Update: 09.07.2014

What is the value of Swiss guidelines for human rights defenders?

The Swiss guidelines are a first step towards better protection of human rights defenders. However, they are of little value as long as the Swiss embassies abroad are not conscious of their key function in the protection of human rights defenders. This is the bottom line of a conference held in Bern and organised by swisspeace, the Working Group OSCE and Humanrights.ch, which took place on 12 June 2014. Federal representatives met for workshops with human rights defenders from four foreign countries as well as with Swiss human rights organisations to discuss problems in the implementation of the Swiss guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders.

Anna Leissing of the Swiss Centre for Peacebuilding (KOFF) pointed out that, although the contexts may differ tremendously in the selected countries Russia, Sri Lanka, Serbia and Honduras/Guatemala there are nevertheless many parallels. In the workshops, the exchange was both very lively and very emotional. It became clear to all participants that in all regions persons who address the prosecution of injustice committed earlier on or who stand up for minorities’ and women’s rights are in the same boat. The situation is difficult for activists who advocate social and economic rights, especially land rights.

Impunity and criticism of state media

The foreign human rights defenders reported arbitrary detentions and police violence. What is particularly problematic for these activists is that the local population sometimes reacts to their commitment with open hostility and their role is frequently presented in a very critical way in the mostly state-owned media. Because it is them who contribute strongly to the fact that work of human rights defenders is presented in a bad light. Defamation, intimidation and violence by non-state actors are the result. The government in turn generally does not prosecute the crimes committed against human rights defenders.
The Federal representatives in the workshops on the other hand presented their activities in the respective states. Some of the foreign human rights defenders also voiced great concern about the work of the Swiss embassies.

Swiss embassies: ambivalent performances

In Russia for example the Swiss embassy is nowhere to be seen with respect to the field of human rights, says Yuri Dzhibladze of the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow. This contrasts strongly with its commitment in the field of human rights during the present OSCE Chairmanship. While representatives from other states attend the court room sessions during trials against human rights defenders, Swiss representatives, whose appearance would be of utmost importance to the activists, are nowhere to be seen.
On the other hand, a NGO representative from the Guatemala/Honduras region states that the local embassy there is very active in the protection of human rights defenders and cultivates the dialogue with the civil society systematically.

Swiss promise of protection shall not be connected to individuals

It is one of the declared aims of Switzerland’s guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders that all embassies are to assume the same level of activity with respect to human rights defenders. The embassies are meant to gather information on the human rights situation in the host country and to offer support. They have a wide arsenal to choose from: formal responses, demarches for activists, symbolic acts such as the mentioned visits to trials or official meetings. This also includes providing simple and uncomplicated visa procedures for prosecuted individuals in case of an emergency as well as direct protection and shelter.

Conflicting interests?

It is evident that the targets and aims of the guidelines still remain unheard of in several Swiss embassies, as the following example shows: In Russia the human rights situation has worsened severely over the past few years and the law that forces foreign NGOs to register as foreign agents has brought the work of human rights defenders under severe stress. Many activists and organisations have to stand trial and have to terminate their activities. Still, up to now the Swiss embassy in Moscow has taken no steps to voice their concern about the protection of human rights.

As is generally known, for years Switzerland has been trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (although at present negotiations are suspended due to the conflict in Ukraine). It can be assumed that official Switzerland fears disadvantages in economic relations if it pushes the issue of human rights too much.

In fact, as Florian Irminger of the Human Rights House Network located in Oslo and Geneva puts it, economic interests frequently have unilateral priority, which sums up the frustration of a lot of human rights defenders. This will not do – he advocates a stronger cooperation between human rights and the economy. According to Swiss NGOs and foreign human rights defenders an increased representation of these guidelines by the Swiss embassies would help raise awareness of this position. Training courses in embassies, clear guidelines by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs as well as respective signals from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs would be necessary to achieve this.

Exchange with foreign human rights defenders pays off

The partially lacking implementation of the Swiss guidelines stood at the centre of the NGO conference. It should not be forgotten that these guidelines have only entered into force half a year ago. It is very positive that the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs has opened up its discussion with human rights defenders during the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship.
Civil society could thereby contribute important expert knowledge and also help phrase recommendations to the attention of Switzerland. This includes for example the idea that Switzerland should intensify its human rights monitoring abroad and show more presence in rural areas. What is considered to be of particular importance is the symbolic commitment to human rights by Swiss representatives, for example by keeping up contacts with human rights defenders despised by their respective governments. In addition, easier access to humanitarian visas is to be encouraged. Swiss NGO representatives criticised that the guidelines remain unclear in the field of the issuance of visas, an issue where more effective and clearly articulated rules would be of particular importance.

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