The recent meeting of the Human Rights Council and the current annual International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights justifiably put Geneva and Switzerland in the forefront of human rights. What other city, what other country has such a concentration of institutions, non-governmental organizations and events devoted to human rights? Geneva rightfully prides itself as being the human rights capital of the world.
At last week’s meeting of the Human Rights Council, 36 countries, including all members of the European Union, issued a statement demanding that Saudi Arabia liberate all Saudi activists, especially those who advocate women’s rights and who are in prison.
“We are particularly concerned about the use of the counterterrorism law and other national security provisions against individuals peacefully exercising their rights and freedoms,” said Harald Aspelund, Iceland’s Ambassador in Geneva who read the statement on behalf of the group. The statement also condemned “in the strongest terms” the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and called on the Saudi authorities to cooperate with the United Nations investigation of his murder.
Switzerland abstained from signing the declaration. It refused to join the 36 countries, which included Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Once again, the government in Bern failed to capitalize on Switzerland’s niche as the human rights capital of the world, and once again questions should be raised about Swiss foreign policy.
Why didn’t Switzerland join its European neighbors and fellow democracies? What was so objectionable about the statement? According to a report by a news agency, a spokeswoman for the Swiss delegation said that the decision to abstain was “not because [Switzerland] disagreed with the contents of the statement, but because it has already reacted,” alluding to the opening statement to the Human Rights Council by Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis.
Indeed, in his opening remarks to the Council, Minister Cassis said that “Even in Switzerland, where this fundamental right [liberty of expression] is written in the Constitution (Article 16), expressing an opinion contrary to the mainstream could upset people. One must therefore continue to encourage those who show courage and dare to personally go against uniform thinking, in respect of others, without the need to anonymously hide behind social media.”
“I cannot refrain here from thinking of journalists like Jamal Khashoggi from Saudi Arabia or Jan Kuciak from Slovakia, assassinated in 2018 because of their courage.”
Was that enough? Switzerland criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights policies during the universal periodic review in 2018. But a spokesman for Amnesty International said that the Swiss abstention was “profoundly disappointing and will once again cause large damage to the country’s reputation as a defender of human rights.” Several NGO’s joined in criticizing the Swiss position.
The abstention is consistent with several recent Swiss decisions that show a retreat from Switzerland’s playing an active role in human rights, humanitarian law and moral leadership. A résumé: In June, Switzerland announced that it would allow the sale of arms to countries in the grip of “internal armed conflict” under certain conditions. After considerable resistance, the government changed its position. On November 1, Switzerland did not join 120 countries banning the future use of nuclear weapons. And, against the efforts of the Swiss ambassador in New York and co-facilitator of the Compact, the Federal Council announced in November that it would not sign the United Nations Global Compact for Migration.
Taken together, the initial position on arms sales to countries in conflict, the refusal to sign the nuclear weapons ban and the migration pact, and now the failure to sign a statement condemning Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses reflect a serious reversal of Swiss human rights leadership.
What is the message Switzerland wants to send to the world about its comparative advantage? To have the Human Rights Council meet in Geneva is an important part of Switzerland’s historic role in human rights. The success of the film festival is another example of the uniqueness of Geneva. Either Bern doesn’t understand that historic role or it is working at cross purposes with obvious collateral damage. This is more than just a Röstigraben between Geneva and Bern: the refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia is a serious affront to multilateralism and Switzerland’s reputation.