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“The mood towards foreigners has worsened”

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Attitudes towards foreigners have toughened in recent years, according to Georg Kreis, chairman of the Federal Commission against Racism.

As he prepares to step down after 16 years in the job, he tells that part of the reason is the neoliberal climate with its emphasis on competition and where every person is encouraged to be out for themselves.

The job of the commission is not to change people’s beliefs, but rather to ensure that they do not act in racially discriminating ways, he says. What has been your greatest success in your 16 years as chairman of the Federal Commission against Racism?

Georg Kreis: Our greatest success was, and certainly still is, that the problem of racism has been taken more seriously since 1996. But to a certain extent taking it seriously has been manifested in the wrong way, that’s to say, from a superficial angle: what am I allowed to say? how far can I go without getting into trouble? What we should really be thinking about is what is good for coexistence, what is reasonable to expect from other people and what is not. One of the tasks of the commission is to monitor attitudes in the country. So what is the mood towards the foreign population?

G.K.: The mood towards foreigners, towards “others”, has definitely worsened. The distinction between “me and them” or “us and them” has become sharper. It is quite clear that denigrating others is a way of making yourself feel more important. Why has this happened?

G.K.: I’m very sceptical about all the explanations. People talk about globalisation, an increase in immigration, uncertainty about the future. But all these explanations bother me, because they all contain justifications.

What we really need to explain first of all is why there has been such an upsurge in nationalism, because denigrating people who are regarded, rightly or wrongly, as being “different” is connected with an archaic tribalistic way of thinking that seems to be coming back into vogue and which is a guiding principle even for much of the conservative middle class. According to your latest report, there have been slightly more racist incidents reported, mainly anti-black racism and Islamophobia. What have you done wrong?

G.K.: I won’t say categorically that we have not done some things wrong. But you can’t use these figures to measure the achievements either of authorities whose task is prevention, or of those whose task is enforcement. We don’t know how many cases there would have been if we weren’t there.

And don’t forget that racism in the private sphere is not covered. We simply don’t know how many cases there are of racial discrimination when it comes to applying for apprenticeships or jobs for example, or in looking for an apartment. Do you see a connection between the political climate and racist behaviour in ordinary people?

G.K.: There are certainly connections. It’s become more acceptable to put the emphasis on what’s “mine”, and to behave brusquely towards other people. These things are even seen as a virtue.

This development is part of neoliberal competition: the race goes to the strong, no room for kid gloves. And all of this is combined with so-called freedom of opinion.

What I am most worried about is the pseudo-democratic opinion that is gaining ground which claims that defining racism is just a question of interpretation. Of course there are marginal areas where it’s hard to draw clear lines, but to regard the issue in general as simply something a person is free to judge as they see fit, is cause for alarm.

It’s not our job to work on what people feel. Of course it would be desirable for people not to be anti-Semitic, or not to regard travellers as inferior. But the main thing is that they shouldn’t show it openly. Does the rightwing People’s Party with its anti-foreigner posters, for example against Muslims, bear some of the responsibility for the xenophobic climate in the country?

G.K.: Of course it does, but that doesn’t mean one should attach too much responsibility to it. It is always individuals themselves who are responsible. I can’t use as an excuse the fact I was encouraged by the People’s Party posters, but it is clear that they do tend in general to provide such encouragement, even if the posters themselves don’t meet the definition of racism. You want ordinary citizens to get more involved in situations where people are discriminated against or treated in a racist way. Is there not enough awareness of racism in our society? Has your commission not done enough to make people sit up and take notice?

G.K.: Sure, but what does that mean? I would be happy if people concluded that we are not responsible for that. The commission must point things out, must issue warnings, but in the last resort it’s not an education commission.

We don’t pretend to be able to do everything, we don’t want to be responsible for everything. What we want is for civil society to do more. We have enough non-governmental organisations in this country who do good things with a minimal amount of money. I would like to see more individuals supporting these organisations.

The international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination came into force on December 29, 1994.

To meet the prerequisite for joining the convention, Switzerland had to introduce a criminal provision on racism.

The Federal Commission against Racism was founded in 1995.

It deals with racial discrimination and promotes better understanding between people of different races, skin colours, ancestries, national or ethnic origins and religions. It also fights all forms of direct or indirect racial discrimination and gives special attention to its prevention.

Georg Kreis was born in Basel in 1943 and grew up there.

He studied history, German and philosophy in Basel, Paris and Cambridge.

He was professor of modern history at Basel University until 2009.

He headed Basel University’s Europa Institute until summer 2011.

He was a member of the Bergier commission, which investigated the role of Switzerland in the Second World War.

He is a member of the centre right Radical Party.

He has chaired the Federal Commission against Racism since its establishment in 1995.

Martine Brunschwig Graf, also of the Radical Party, who used to represent Geneva in parliament will take over from Kreis in 2012.

(Translated from German by Julia Slater)

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