Update: 19.04.2015

Federal Council report on Swiss human rights foreign policy 2011-2014

On 14 January 2015 the Federal Council adopted the foreign policy report for 2014, annexed to which is the «Report on Swiss human rights foreign policy: summary 2011 – 2014 and perspectives». The report drafted by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) highlights the key areas of the Swiss human rights foreign policy over the last four years.

Better classification scheme – lost opportunity

In 2000, Parliament commissioned the Confederation to draft a report on human rights foreign policy once per legislature. The Confederation now has implemented this for the third time after 2006 and 2010.

This third report stands out for its much improved classification. A detailed chapter is dedicated to questions of coherence this time (see further below).

On the other hand, the most recent report does not take account of the previous two older oreports, which would have helped in assessing the change in strategic benchmarks over the past 12 years. This is a lost chance to profit from the advantages of regular reporting.

Challenges on the international level

The introductory overview of Swiss international human rights policy and its challenges is a lot shorter than in the two previous reports. The report states that there is a trend towards the instrumentalisation of human rights policy also on the part of Western nations. This allegation of using a double standard is then again used to hide Switzerland's own insufficiencies in the implementation of human rights standards. This situation of multilateral distrust increases the polarisation between an obstructive group of countries with a minimalist understanding of human rights and those countries that are prepared to defend the existing standards.

The universality of human rights is being put in question intentionally by the ideology of traditional values. Some countries refer to «tradition» (e.g. antiquated morality) in order to restrain human rights of women or homosexuals or to legitimate certain kinds of punishment. Among the states that have formed a «like-minded group» in the UN Security Council rank big names such as Russia, China or Saudi Arabia. On page 208, the report states quite candidly that «the conduct of this group puts a strain on the atmosphere for discussions and complicates the work of the Human Rights Council».

Key areas of the Confederation’s human rights policy

In view of the numerous challenges and the limited resources, Switzerland is forced to identify priorities. The report mentions six priorities of the Swiss commitment:

  • Protection of human rights defenders
  • Women’s rights
  • Peace-building, humanitarian aid and development cooperation
  • Abolition of the death penalty
  • Economy and human rights
  • Control of adherence to human rights

The political relevance of these human rights issues is briefly and succinctly outlined followed by examples of Swiss efforts. Most of these dossiers display a considerable track record for Switzerland.

At times, more precise and detailed examples would be of help. Statements such as «Swiss efforts aim to consolidate the rights of women and girls and are directed against the activities of conservative and religious groups that justify and favour such discrimination» on page 183 of the report do not sound very credible without tangible evidence.

However, on the whole this part provides an excellent overview of the present profile of Swiss human rights foreign policy, except for the above-mentioned minor shortcomings.

Dialogue as method and as «fig leaf»

It is acknowledged that Switzerland focuses on dialogue in international forums, but it should not be forgotten that dialogue is a method and not an end in itself. It seems as if dialogue replaces real objectives for example in the field of economy and human rights, although particularly in this field mandatory targets would be necessary.

For the foreign policy instrument of human rights dialogue, too, the objectives remain unclear. Although the report says on page 201 that Switzerland «only enters into a bilateral human rights dialogue with countries whose governments are clearly interested in serious, critical and constructive dialogue», it lists the countries with which Switzerland leads such a dialogue at present: China, Nigeria, Russia, Senegal, Tadzhikistan and Vietnam. This is not really compatible.

Of the six listed countries, China, Russia, Tadzhikistan and Vietnam were already involved in a dialogue with Switzerland in 2010. This continuity is particularly strange in view of the fact that the FDFA publicly wrote off the human rights dialogue as a method in a media release on 23 May 2011. This obvious contradiction is not addressed in the Federal Council’s report.

Since the evaluation of the human rights dialogue with China in 2007, no further assessments of the effectiveness of such dialogues were published. This gives rise to the suspicion that these dialogues serve other interests of Swiss foreign and domestic policy, for example concealing doubts regarding human rights policy in the case of controversial economic agreements, such as the free trade agreement between Switzerland and China, which was passed by the Federal Parliament in 2014.

It would be necessary to set verifiable objectives for the various human rights dialogues as well as periodical publicly accessible evaluations on their efficiency in order to put an end to such doubts.

Coherence as crucial question

As mentioned above, the human rights report includes for the first time an extensive chapter on the issue of coherence, e.g. the compliance of human rights policy with other policy domains. Unfortunately, precisely this strategically important part does not live up to the expectations. Although the analysis is off to a good start by stating that coherence is not only about the relationship between foreign and domestic policy and that the relationship between the various sectors of foreign policy is paramount, it does not go into sufficient detail.

Domestic and foreign policy

This chapter is filled with irrelevant explanations on reservations, individual complaints procedures and obligations to report and while the actual conditions are glossed over: «The Federal Council attaches great importance to the recommendations of the treaty bodies; these recommendations are subsequently implemented in the legislation and legal practice of Switzerland.» All one can say is: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was true?

The issue of the lacking regulated implementation of the recommendations by federal and cantonal authorities is only addressed indirectly in the form of mentioning a coordinating body that is under review by the Federal Administration.

It is annoying that obvious examples of coherence made impossible by national politics are not mentioned, let alone reflected on. For example, the trade in war material: The human rights report 2010 included a cross-reference to the revised War Material Ordinance which then included an exclusion clause in case of trade-related human rights issues. The 2015 report lacks a reference to the embarrassing step backwards Parliament took on that issue in March 2014. And this happened although the topic of exporting war material is used in an almost philosophic manner to illustrate what is meant by «balancing of interests».

This report also lacks a reference to the popular votes that can yield results contrary to the exigenices of human rights. This issue is of key importance for the structural difficulties Switzerland has because it cannot guarantee coherence between domestic and foreign policy.

Conflict of objectives in foreign policy

Rather than to clearly address the sensitive issues and to analyse them more deeply, the report is more akin to a church sermon on Sunday. The usual euphemistic and empty phrases are used instead of pointing out the actual conflicts that have emerged in the political discussion on the free trade agreement with China. The Federal Human Rights Report would do better to include a minority position in case of such important disagreements, especially because this is clearly a majority position amongst NGOs.

More critical reflection on the Swiss positions would have improved the quality of the report tremendously. Human rights policy can be contradictory in itself. The praiseworthy initiative in the UN Human Rights Council that from 2012 led to a repeating resolution on peaceful protest, for example, was sponsored together with Turkey (and Costa Rica). How did Switzerland position itself towards Turkey when the Turkish government reacted with brutal repression against the peaceful protesters of Taksim Square in 2013? Unfortunately, the report does not provide answers to this question, although that would have been much more conclusive than most of the routine statements in the chapter on Coherence.


The «Report on Swiss human rights foreign policy: summary 2011 – 2014 and perspectives» provides a good overview of the key fields of activity of Swiss human rights policy. Unfortunately though, the report remains too shallow. It attempts to conceal sensitive issues and there is no real analysis of and discussion on domestic and foreign issues that are problematic from a human rights perspective.

Parliament acknowledged the Report together with the 2014 Foreign Policy Report. Both Councils only devoted very little time to the reports and the human rights report was only marginally discussed.

From a NGO perspective, the effort to produce such a human rights report for a complete legislative period is only justified if the FDFA shows efforts to allow a public debate on it. There is still much to be done in this field.


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