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Freedom in the World 2011 - Switzerland

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 1 August 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Switzerland, 1 August 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e37f5941a.html [accessed 31 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Bern
Population: 7,754,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

Overview

In the September 2010 by-elections for the Swiss Federal Council, women captured a majority of seats for the first time. Approximately 53 percent of Swiss voters approved a controversial referendum in November mandating the automatic deportation of foreigners convicted of certain crimes.

Switzerland, which has existed as a confederation of cantons since 1291, emerged with its current borders and a tradition of neutrality at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. The country's four official ethnic communities are based on language: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (the smallest community).

Switzerland remained neutral during the wars of the 20th century, and it joined the United Nations only after a referendum in 2002. Membership in international institutions has long been a controversial issue in Switzerland. The Swiss have resisted joining the European Union (EU), and even rejected membership in the European Economic Area, a free-trade area that links non-EU members with the EU. However, Switzerland has joined international financial institutions and signed a range of free-trade agreements.

Hostility to both EU membership and immigration has been a hallmark of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP). During the 2003 legislative elections, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, while insisting that it was not opposed to legal immigrants. The SVP led the vote, followed closely by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SP). The center-right Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP) received barely half the number of SVP seats. Christoph Blocher, leader of the SVP, successfully called for a second SVP seat on the seven-member Federal Council, at the expense of the CVP.

A package of bilateral accords with the EU was passed in a June 2005 referendum. Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen area, a passport-free travel zone consisting of 2 other non-EU countries (Norway and Iceland) and 13 of the 25 EU member states. The accord also deepened Switzerland's cooperation with the EU on asylum policy, justice, and home affairs. A second referendum in September extended the free movement of labor to the 10 countries that had joined the EU in 2004.

The SVP opposed both referendums, and their passage led to speculation that the party had passed its political peak. However, the SVP successfully championed a 2006 referendum on tightening asylum and immigration laws. The new laws required asylum seekers to produce an identity document within 48 hours of arrival or risk repatriation, effectively limiting immigration to those coming from EU countries; prospective immigrants from outside the EU would have to possess skills lacking in the Swiss economy.

In the October 2007 legislative elections, the SVP captured 29 percent of the vote, more than any party since 1919. The SP captured 19.5 percent, while the Free Democratic Party (FDP) took 15.6 percent, its worst-ever performance. The SVP campaign received international attention for its anti-immigrant appeals, and an SVP rally and counterdemonstration in Bern resulted in violence rarely seen in Switzerland.

In December 2007, the SVP formally placed itself in opposition to the government after the parliament refused to reappoint Blocher to the cabinet, choosing instead Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, from the party's more moderate wing. The SVP subsequently expelled Widmer-Schlumpf, who then became part of the new moderate-right Bourgeois-Democratic Party. At the end of the year, however, the SVP returned to the cabinet.

Following successful petitioning by the SVP, a referendum calling for a ban on the future construction of minarets on mosques was held in November 2009. Despite government opposition, nearly 58 percent of the population and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favor of the ban, effectively prohibiting the future construction of minarets at the constitutional level. However, the four mosques with existing minarets would not be affected. In November 2010, a referendum mandating the automatic deportation of foreigners convicted of certain crimes passed with 53 percent of the vote; previously, judges could determine whether to order deportation on a case-by-case basis. Both referendums met with considerable domestic and international criticism.

Switzerland, a major banking center, was hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2008, leading to renewed international criticism of the country's strict bank secrecy laws. In 2009, Switzerland agreed to adopt international transparency standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by providing foreign governments with financial information in tax evasion cases and tax fraud investigations. In 2010, Switzerland reached tax agreements with Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, most of which involved untaxed money held in Swiss bank accounts.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Switzerland is an electoral democracy. The 1848 constitution, significantly revised in 1874 and 2000, provides for a Federal Assembly with two directly elected chambers: the Council of States (in which each canton has two members and each half-canton has one) and the 200-member National Council. All lawmakers serve four-year terms. The Federal Council (cabinet) is a seven-person executive council, with each member elected by the Federal Assembly. The presidency is largely ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council's members.

The Swiss political system is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The cantons and half-cantons have significant control over economic and social policy, with the federal government's powers largely limited to foreign affairs and some economic matters. Referendums are common; any measure that modifies the constitution must be put to a referendum. A new or revised law must also be put to a referendum and requires 50,000 signatures in favor of doing so. Voters may even initiate legislation themselves with 100,000 signatures. The main political parties have long been the SVP, the SP, the right-wing and free-market FDP, and the CVP. The new Bourgeois-Democratic Party constituted itself formally at the national level in 2008.

The government is free from pervasive corruption. As the world's largest offshore financial center, the country had long been criticized for failing to comply with recommended international norms on money laundering and terrorist financing. However, Switzerland has reached bilateral deals with several countries on financial information sharing and was removed from the OECD's "grey list" of tax havens in 2009. Switzerland was ranked 8 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. Switzerland has a free media environment, although the state-owned Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. Consolidation of newspaper ownership in large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some small and local newspapers. The penal code prohibits public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination. While criticized, the SVP was permitted to circulate both a controversial poster in 2009 in support of the minaret ban and another in 2010 depicting Italian and Romany workers as rats eating away at Swiss cheese. Internet access is unrestricted.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and most cantons support one or several churches. The country is split roughly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, though some 400,000 Muslims form the largest non-Christian minority, according to the 2000 census. A 2008 law requires that immigrant clerics receive integration training, including language instruction, before practicing. Most public schools provide religious education, depending on the predominant creed in each canton. Religion classes are mandatory in some schools, although waivers are regularly granted upon request. The government respects academic freedom.

Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld in practice, and civil society is especially active in Switzerland. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and roughly one-third of the workforce is unionized.

The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. Most judicial decisions are made at the cantonal level, except for the federal Supreme Court, which reviews cantonal court decisions when they pertain to federal law. Refusal to perform military service is a criminal offense for males. Prison conditions are generally acceptable, although some incidents of police discrimination and excessive use of force have been documented. An independent 12-member National Commission for the Prevention of Torture was appointed in 2009 by the Federal Council to conduct prison inspections.

The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, though increasing anxiety about the large foreign-born population has led to a tightening of asylum laws and societal discrimination, especially against non-European immigrants and their descendants. The mosque in Geneva was vandalized three times in the lead-up to the 2009 referendum on the construction of minarets.

Women were only granted universal suffrage at the federal level in 1971, and the half-canton of Appenzell-Innerrhoden denied women the right to vote until 1990. The constitution guarantees men and women equal pay for work of equal value, but pay differentials remain. In the September 2010 by-elections for the Federal Council, women captured a majority of seats for first time. Additionally, 59 women sit on the 200-member National Council, surpassing the European average. Abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was decriminalized following a 2002 referendum. Switzerland was ranked 10 out of 134 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum's2010 Gender Gap Report, which analyzes equality in the division of resources and opportunities between men and women.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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