Saturday, 25 February 2012

Call for Swiss to combat racism

The Council of Europe’s human rights chief has called for an overhaul of Swiss anti-discrimination law and policy.

Intolerance and racism are “dangerously on the rise”, the commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, said after a four-day review of Swiss policies and practices.

The review was part of the Council of Europe’s ongoing assessments of the human rights situation in member states. The last such Swiss review was in 2004 and this time around it paid particular attention to how Switzerland was fighting racism and xenophobia.

“There is a clear need of a new, comprehensive anti-discrimination law, coupled by an independent and effective mechanism of supervision, redress and prevention of human rights violations,” said Hammarberg at the close of a series of talks with government, watchdogs and civil society.

To this end, he recommended strengthening the Federal Commission against Racism and setting up ombudsmen in each canton. There were still gaps in Swiss law when it came to protecting vulnerable people from discrimination, he said.

If Switzerland wanted to meet European and international standards for human rights, “vigorous and concerted efforts” were needed, he warned.

As evidence of the growing intolerance and racism he pointed to the “frequency of anti-migrant public manifestations by some major political forces”.

In particular he singled out the rightwing Swiss People’s Party’s controversial but successful initiatives to ban the construction of minarets and automatically expel foreign criminals, saying they would “target and stigmatise migrant communities”.

“They raise serious issues of compatibility with human rights standards, notably those of the European Convention on Human Rights,” he noted.

Positive signs

He did find some things to praise however. Positive efforts in migrant integration such as the creation of an advisory council of foreigners in Zurich showed “a clear determination to tackle these challenges”.

The recently-established Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights was also a positive initiative which he said should be further promoted, and should lead to an independent national human rights institution.

The review was reminiscent of a Council of Europe commission report in 2009 which found racism was widespread in Switzerland, with direct racial discrimination in gaining access to jobs, housing, goods and services.

According to the report, the victims were mainly Muslims and people originating from the Balkans, Turkey and Africa.

Anti-racism bodies in Switzerland mainly agreed with the findings at the time, although it was noted that progress was being made. The People’s Party however said it was being unfairly targeted and criticism by international bodies was being spurred on by the political left.

Thursday’s findings also echoed a United Nations committee review in 2010 which said women, immigrants, gypsies and poor people were discriminated against. At the time it too cautioned against “increasing intolerance and xenophobia” in Switzerland.

Hot topic

Hammerberg called on the authorities to pay mind to the naturalisation of immigrants, saying the process was of “crucial importance for their full integration” and arbitrariness in such decisions should be avoided.

Immigration and asylum are among the most controversial political topics in Switzerland. The country is struggling to cope with the rising number of asylum seekers – applications rose by around 45 per cent in 2011.

Hammarberg weighed in on the subject in an interview with Swiss television, describing a move by the justice minister to shorten asylum procedures as a way of deterring applicants as an “interesting concept” that would not affect human rights.

He also urged the Swiss authorities to work harder to gain the support of citizens to set up more temporary centres for asylum seekers, which are in short supply. “These people must have decent accommodation. Switzerland is obliged to take them in.”

A report on the commissioner’s review will be published by the Council of Europe at a later date.


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