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Swiss urged to set up human rights commission

Separate bodies currently deal with the human rights of women, youth and foreigners

(Keystone)

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has warned that there are big gaps in the country's human rights system.

He has called for a nationwide debate on whether a federal commission should be established to protect human rights within Switzerland.

"We need to consider a national human rights institution," Deiss told a human rights conference in Bern on Thursday.

"Switzerland should not be allowed to become a blank spot on the map of Europe [in terms of human rights]."

Deiss said there had been "inexcusable" human rights violations in Switzerland, citing the forced repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and discrimination against disabled people.

Although Switzerland is the depository nation of the International Convention on Human Rights, it does not have a single authority responsible for internal human rights issues.

The Swiss authorities currently use an ad hoc system to monitor and defend certain human rights, with separate bodies dealing with racism, women, youth and foreigners.

Human rights

The drive to build a federal human rights body has gathered steam in the wake of Switzerland's accession to the United Nations in September.

Among the oft-stated goals of Switzerland's UN foreign policy is the government's desire to pursue human rights on the world stage.

However, Deiss says to do that Switzerland must first put its own house in order.

Bertie Ramcharan, the deputy UN Human Rights Commissioner, who also addressed the conference, said all countries needed to constantly monitor their own human rights record.

"Are you satisfied that enough is being done to protect the culture of human rights in this country?" he asked the conference.

Ramcharan also questioned whether Switzerland could fulfil its human rights obligations in the absence of a single human rights body.

Opposition

The question of whether Switzerland should set up a single institution, or perhaps revamp its existing bodies, faces opposition from the country's right-wing People's Party, as well as from elements within the federal bureaucracy.

Hans Fehr, a People's Party parliamentarian, told the conference that there was no need for a human rights commission in Switzerland as a web of groups - including non-governmental organisations and government agencies - already did the job well enough.

"We don't have to build an institution that costs money and takes away responsibility from politicians, the government and members of parliament," Fehr told swissinfo.

"They are there to work in the area of human rights."

Fehr added that the notion of a Swiss human rights commission was a "socialist idea" designed to shift responsibility for human rights from individuals to another state body.

"Everybody in the world - if they know Switzerland - knows that we're not just about chocolate, cheese and the Matterhorn. It is also the country of freedom and human rights."

Urgent need

Maya Doetzkies from Human Rights Switzerland told swissinfo that the authorities had an obligation to ensure human rights were adequately protected.

"We see an urgent need for such a body," she said. "Many [Swiss] people believe that human rights violations are the problems of foreigners, like in China or Africa."

Doetzkies listed issues such as child pornography, the heavy-handed deportations of illegal asylum seekers (which last year led to at least one custodial death) and domestic violence as examples of a human rights "gap" within Switzerland.

"We still have to do work in our own country, and that's why we need a guardian of human rights," she said.

While the national debate on a federal human rights institution is still in its infancy, Switzerland is increasingly being left behind by other western nations.

A growing number of developed nations have built independent institutions responsible for monitoring and preventing human rights violations.

Countries such as Italy and Scotland are preparing national bodies in the wake of similar moves by Ireland, several Scandinavian nations, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber

In brief

Foreign minister Joseph Deiss has called for a nationwide debate on whether to set up a federal commission to protect human rights in Switzerland.

Deiss said there had been "inexcusable" human rights violations, citing the forced repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and discrimination against disabled people.

The right-wing Swiss People's Party has rejected the idea of a human rights commission, saying there is no need for such a body.

Human rights activists say Switzerland needs to put its house in order.

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