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What does it mean? Poll: Half of Swiss people can’t define ‘international law’

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A sign outside a polling station ("Today there is a vote"). Swiss voters must decide whether they want their constitution to trump international law.


When asked to describe international law it seems that nearly one in two Swiss struggles. On November 25, the Swiss will vote on a sovereignty initiative to give Swiss law priority over international law. 

In July, 6,652 adults participated in an online survey commissioned by lobby group Operation Liberoexternal link and carried out by the Sotomoexternal link research group. Of these, 49% said that they couldn’t provide a description of international law. 

Among those who said they could, 17% defined it as “protection of human rights”; another 17% said “rules for relations between states”. Seven percent highlighted the “supranational aspect” and 4% described it as “peoples’ right to existence and protection”. 

According to the United Nationsexternal link, international law defines the “legal responsibilities of states in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within state boundaries”. It encompasses human rights, disarmament, international crime, refugees, migration, problems of nationality, the treatment of prisoners, the use of force, and the conduct of war, among others. It also regulates “global questions like the environment and sustainable development, international waters, outer space, global communications and world trade”. 

Among the 18-35-year-olds surveyed, 57% couldn’t offer a definition of international law, compared with 44% of those over 55. And while older people tended to associate the concept with the protection of human rights, the younger ones focused on the rules for international relations. 

+ Is the upcoming Swiss ‘self-determination’ vote a threat to human rights? 

On November 25, the Swiss will vote on the conservative right Swiss People’s Party initiative to put the federal constitution above international law. 

Yet 56% of survey participants who said they identified most with the People’s Party said they couldn’t define international law, compared with 35% of leftwing and 39% of centrist voters.


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