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Switzerland on Trial: A Day in the Life of the U.N. Human Rights Council

Andreas Kunz, Eugen Sorg Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Two years ago, the U.N. created the "Human Rights Council" to replace the erstwhile "Human Rights Commission." One of the instruments that the new body was given in order to overcome the glaring failings of its predecessor is the so-called country review. In the periodic reviews, the human rights record of each of the 192 U.N. member states is examined and recommendations are made for improvement. The review sessions are supposed to be marked not by the rich Western democracies making paternalistic and condescending reproaches against the world's most brutal governments and most notorious rogue states, but rather by a dialogue among equals. According to the fantasy vision of the body's founders, in such an atmosphere of mutual respect the spirit of tolerance and understanding will be able to thrive and, as if through the calming influence of successful group therapy, one country after another will take up its place in the candle-lit procession of human rights defenders.

In a session that took place earlier this month in the presence of Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, Switzerland was one of the first countries to undergo its examination. But the three-hour debate in the Palais de Nations in Geneva was anything but a shining example of the healing power of unconstrained discussion. Instead, the session more nearly resembled a sort of Kafkaesque theater of the absurd. Each of the approximately 40 diplomats taking part was given two minutes to present the observations of their respective countries. Their remarks were for the most part guided by ideological considerations or political self-interest and constituted a mix of grotesque misrepresentation, dishonesty and ignorance. On the whole, the diplomats painted a picture of a Switzerland that, while indeed trying to do better, nonetheless found itself in an alarming condition as far as the upholding of human rights is concerned.

The most diverse countries thus encouraged Switzerland to establish as soon as possible a countrywide "independent human rights institution," which could observe, record and denounce human rights violations. The emphasis on the "independence" of the institution suggests that the council members regard the existing Swiss authorities and laws as somehow "dependent": which is to say, incompetent, partisan, corrupt and the like. The recommendations were made by countries like Germany, Malaysia, Mexico, India, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. As well as, for instance, Mauritania: A state that suffers from acute corruption, self-created famines and slave-labor and whose veiled representative was, nonetheless, kind enough to concede that Switzerland had made some progress in the "gender area."

Otherwise, the question of gender remained rather the preserve of Western diplomats of clearly feminist inclinations. Slovenia reprimanded Switzerland for discriminating against women in general and immigrant women in particular. France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain criticized alleged discrimination against homosexuals, lesbians and transsexuals, and they called on Switzerland to adopt a law legalizing same-sex marriage and yet another that would penalize "discrimination and hate crimes related to sexual orientation or gender identity." The Canadian representative, himself a convinced feminist, provided some small consolation, however. He praised Swiss authorities for the consistent use of gender-neutral language in official documents.

Iran's Grave Concerns

Cuba demanded money: namely, an increase in development aid from 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Haiti's envoy wanted to know why ownership of firearms is more widespread among Swiss households than almost any place else in the world, whereas -- so he said -- at the same time the suicide rate among young people is very high. India criticized the lack of any law against slavery, and various other countries called on Switzerland to adopt a law against torture. Just why Switzerland of all countries would need a law against slavery remained something of a mystery, but the reasons for the call for the adoption of anti-torture legislation quickly became apparent.

Thus most of the speakers expressed concern about increasing xenophobia, discrimination against foreigners and an allegedly racist atmosphere. Islamic countries like Egypt, Qatar and Morocco decried alleged discrimination against their religion, in order then, as usual, to insinuate that freedom of opinion in Switzerland goes too far. Russia expressed astonishment that parties with openly racist views could be legal in Switzerland. Nigeria cited the fact that most of the other speakers had spoken about racism and xenophobia in Switzerland as proof that racism and xenophobia must in fact be a problem in Switzerland. The Canadian feminist claimed even to know about cases of racist Swiss police using excessive force against foreigners.

A sort of synopsis of all these charges was provided by the Iranian envoy. He started out by expressing satisfaction that in its new constitution Switzerland had included an amendment recognizing that all persons are equal before the law. He went on then, however, to express his grave concern about "incidents of racial intolerance" and the "persistence of hostile attitudes toward black people [and] Muslims" that "we have observed in recent years." In light of the cases of "torture or ill-treatment" in "police custody" and during "questioning," one could not but note, he said, that the cantons had failed in their responsibility to monitor the police. Traffic in women, prostitution, sexual exploitation and the violence to which female immigrants allegedly risk falling victim in Switzerland were additional sources of concern for him. But nobody is perfect, the Iranian envoy allowed -- speaking as the representative of a theocracy in which suspected adulterers are stuck in a linen sack, put in a ditch, and killed by stoning. The way forward, he said, is "genuine and constructive dialogue": such as the "existing dialogue" that is already underway between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Switzerland. The two partners are trying "to help one another" in order to improve the situation of human rights in their respective countries.

During the three hour session, Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister, had responded to various of the remarks: commenting on, among other things, the situation of women in Switzerland and efforts to promote the integration of foreigners. But she uttered not a single word to challenge grotesque accusations like those made by Iran. At the end of the session, she thanked the participants for the "constructive and open dialogue."

The Human Rights Council drew the ammunition for its critique of Switzerland from three reports. The Swiss government itself was allowed to present its view of the human rights situation in a "national report." A report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) summarized judgments made by independent U.N. experts. And the same UNHCHR also prepared another report based upon evaluations submitted by nongovernmental organizations.

If one compares the country representatives' remarks during the debate with the information in the reports, it becomes clear that the member states chiefly drew upon the 11-page NGO report (French link; English link not working on U.N. site). Of some 44 points regarding the human rights situation in Switzerland, the NGOs gave a negative evaluation of 41 of them. The issues raised ranged from a general condemnation of Swiss federalism, which was charged with hindering the formation of a national human rights policy, to the use of teargas and rubber pellets by police units, to "racist and xenophobic" media campaigns, which are alleged to be chiefly responsible for an increasingly restrictive immigration policy. At the end of the report reference is made, nonetheless, to Switzerland's long tradition as a proponent of human rights and Switzerland is thanked for having launched the initiative that led to the formation of the Human Rights Council in the first place.

In the appendix to the report, one finds the list of the NGOs on whose information the report is based. The first organization mentioned is SOS Racism: an organization that last year briefly achieved some dubious fame by feeding the Washington Post a story about a supposedly racially motivated "chainsaw massacre" in Switzerland. The story concerned an Angolan man who had been badly wounded in a McDonald's restaurant by two unknown assailants wielding a chainsaw. But the alleged racist background to the attack could never be proven. On the contrary: The district attorney and the police complained about the "misleading" statements of the victim, whom they accused of wanting to divert attention from the real motives for the attack. This did not, however, stop Glenda Loebell-Ryan of SOS Racism's Zurich office from repeating the false account to the American journalist, who in a sensational article then concluded from it that Switzerland was undergoing a dramatic "surge in racism and xenophobia."

Apart from aid agencies like Swissaid, Caritas and Terre des Hommes, which are in fact principally involved in foreign assistance, the list of contributing NGOs consists above all of little-known marginal outfits with names like "Coalition Post-Beijing," "Global Initiative to End All of Corporal Punishment of Children," "Stop Suicide," and "Pink Cross." No less than four of the organizations have the word "torture" in their names (e.g. "Action by Christians against Torture").

Micheline Calmy-Rey and the Political Uses of the 'Country Review'

Instead of defending Switzerland against the charges, in her own report Micheline Calmy-Rey in fact adopts the viewpoint of the NGOs. Presented as Switzerland's objective assessment, the text of the "national report" again and again reveals the ideological preferences of the country's socialist foreign minister and her left-feminist milieu, thus offering up convenient lines of attack for the leading lights that make up the Human Rights Council.

Whereas Pakistan, which was reviewed on the same day, proudly underscored that it was foregoing the use of the death penalty against minors, Switzerland, for example, bemoans the state of relations among the sexes: "the daily reality is still very far from de facto equality," the report claims, and then adds that this is "even more so for vulnerable women such as immigrant women." Or, for example, the report asserts that "the high proportion of foreign residents is also due to the restrictive practice regarding naturalization" and that combating racism is "an ongoing task for the government." Or again that cases of "police brutality" represent a problem that is "increasing": an allegation that is made without any kind of statistical support.

Displaying a touch of preemptive submissiveness, suggestions for possible improvement are already formulated at the end of the "national report." Over 100 "non-governmental organizations, trade unions, economic associations, and religious communities" were allegedly consulted during the drafting of the report: a procedure that the report itself describes in somewhat grandiose terms as "consultation with civil society." As if by miracle, the outcome of this consultation is exactly the set of recommendations that are also contained in the NGO report and that the members of the council were able to integrate unverified into their assessments.

Unsurprisingly, the hand-selected representatives of "civil society" call on Switzerland to create a national human rights institution with wide-ranging influence on the process of legislation. Not only would such an institution provide lucrative new posts for many a willing veteran of the NGO scene, but as so happens Calmy-Rey herself is a vehement advocate of the idea. Such an institution would provide her and her circles an instrument with which unwelcome initiatives and political movements like the Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) could be more easily discredited as violators of international law or human rights. (Editor's Note: The SVP is Switzerland's largest party in terms of electoral support and parliamentary representation. It is frequently depicted by its domestic opponents and foreign media as "racist" or "xenophobic.")

Knowing the actual situation in the country and armed with a healthy degree of self-assurance, the Swiss government could in all good conscience ignore the criticisms of the U.N. human rights experts. Instead, on the very day that the adopted report was published, Swiss authorities announced that they would immediately implement six of the recommendations. Thus they intend, among other things, to reinforce the combat against supposed xenophobia, to realize the curious idea of a national institution for the prevention of torture, and to act to prevent "the racially-motivated excessive use of force by police." In the last-mentioned case, it is a recommendation of none other than Switzerland's "dialogue partner" Iran that is to be followed.

Andreas Kunz and Eugen Sorg write for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. The above article first appeared in German in the May 15 issue (no. 20/08) of Die Weltwoche. The English translation is by John Rosenthal. Complete video of the May 8 session of the Human Rights Council discussed in this article is available here.