Update: 28.06.2017

NGO discussion paper on human rights coherence in Swiss foreign policy

On 9 June 2017, the NGO Platform Human Rights published a discussion paper titled “Where is the coherence? Human Rights and Swiss Foreign Policy”.

The forty-page discussion paper will be presented for debate during the NGO’s AGM in Bern on 19 June 2017. At a meeting called “It’s good to talk about human rights. It’s even better to act”, Deputy State Secretary and Ambassador, Krystyna Marty Lang, will discuss human rights policy and coherence from the FDFA’s perspective. Representatives from scientific and political fields, the Federal administration, and human rights organisations will discuss with the public possible approaches for greater human rights coherence in foreign policy.


Summary of the study

Due to armed conflicts, the fight against terror, the safeguarding against migration, the growing number of authoritarian states, and unchecked globalisation with many losers, fundamental human rights are under increased pressure. For a small country such as Switzerland, it is essential that the international community respects international law. As the Depositary State of the Geneva Conventions and as the seat of numerous UN human rights bodies, Switzerland also has a particular responsibility with regards to human rights. In order to maintain its integrity and credibility as a defender of human rights, Switzerland must pursue a foreign policy that is coherent from a human rights perspective. The challenges associated with this are discussed in this paper.

What is a consistent human rights foreign policy?

Consistency in a human rights foreign policy means that all political areas and administrative bodies actively share the responsibility of protecting and promoting universal human rights. A coherent human rights policy has three dimensions:

  • Vertical dimension: All external actions must be judged by whether or not they respect and increase the protection of human rights.
  • Horizontal dimension: No sectoral foreign policy (foreign trade, commerce, security, peace, development, migration, gender, environment, health, etc.) shall be allowed to take measures that oppose the focus and objectives of Swiss human rights foreign policy.
  • Transversal dimension: Contradictions between foreign policy and all areas of domestic politics have to be dealt with systematically.

Clear pre-conditions, poor implementation

First, the discussion paper analyses the legal and political framework for a foreign policy that is consistent with human rights. This includes the Swiss Federal Constitution, the binding international obligations of Switzerland, international agreements such as the UN Agenda 2030, and political strategies and statements issued by the Federal Council.

The second focus is on implementing these issues in day-to-day political life. For the past 25 years, parliamentary supervisory bodies, experts from within and outside the administration, and the Federal Council have been calling for more coherence between politics and policies. This paper critically examines existing mechanisms and instruments by focusing on coherence issues between the different departments of the Federal Administration. It finds that policy makers can hide behind a decision-making process, which is based on a concordance system oriented towards consensus that is not necessarily guided by human rights standards. Politics still lacks an overall strategy and sufficient resources to implement mandatory procedures for a consistent human rights foreign policy. What’s more, in various policy areas the gap between declared goals and actual interest-driven politics is actually widening.

Thirteen case studies prepared by civil society organisations about their daily work in the human rights sector further substantiate this result. The examples highlight human rights inconsistencies in Swiss foreign policy in many areas including migration, gender equality, environment, finance, and weapons. Numerous cases from the field of Swiss foreign economic politics demonstrate the strong tensions between economic interests and human rights.

Findings and postulations

The discussion paper comes to the following conclusions:

First, human rights coherence must be seen as a comprehensive concept in foreign policy in order to simultaneously improve the vertical (normative), horizontal (cross-sectoral) and transversal dimensions discussed above (link between domestic and foreign policies).

Second, an increased awareness of the importance of political coherence has been observed in the government and the administration. This includes an increased understanding of the various dimensions of coherence and a greater understanding of the need for consistent human rights.

Third, for many years there has been no progress in the discussions on a coherent human rights foreign policy. Recently, these discussions have even increased in intensity in public. But substantive content-related progress has not been made beyond the rhetorical level, i.e. there have been no concrete improvements on an institutional or political level.

Fourth, the lack of progress is due to the fact that Swiss foreign policy does not have the formal processes and effective instruments necessary to implement and review consistent human rights.

Fifth, the existing internal administrative coordination and consultation mechanisms, as well as the Federal Council’s decision-making processes completely lack transparency. There is also not enough funding.

In conclusion, the discussion paper lists five recommendations on how to improve the coherence of human rights in Swiss human rights policy:

  1. Create a comprehensive national human rights strategy for which the entire Federal Council is responsible and use it as a basis for foreign policy.

  2. Improve the horizontal coherence of Swiss human rights policy by creating an effective administrative body including all departments. This inter-departmental coordination office must define conflicting goals and prepare decision-making tools to resolve them.

  3. Conduct systematic human rights risk assessments to increase the vertical coherence of Swiss human rights policy.

  4. Increase Federal Council activity reports to Parliament as a self-evaluation measure.Have the future national human rights institution monitor responsibilities by conducting external audits. This way, the institution will be able to help develop and implement the necessary reforms, and work with other actors to ensure that the push for human rights coherence in Swiss foreign policy goes beyond the level of mere statements of intent.

  5. Have the future national human rights institution monitor responsibilities by conducting external audits. This way, the institution will be able to help develop and implement the necessary reforms, and work with other actors to ensure that the push for human rights coherence in Swiss foreign policy goes beyond the level of mere statements of intent.

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