights dialogue the first aim is not to influence directly or to improve directly the human rights situation on the ground, but to give some input to a country that is in transition,” Baeriswyl told swissinfo.

“This means we try to help the Chinese to meet the intentional level in human rights, concretely to ratify the UN conventions and to implement them on the ground,” she added.

A different situation

The Iran visit has been welcomed by human rights groups in Switzerland who say they have long been battling for Swiss intervention in the country.

Alain Bovard of Amnesty International Switzerland says that the talks might even have more chance of success than with China.

“The Iranian attitude towards Switzerland is quite different from the Chinese attitude towards Switzerland, as Switzerland is more respected in Iran than it is in China,” said Bovard.

He says that the Swiss have always had quite an open attitude towards Iran, which is in their favour.

But he warns that Switzerland shouldn't become complacent, saying that the country will have to offer something more concrete than just dialogue to achieve its aims.

swissinfo, Isobel Johnson

Key facts

Iran has been accused of supporting terrorism and remains the subject of United States sanctions.
Since the election of President Mohammed Khatami in 1997, relations with the West have been slowly improving.
But concerns over Tehran's nuclear programme have put a strain on relations recently.
The European Union has threatened to withdraw from a lucrative trade deal unless Tehran dispels doubts over its nuclear programme.
The Swiss trip runs from October 13-14.

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