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Switzerland marks 40 years of European union

The European Court of Human Rights was set up by the Council to enforce the Human Rights Convention

(Keystone)

Four decades after Switzerland joined the Council of Europe there is still a general lack of awareness about the work of the organisation.

Indeed the body which promotes democracy and the rule of law, as well as an understanding of Europe's cultural identity, is frequently confused with the European Union.

On May 6 Switzerland celebrated 40 years as a member of the Strasbourg-based organisation.

"Bold step"

Speaking on the anniversary, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer said Switzerland's decision to join had been "a bold and forward-looking step".

"It was also the beginning of a new interpretation of Swiss neutrality, which meant no longer standing aloof but, instead, being actively neutral and therefore able to work with other states to achieve common goals," Schwimmer said.

Lisbeth Fehr of the Swiss People's Party is one of 12 parliamentarians who make up the Swiss delegation in Strasbourg.

"We serve as delegates in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for four years, attending four meetings per year," said Fehr, who is the current president of the Swiss delegation.

She told swissinfo that serving on the Parliamentary Assembly was a challenge for the Swiss delegates, who also serve on the national parliament and hold down jobs.

"The work at the Council may be exciting, but it is also very time-consuming," Fehr said.

Not the EU

The main work of the Council is in preparing conventions, primarily in the areas of democracy and culture. It is up to the individual member states whether they then ratify these or not.

In its 40-year membership of the Council, Switzerland has ratified 97 out of a total of 189 conventions.

The European Union works in a quite different way. The EU Commission in Brussels issues edicts, which member states must follow.

Despite the clear differences, Fehr says many people still seem to confuse the 54-year-old Council of Europe with the EU.

Even though 15 of the 45 Council members are EU countries, the Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, says the EU does not influence the Council's work.

"The work and the goal of the Council of Europe differ from those of the EU. It is a good thing that there is an organisation other than the EU acting as a platform for those countries that are not part of it [the EU]," Couchepin said in a speech marking the anniversary.

Human Rights Convention

One of the Council's greatest achievements is considered to be the European Human Rights Convention.

Serbia and Montenegro - the Council's newest member - had to sign the convention before being admitted to the organisation in April 2003.

"If Switzerland had had to meet the same requirements that countries have to meet today, we would not have been accepted as a member in 1963," a Swiss foreign ministry spokesman told swissinfo.

The spokesman referred to the fact that up until 1971 Swiss women did not have full voting rights, which the Council of Europe considers as a basic human right.

For this reason Switzerland only ratified the European Human Rights Convention in 1974.

Social Charter

Switzerland is still struggling with some of the Council's other conventions, such as the Social Charter, which deals with issues such maternity leave and the right to strike.

It has delayed ratifying the charter since 1992 and parliament recently rescheduled debate on the issue to the winter session of 2004.

Fehr says that it is not just the public that fails to appreciate the important work of the Council. She says there is a lack of recognition from the media, and even members of the Swiss parliament

"I have to say, it is sometimes a thankless task," Fehr told swissinfo.

Nevertheless, Switzerland does use its membership of the Council of Europe to try to influence its European neighbours. Before war broke out in Iraq, the Swiss parliamentary delegation called an urgent debate in the Council, with the then foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, speaking out against military intervention without a United Nations mandate.

swissinfo, Urs Maurer (translation: Billi Bierling)

Council summary

In September 1946 Winston Churchill called for the creation of a United States of Europe, the first step towards creating the Council of Europe.
The Council of Europe was founded on May 5 1949.
It is based in Strasbourg and has 45 members.
When Switzerland joined the organisation 40 years ago there were 16 members.
Switzerland ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1974.

end of infobox


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