Update: 20.04.2016

FDFA Human Rights Strategy 2016-2019

For the first time, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) has a human rights strategy. Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter presented the new strategy at an auxiliary event for the Human Rights Council session in Geneva on 29 February 2016. The strategy defines the core values and aims of the Swiss human rights commitment for the coming four years.

Human rights as a main target of Swiss foreign policy

The framework for the human rights strategy is the foreign policy strategy 2016-2019 developed by the Federal Council. The budget for the Swiss human rights foreign policy was specifically defined in the blanket credit “Measures to promote peace and human safety” in the Dispatch on Switzerland’s International Cooperation in March 2016.

On a conceptual level, domestic and foreign policy are closely intertwined in the human rights strategy. The document falls back on the constitution: The Federal Constitution of 1999 consolidates human rights in its own catalogue of fundamental rights. In addition, the Constitution details the increasing inclusion of human rights into foreign policy by listing respect for human rights as one of its main aims (Art. 54, Para. 2 Federal Constitution).

According to the strategy, human rights stand “at the core of Swiss values and its political model which is based on democratic principles, non-discrimination, gender equality, peaceful coexistence and mutual respect between the various population groups, religions, languages, ethnic groups and cultures. Human rights make the state accountable to the population for its actions. In addition, the state’s interest takes second place to the population’s interest” (p. 6). Human rights are also enshrined in various international obligations Switzerland has entered, namely the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN human rights agreements.

The credibility of Swiss policy depends on its internal consistency

The strategy underscores the question of consistency: “Switzerland’s profile is defined by the credibility of its commitment which depends greatly on its policy. Switzerland takes human rights issues into account when planning and implementing its foreign policy as a whole” (p. 9). The strategy emphasises “the coherence of domestic and foreign policy” but also points out “possible problems” that may arise as a result of direct democracy or in connection with criticism voiced against Switzerland.

The strategic meaning of the phrases “to use the coordination mechanisms coherently and to optimise consultation processes within the FDFA as well as between the FDFA and other departments (…)” and to better take into account interests in the area of human rights “especially if diverse interests in our country contradict each other” (p. 31) is not defined exactly in the strategy. No statements are made regarding transparency and verifiability in this area.

The strategy defines a total of nine fields of action within three broader objectives (listed below). Some priorities are highlighted, and a missing link is shown in every field of action.

Objective I: Defend and promote the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights

Field of action 1: Switzerland promotes the effective fulfilment of everybody’s human rights

Gender equality and women’s rights are of particular importance. When Switzerland becomes active in a country, it directly supports victims of human rights violations by measures and projects. It addresses specific cases confidentially or in public interventions. The “effective and specific realisation of human rights in all situations” (p. 12) takes priority in Swiss human rights engagement in other countries.

The strategy does not give an opinion on the question whether or not “Swiss activities” are only FDFA activities or also include economic activities.

Field of action 2: Switzerland takes action against cultural relativism and the instrumentalisation of human rights

In view of the tension between applicable human rights and national claims for sovereignty, Switzerland advocates the universal, interdependent and indivisible character of human rights and in particular the rights of specific groups and minorities. It opposes tendencies to question human rights with reference to “traditional values.”

The strategy fails to relate the relevance of human rights abroad to similar tendencies in Switzerland.

Objective II: Guarantee a coherent international reference framework and strengthen human rights institutions and mechanisms

Field of action 3: Switzerland commits to promote an appropriate international legal framework

Switzerland wants to close gaps in international law and in particular further the implementation of existing norms. At the same time it also wants to critically assess the unchecked extension of regimes under international law and propagate non-binding instruments as additional reference frameworks. In the fight against corruption Switzerland changes its perspective in favour of a human rights approach, and in the fight against terror it focuses on strict compliance with human rights commitments.

The strategy does not provide any criteria for clarifying where binding and where non-binding law may help.

Field of action 4: Switzerland commits to strengthening human rights institutions on global, regional and national levels

DSwitzerland is specifically strengthening the UN Human Rights Council and mainstreaming human rights in the entire UN system right up to the Security Council. Switzerland promotes Geneva as the global competence centre for human rights as well as mechanisms and instruments within the framework of the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

The strategy does not contain any suggestions as to how the aim of strengthening national human rights institutions or the European Court of Human Rights relates to the respective decisions in Swiss domestic policy.

Field of action 5: Switzerland supports the monitoring and implementation of human rights on a global level

Switzerland supports strengthening the monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, the UN treaty bodies and further institutions on both global and regional levels. Switzerland also fights against impunity and to strengthen bodies of international jurisdiction.

The strategy does not mention possible conflicting goals with peace or mediation efforts and does not provide any reference to Swiss prosecution authorities according to international criminal jurisdiction.

Objective III: Strengthen the commitment of the relevant human rights actors and help them become more integrated

Field of action 6: Switzerland increases its cooperation with other countries

Switzerland cooperates in particular with emerging powers and leads human rights dialogues with a select number of countries. In this context the strategy mentions “new poles of power,” the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, states with regional influence and with key roles in international debate, and emerging economies. Furthermore it cooperates with like-minded countries where it carries out development cooperation and humanitarian aid as well as countries that have bad human rights situations and deny this. This is done all over the world.

The strategy does not mention any criteria for priorities in spite of the enormous amount of possible target countries.

Field of action 7: Switzerland commits itself to strengthening the civil society

Switzerland supports civil society organisations within the country and abroad. It is especially active in protecting human rights defenders who are at risk.

The strategy does not take a position on the cooperation with and the role of Swiss human rights organisations.

Field of action 8: Switzerland encourages the private sector to accept human rights

Switzerland considers the UN Guiding Principles for Economy and Human Rights to be an internationally accepted framework and supports their implementation, especially in multi-stakeholder initiatives and public-private partnerships.

The strategy does not comment on binding regulations in this area. It does not elaborate on the strategic criteria “for which it endeavours (…) to work out practical and realistic solutions.”

Field of action 9: Switzerland commits itself adequately consider the responsibility of non-governmental actors in armed conflicts.

Switzerland helps detail the responsibility of non-governmental actors in human rights violations and violations of humanitarian international law. This can affect both mediation efforts and investigation mechanisms.

The strategy does not elaborate on who will define the “adequate” consideration of these aspects.

In the final chapter on operational implementation, the declaration of intent states that in the future, human rights issues will increasingly be reassessed by topical, country or regional strategies. They will also be more present in solving target conflicts in Swiss foreign policy.

Final note

At present, we will not comment on the FDFA human rights strategy because the foreign policy working group of the NGO Platform Human Rights will take a closer look at the paper.


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