Update: 07.11.2018

Another loop for the National Human Rights Institution – what are the intentions behind this?

The never-ending story about the creation of a Swiss National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) is one chapter longer. As a result of a baffling intervention by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis, the proceedings are being delayed for an indefinite period. What is the reason for this?

Emergency stop by Federal Councillor Cassis

In May of 2017, the Federal Administration stated that the bill supporting the NHRI and the auxiliary dispatch to the Parliament would be dealt with by the Federal Council at the very latest after the summer holiday in 2018.

In August of 2018, information leaked that the project had received a severe blow. An article in the NZZ newspaper on 14 September 2018 confirmed rumours that Federal Councillor Cassis had pulled the emergency brake. Apparently, he returned the already completed draft bill to the administration, asking for clarification on whether or not the NHRI could be attached to an existing act instead of creating a new finance act as planned. Does the Federal Council plan to annul its June 2016 decision and smuggle the NHRI project past the chambers of Parliament?

Reinvent the wheel

What does the intervention by Federal Councillor Cassis mean? During the question hour in the National Council on 17 September 2018, he answered National Councillor Ida Glanzmann's question with some empty words: “At the moment, different designs of the human rights institute are being examined in depth. A solution aimed at Swiss needs will be established with the necessary care before the end of the year.”

Surely Federal Councillor Cassis knows that just such an in-depth examination of possibilities for Switzerland had already been carried out between 2004 and 2008 and again between 2015 and 2017.

But maybe we shouldn’t focus on the in-depth examination of possibilities, but rather the fact that he said a solution would be found before the end of 2018. This is either extremely optimistic or should be taken literally: the Federal Council plans to come to a solution on the basis of its own decision-making competences without an act and without proper parliamentary discussion. But this clearly contradicts the Federal Council’s statement that the Swiss solution should correspond to the UN Paris Principles. These define the minimum criteria for an NHRI and clearly include a legal basis. This basis has already been compiled in a tough struggle.

Populist rhetoric

The result of the year-long process was a compromise in the form of a draft consultation paper. This was not far-reaching enough for most NGOs but they still supported it. More than 100 parties spoke positively about it during the consultation proceedings, including NGOs, most parties, cantons and trade associations. The two only exceptions were two political parties: FDP (Radical Free Democratic Party) and SVP (Swiss People’s Party). Both parties had poorly discussed and hardly justified negative responses to the consultation paper. They expressed their contempt for this political issue.

Federal Councillor Cassis has apparently changed his views, sided with the FDP-SVP minority and is acting as if there was never any viable compromise. In a NZZ interview on 18 September 2018, he talked in a populist manner and insinuated that the present NHRI project was too oversized. “We have to find solutions that fit our country and not aim to please the UN. We cannot build cathedrals everywhere. It’s not fair to all the people in this country who get up every day, work hard, and pay taxes.” This polemic is unacceptable not least because the planned NHRI budget of CHF 1 million has always been considered very limited and at the lowest limit – even by Economiesuisse.

In the same interview Federal Councillor Cassis suggested looking at how other countries address the issue. He probably missed the fact that over the years, repeated careful country comparisons have been performed. It has been clear for a long time that countries such as Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have all had well-financed, useful national human rights institutions for human rights protection.

Federal Councillor Cassis also emphasised that he hangs on to the objective of creating a NHRI and that the whole issue does not revolve around questioning human rights. This statement is part of the game and has little credibility. Otherwise he would have played a constructive part in developing the final bill instead of undermining it.


by Alex Sutter

There is suspicion that Federal Councillor Cassis is willing to sacrifice the small but symbolic item of business called NHRI to score with his electoral base and to present himself as a straightforward representative of the right wing of the FDP. He is wilfully steering the NHRI project on a course doomed to failure. The NHRI bill, which has already been trimmed as much as it can be, would certainly not lead to an internationally accepted NHRI with an A status if it could still be further dismantled. And anything other than A status would be useless for Swiss foreign and domestic politics.

Should the NHRI project fail to materialise, it would be an ironic final point to an almost never-ending story. Or should it be called a farce with innumerable twists and turns? The 20-year-long story of the failure to create an NHRI has been characterised by breaks, deviations, idling, postponements and substitute activities. Apparently much of the federal administration and the Federal Council – even its former composition – were and are still extremely restrained and reluctant to establish an NHRI.

Such paralysis calls for an explanation: is it the fear of a new independant and uncontrollable factor in the stable power play between Swiss institutions? Is it the fear of a power in the Swiss political arena that has not been ethically corrupted? Everybody can come to their own conclusions.

Be that as it may: It is clear that neither the Association humanrights.ch or the NGO Platform Human Rights Switzerland will stand aside and silently watch the NHRI crash and burn.

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