Racism watchdog calls immigration vote a ‘setback’

Members of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) raised various concerns and questions about the recent mass-immigration vote (tree campaign poster still visible) Keystone

Switzerland needs national awareness-raising campaigns that reach deep into rural areas to counter negative perceptions of foreigners, says a top anti-racism official in assessing the recent immigration vote and a United Nations review on discrimination.

This content was published on February 19, 2014

Sabine Simkhovitch-Dreyfus, vice-president of the Federal Commission against Racism, spoke to on the day Switzerland defended its race relations record before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva as part of a regular country review.

Drawing on the findings, she examines the impact of the recent vote in favour of immigration curbs and outlines future anti-discrimination priorities for the Swiss.

On February 9 Swiss voters narrowly backed an initiative by the rightwing Swiss People's Party which tapped into concerns about globalisation, growth and Swiss culture being eroded by foreigners, who account for nearly a quarter of the country's population.

Courtesy of Sabine Simkhovitch-Dreyfus The recent vote raised numerous concerns among United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) committee members who said its ‘boat is full’ message reflects discriminatory and xenophobic rhetoric in Europe. What likely consequences will the vote have for your work?

Sabine Simkhovitch-Dreyfus: We don’t believe everyone who voted for this initiative is xenophobic. This was not the only motivation, but it was part of it, and it is a matter of concern. The reasons that led to the result are multiple.

The exact impact of the vote on our work is difficult to predict, but it is a setback. It complicates a lot of practical aspects and contributes to the perception that the new people who come here bring more problems than anything else.

It’s too early to say whether this will give a boost to extreme-right groups in Switzerland which are not as strong as they were a few years ago and certainly much weaker than those in other European countries. But we have to remain very prudent.

Country review – what the country rapporteur said

Concluding remarks by Anastacia Crickley, CERD Country Rapporteur for Switzerland:

“The Committee appreciated the Swiss delegation’s precise and honest answers but said the issues of media stereotyping and hate speech by politicians had not been directly covered.”

“The Committee’s concluding observations will tackle the following areas: civil anti-discrimination legislation, integration programmes, data collection and the development of a national human rights institution."

“We are concerned by the underlying trend of the “democratization of discrimination””.

“While positive measures made by Switzerland were welcome, an impression persisted that racial discrimination was not being dealt at the same level as gender and other types of discrimination.”

End of insertion What do you see as the main anti-racism priorities from the latest CERD exercise?

S.S.-D.: The anti-racism norm in article 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code penalises racial discrimination and is generally well implemented but in some regions authorities are not aware of the need to apply it in certain cases. We also really believe that associations must be able to act as civil parties in discrimination cases.

We also feel that prevention should be given much greater attention. Awareness-raising campaigns for young children are important. This is a cantonal matter but nothing prevents the federal authorities from initiating such campaigns and being more active.

There are cantons where much is done and we have to acknowledge this and others where little if anything is done. In more rural smaller regions there is more prejudice against people who are different and little is done in terms of prevention.

We feel it’s important to go into these regions where the cantons are not very active. What is really needed is to show the positive things our cultural and religious differences can bring to this country.


Linked to that is the very counter-productive phenomenon of how political vote campaigns are led. There have been many campaigns where foreigners or people of different religions have been the focus and this has led to a negative image.

There are foreigners  - and of course Swiss - who are criminals but campaigns generalise, and this is the opposite of what our awareness campaigns should be doing. We believe political parties and actors should have a greater sense of responsibility in the way they lead their campaigns.

Country review – the government’s view

Concluding remarks by Jürg Lindenmann, Deputy Director of the Directorate for International Public Law at the foreign ministry:

“I would like to thank the Committee for an open and constructive dialogue.  Preserving and re-creating a society in which members can live together with mutual respect was an ongoing process and the authorities were fully aware that it was a sustained effort.”

“The Committee’s expertise and advice was beneficial to Switzerland in its continuation of activities to combat racial discrimination.” 

"50.3% of the Swiss population [who backed the initiative] cannot be considered xenophobic. Rather, many people were anxious about globalization and modernization processes around them, and wanted to preserve Switzerland as they knew it in the past. (…) People’s concerns had to be taken into consideration."

End of insertion Campaigners complain that most of CERD’s recommendations following Switzerland’s previous appearance in 2008 have not been implemented. What’s your view on Swiss progress tackling racism?

S.S.-D.: Progress is difficult to measure. There have been efforts to implement a certain number of anti-discrimination measures in integration law via the cantons. The new Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights has also done some good work.

There are a number of examples where things have been done but other fields where there has been nothing, in particular as this would require a vote in the parliament. Some of the changes being asked for require decisions that are politically difficult to take right now.

Over the past decade there has been a lot of resistance to introducing new anti-discrimination legislation or other anti-racism measures. We always need to fight to maintain what we have achieved. The lack of a comprehensive federal law defining anti-discrimination was again one of the main concerns. The authorities maintain that existing legal foundations offer sufficient protection, but critics say they are underdeveloped, costly, and don’t offer effective remedies against discrimination in the job or housing markets. Do you see any movement on this issue?

S.S.-D.: The commission addressed this issue in 2010 and published a report recommending to enact such an anti-discrimination law, which already exists in many other countries, especially in the European Union, but we have had limited results.

But like the CERD special rapporteur, we feel there is no constitutional obstacle and a federal law would fit into our system if enacted, as was the case for laws on gender discrimination and discrimination of the disabled. The Swiss delegation argued that four-year cantonal integration programmes introduced in January 2014 should help improve discrimination nationwide. But CERD’s special rapporteur felt integration programmes were watering down anti-discrimination efforts. What are your thoughts?

S.S.-D.: Integration programmes are a positive thing as long as they don’t aim at assimilation. Integration is for people arriving here and contributes to better social cohesion. It can help to fight racism but doesn’t address the phenomenon as such. The fact that this is seen as ‘the’ answer to our anti-discrimination programmes is not satisfactory. Discrimination occurs in Switzerland among people who are even very well integrated.

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