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Free trade trumps human rights in China deal

Thumbs up: Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann was pleased with the outcome of this first vote Keystone

The House of Representatives has accepted a free trade agreement (FTA) with China despite misgivings that human and workers’ rights as well as the environment were not taken sufficiently into account by the government when it signed the accord.

More than two-thirds of the parliamentarians present in Bern on Tuesday voted in favour of ratifying the deal after debating its pros and cons. The Senate is expected to debate the FTA in March. 

Most of the discussions focused on whether the government should return to the negotiating table to demand further protocols setting out guarantees for human and worker’s rights as well as environmental protection.

The centre-left Social Democrat Carlo Sommaruga said the accord signed in July by Switzerland did not refer to these specific issues.

“While human rights violations in China are massive, the basic conventions in favour of workers of the International Labour Organization (ILO) are not respected, and industrial production fails to protect the environment; the terms of this agreement are the most lenient we have dealt with in recent years,” he added.

His party colleague Jacqueline Fehr also claimed that the potential benefits of the deal were overstated and that trade exchanges between Switzerland and China were less than those with the neighbouring German state of Baden-Württemberg.

But Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said those exchanges would grow in the coming years. China is already Switzerland’s biggest trade partner in Asia and third overall after the European Union and the United States.

He also stated that issues concerning human and workers’ rights as well as the environment were implicit in the accord.

The majority lined up behind the minister, refusing to demand changes to the accord.

“The agreement will give Swiss goods and services access to the vast and growing Chinese market, reinforce intellectual property rights […] and will contribute to sustainable development,” said the centre-right Radical Christian Lüscher.

He added that the deal would provide Switzerland with a competitive advantage over countries who had not signed a similar agreement with China.

Non-negotiable concessions

Supporters of the accord admitted that China’s record on a number of issues including human rights was far from perfect, but also stated that its government had made some progress.

They added that it was not the time to press the Chinese with further demands.

“Beijing has already made a number of non-negotiable concessions,” said centre-right Christian Democrat Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter, pointing out that the accord explicitly mentioned the United Nations charter, which refers to human rights.

The farmer’s lobby did not intervene in the debate, considering that its demands had been taken into account. Swiss agricultural products will either be exempt from customs’ duties or benefit from better import conditions in China.

The House also decided that Swiss citizens did not have to vote on the agreement as it could be revoked at any time by both parties with six months’ notice. 

Even if both chambers ratify the accord, voters could still have the final word if a referendum is launched against it.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR