Update: 04.03.2008

Introduction: Instruments of bilateral human rights policy

Bilateral diplomatic relations between states are handled through several channels, which have evolved over centuries. They are conducted through contacts between an ambassador or chargé d’affaires and the authorities of the receiving state, or in direct meetings between members of the governments of two states. These channels also provide the framework for Switzerland’s bilateral human rights policy.
This article gives a short overview of the most frequently used channels, and several examples will be given to illustrate Switzerland’s activities within them.

Statements at state visits

On the highest level of protocol we find meetings between heads of state or government ministers. It frequently happens that the human rights situation in one of the countries is addressed by the representative of the other one. Such statements usually receive great attention by the media, and they may irritate the visiting member of government, who feels his country has been insulted. Most often, the effect of such statements does not go beyond the media scandal; but they are of great importance also from a domestic point of view: the people of Switzerland, for example, expect their government to engage in the promotion of human rights across the globe, as is also stipulated in the Federal Constitution. The same applies for lower-level meetings between delegations, which however usually attract less attention by the media.

Swiss members of government or delegations frequently address human rights at their meetings. These statements are usually not made spontaneously, but are planned beforehand within the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and the member of government is briefed on the situation in the country in question by the latest updates. In sensitive cases, the Swiss position will be pre-formulated in the required language.

At her visit to Turkey in March 2005, Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey condemned excessive use of violence by Turkish police forces against demonstrating women. This was politically sensitive, since Calmy-Rey’s visit had been cancelled eighteen months previously by the Turkish authorities on the grounds that the parliament of the canton of Vaud had acknowledged the Armenian genocide. The visit could only be arranged after months of intensive negotiations.

Another memorable human rights statement by a Swiss member of government is then Federal President Samuel Schmid’s speech at the WSIS-Summit in Tunis in November 2005. When Schmid started to denounce limitations to the freedom of expression, Tunisian state television interrupted the live broadcast of the speech. Bilateral relations between Switzerland and Tunisia turned glacial after this event.


One of the most common and most frequently employed means of diplomatic communication is the so-called demarche, which is usually not at all covered by the media. A demarche is a formal diplomatic contact of an embassy with the authorities of the receiving state. Alternatively, the ambassador of a foreign state is called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the receiving state. The party who has initiated the meeting addresses the subject matter and states its concerns. Usually, a document containing the most important points and demands relating to the subject matter is handed over as well – the so-called Aide-Mémoire.

Demarches can also be carried out in written form, in which case the Aide-Mémoire is sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accompanied by a diplomatic note.

Demarches are used in various fields of diplomacy: if a country starts a diplomatic initiative, such as Switzerland did with the founding of the UN Human Rights Council, this country’s ambassadors in the capitals of the world use demarches to gain the support of their host countries.
But the tool of the demarche is exceptionally suited for the denouncement of human rights violations of other states. Unlike the EU, which often publicizes its Human Rights demarches, Switzerland maintains confidentiality. The demarche should not be about public pillorying, but about intensive bilateral interaction.

In such interactions, the standard which must always be referred to is International Law, i.e. the rights guaranteed in the Human Rights Conventions which must be respected by all state parties to the Conventions. If a state sees that another state has violated one or several such rights, it can denounce this. This usually happens in cases of (suspected) torture, unfair trials, non-violent political prisoners and death sentences deemed disproportionate.

Human Rights dialogues

During the 1990ies, several states realized that, in addition to traditional bilateral human rights diplomacy and multilateral activities within the UN framework, other, more constructive ways of human rights policy could and should be tried. The work of the UN Human Rights Commission with its ritualized resolution, unholy alliances and obvious double standards in particular had lost all credibility and constructive effectiveness. As a new departure, the instrument of the human rights dialogue was developed. Switzerland initiated several such dialogues in the 1990ies, for instance with China (still ongoing) or Vietnam (re-established in 2005 after a long interruption). Since 2003, Switzerland is also conducting a dialogue with Iran. In addition to these “full-fledged” dialogues, a number of smaller scale dialogues have been conducted with various countries over different lengths of time.

The concept of the human rights dialogue such as it was developed and is practiced by Switzerland is based on four pillars. The previously agreed subject areas of the dialogue are discussed at regular meetings between high-ranking delegations. A popular topic for a human rights dialogue is the improvement of prison conditions – probably because it is politically less sensitive than issues such as freedom of expression and women’s rights, and concessions in this field involve less or no loss of face on the part of the partner state.
One of a human rights dialogue’s salient features is that it does not only include negotiations between diplomats; for more often than not, such negotiations are confined to delivering statements and do not contribute to the solution of real problems. The dialogue, on the other hand, includes experts who are (in principle) not burdened by a political agenda and can work towards the implementation of certain improvements. Swiss delegations for human rights dialogues often include penal experts who analyze the prison situation together with their counterparts in the partner state and propose measures for improvement. The dialogue concept is also based on the idea that meetings should not only take place between representatives of Ministries of Foreign Affairs, but also include other involved authorities such as the police or the judiciary. Civil society organizations can also be included in the dialogue, or experts from the partner state may be invited to Switzerland for study tours. Finally there is also the possibility of project work within the framework of the dialogue.

Amnesty International views human rights dialogues with a critical eye. A dialogue must never be an end in itself – i.e. it is not enough that two countries every now and then publicly confirm that they are talking about human rights. A dialogue is interesting in case it really serves to improve the human rights situation in a given country. For this, clear benchmarks must be set, and regular checks have to be carried out to see whether the benchmarks have been reached. On no account must other instruments of human rights policy (e.g. the demarche or resolutions in UN assemblies) be neglected because of the existence of a dialogue.

Other kinds of dialogue

In addition to the full-fledged dialogues with China, Vietnam and Iran Switzerland also conducts local human rights dialogues or regularly includes the item “human rights” in ongoing political dialogues. In both of these models, human rights are addressed regularly, but only on the local level, i.e. without the exchange of delegations or visits by experts.


Switzerland also supports projects with human rights aims. This can happen within the framework of a human rights dialogue (as mentioned above), or as part of Switzerland’s bilateral development cooperation through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). SDC has been working for a long time on the subject area of “good governance”: partner states should be supported in the establishment of the rule of law and the fight against corruption, so that the economy may grow and democratic structures develop. The “good governance” approach has been supplemented in the last years by the so-called “human rights based approach”. This is a further development of “good governance”, with the difference that projects and policies explicitly refer to the system of international human rights conventions and focus on the universality and indivisibility of human rights. People in developing countries are no longer regarded as receivers of alms, but as holders of rights. The state – the developing country in question – is seen as a bearer of duties vis-à-vis those rights holders.

Although this shift towards human rights is doubtlessly correct and important, it may also create problems for bilateral development cooperation. Human rights violations by a state (developing or other) are almost always due to lack of political will to limit state power or respect subjects’ rights. If a development agency publicly denounces this and challenges a regime, it may easily lose this regime’s tolerance and even the permission to operate in the country in question. Therefore agencies have to be very careful how they communicate a project or country program to the host government.

Further information

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