Update: 02.03.2009

Parliament gives green light for the ratification of OPCAT

On 20 March 2009, both chambers of the Parliament agreed to the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in a final vote. The signature by Switzerland of the OPCAT on 25 June 2007 was never put in question by any of the two chambers, but certain aspects of its implementation were debated, such as the necessity and the form of a National Commission on Torture Prevention and its independent Secretariat.

Earlier debates

Just before the end of its winter session 2008, the National Council treated the Swiss Federal Council's proposal on the ratification of the OPCAT. There was no discussion about the fact Switzerland would ratify this important document. But there were discussions on if and how to mention the independent secretariat of the national commission for the prevention of torture. The National Council found a compromise that lead to a vote largely (123 against 45) its proposal. The compromise is that the secretariat will be included in the text as "a possibility" but not a must. 

Humanrights.ch, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations are satisfied with this decision and now hope the Council of States will follow. 

The Council of States discussed in the winter session 2007 the tabling of the Federal Council concerning the ratification of the Optional Protocol and approved it unanimously. It remains to be seen if the promise by the former Minister of Justice concerning the functioning of an independent commission for the prevention of torture will be kept and the commission will be able to establish an independent secretariat that is not bound by budget restrictions.

What is it about? 

Switzerland signed the Optional Protocol on 25 June 2004 without ratifying it. The Protocol had entered into force in June 2006. The member states committed to giving the UN Subcommittee unlimited access to all places of detention. Furthermore, the states have to establish, within a certain period of time, a national, independent commission which should prevent torture, inhuman or degrading treatment in all places of dentention. 

The legislative proposal by the Federal Council stipulates that the Federal Council would appoint twelve members for the committee, each for a period of four years. These members would be experts with an area of expertise in medicine, law, prosecution and criminal justice. The costs of the commission of annually 184'000 Swiss Francs have to be compensated for internally. The members will be reimbursed for their expenses. If they are not employed in the public administration they will additionally receive a daily allowance, as former Federal Council member Christoph Blocher stated.  

NGOs: «low budget solution» 

Prior to the parlamentarian debates and the consultation procedure the proposal by the Federal Council had been criticised by NGOs (including Humanrights.ch), because it did not allow for a permanent secretariat for the commission. Amnesty International (AI) pointed out that in Switzerland there are 157 penal institutions and 190 institutions for minors that would have to be inspected by the commission on a regular basis.  Additionally, there are all the psychiatric institutions, prison hospitals and detention centres in police stations. Such a workload could not be managed by 12 voluntary members, in particular if there is no secretariat to support them in the coordination work. 

Blocher: «We will set up a secretariat»

In December 2007 the Council of States discussed the proposal by the Federal Council. During this discussion a minority surrounding Alain Berset (SP/FR) demanded the setting up of a permanent secretariat to ensure that the proposal will not turn into a paper tiger, but have real consequences. Thereupon Minister of Justice Christoph Blocher promised that there will be secretariat set up, but only after the formation of the commission, which will be given a free hand to set up a secretariat. 

Following this promise the minority of the commission withdrew their demand. The proposal passed unanimously. Now the business will go to the National Council, which will most likely discuss the question of a permanent secretariat again. 

Further information

 

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