2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1


After Switzerland's body politic lurched to the right in the 1999 national elections, the increasingly sensitive immigration issue dominated the country's political life in 2000. While voters roundly rejected a referendum on establishing a ceiling on immigration, all applications for citizenship submitted by former residents of the Balkans were rejected in a local vote. A poll revealed deep-rooted anti-Semitism in Switzerland today and more firms came forward admitting they used slave labor during World War II. President Adolf Ogi resigned in October.

With the exception of a brief period of centralized power under Napoleonic rule, Switzerland has remained a confederation of local communities as established in the Pact of 1291. Most responsibility for public affairs rests at the local and cantonal levels. The 1815 Congress of Vienna formalized the country's borders and recognized its perpetual neutrality. Switzerland is often cited as a rare example of peaceful coexistence in a multiethnic state. The republic is divided into 20 cantons and 6 half-cantons and includes German, French, Italian, and Romansch communities.

In October 1999, the right-wing Swiss People's Party, with its popular and combative member, Christoph Blocher, registered dramatic gains in national elections. Running on an anti-immigration and anti-European Union (EU) platform, the party went on to become the second largest in parliament, earning 44 seats against the 51 held by the ruling Social Democrats.

In October 2000, President Ogi, who was also defense minister announced his resignation. Since Ogi is a member of the Swiss People's Party, which is highly radicalized by Blocher, his resignation touched off widespread speculation about a succession battle that would disturb the country's so-called magic formula, whereby four of Switzerland's main political parties share seven government posts.

In July, a U.S. court approved a $1.25 billion restitution deal between Swiss banks and relatives of Holocaust victims. The settlement offers restitution to the heirs of Holocaust victims who had opened some 50,000 bank accounts in Switzerland. The deal also compensates the relatives of those whose assets were plundered by the Nazis and transferred to Switzerland during the war.

After coming under intense international pressure during the year, Switzerland moved to make its notoriously opaque banking system less secretive. Investigations were initiated against key Russian business-people suspected of money laundering. Public assets deposited into Swiss accounts by Nigeria, Pakistan, and other countries were also investigated.

Officially neutral and nonaligned, Switzerland is not a member of the United Nations or the European Union (EU). In a 1986 national referendum, voters rejected UN membership by a three-to-one margin. In a 1992 referendum, a narrow majority of voters rejected joining the European Economic Area, membership in which is seen as a step toward EU membership. Since then, the government has grown increasingly anxious to negotiate a pact with the EU to give Swiss industries and service sectors some benefits of access to the single European market. In May 2000, voters approved a referendum that would establish a bilateral arrangement with the EU to allow Union citizens to enter and leave Switzerland without visas, a development that many among the right feared would encourage a greater influx of foreigners into the country. In 1996, Switzerland joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program, through which it can participate in nonmilitary humanitarian and training missions.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Swiss can change their government democratically. Free and fair elections are held at regular intervals. Initiatives and referenda give citizens an additional degree of involvement in the legislative process. The cantonal system allows considerable local autonomy, and localities' linguistic and cultural heritages are zealously preserved.

At the national level, both houses of the Federal Assembly have equal authority. After legislation has been passed both in the directly elected, 200-member National Council and in the Council of States, which includes two members from each canton, it cannot be vetoed by the executive or reviewed by the judiciary. The seven members of the Federal Council (Bundesrat) exercise executive authority. They are chosen from the Federal Assembly according to a "magic formula" that ensures representation of each party, region, and language group. Each year, one member serves as president.

The judicial system functions primarily at the cantonal level, with the exception of a federal supreme court that reviews cantonal court decisions involving federal law. Switzerland's judiciary is independent. The government's postal ministry operates broadcasting services, and the broadcast media enjoy editorial autonomy. Foreign broadcast media are readily accessible. In addition, there are many private television and radio stations. Privately owned daily, weekly, and monthly publications are available in each of the most common languages and are free from government interference.

Freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion are observed. While no single state church exists, many cantons support one or several churches. Taxpayers may opt not to contribute to church funds, yet in many instances, companies cannot. Human rights monitors operate freely.

The country's antiracist law prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech and actions, and is strictly enforced by the government. In November 1998, the Federal Commission against Racism, the country's official human rights watchdog, warned that "latent anti-Semitism is again being increasingly expressed by word and by deed." A March 2000 poll revealed deep-rooted anti-Semitism in Swiss society. Sixteen percent of respondents acknowledged holding fundamentally anti-Semitic views, while 60 percent admitted to holding anti-Semitic sympathies. At a time when the country is being held accountable to a greater degree than ever before for its treatment of Nazi victims, in particular for turning away Jewish refugees fleeing German persecution during the World War II, 45 percent of those polled believed the country owes no apology to the Jews for its wartime behavior.

During the Kosovo war of 1999, thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees expelled from the Serbian province flooded into Switzerland. As a result, Swiss voters approved tighter asylum laws in a June 1999 vote. The new rules made it harder for refugees to claim asylum based on persecution in their home countries. Voter approval was highest in the German-speaking region, whose citizens were the most vocal in denouncing the presence of Kosovar Albanians.

In 2000, citizenship became even harder to obtain for those hailing originally from the Balkans. In a local referendum held in March, residents of Emmen, in Lucerne canton, approved only 8 of 56 citizenship applications. The approvals were granted only to those of Italian origin. All those denied citizenship were of Balkan background. The vote was based on detailed personal information, including the salaries, tax status, and hobbies of the applicants. The far-right People's Party countenanced the vote. Some within the party advocated similar votes throughout the country. The referendum was put forward in part because Switzerland's population growth is due almost entirely to immigration. Voters were apparently mindful of the potential public relations and economic damage should the measure pass.

In a seeming rebuke of the March referendum, voters rejected a proposed limit on the number of foreigners to be admitted into Switzerland annually. Currently, foreigners constitute 19.3 percent of the country's population, while the proposed measure would have instituted an 18 percent ceiling.

In 1995, federal laws aimed at dissuading drug traffickers from entering Switzerland authorized pretrial detention of legal residents for as long as nine months. With 33,000 drug addicts in a population of seven million, the use of hard drugs has become one of the country's most pernicious social ailments. In June 1999, Swiss citizens voted to continue a state program that provides heroin, under medical supervision, to hardened addicts.

Although a law on gender equality took effect in 1996, women still face some barriers to political and social advancement. In March 2000 voters rejected minimum quotas for women in parliament. Only two women serve in the seven-member governing coalition, and women occupy only 22 percent of parliamentary seats. While legal parity formally exists between the sexes, some studies have estimated women's earnings to be 15 percent lower than men's for equal work. Women were not granted federal suffrage until 1971, and the half-canton Appenzell-Innerrhoden did not relinquish its status as the last bastion of all-male suffrage in Europe until 1990. Until the mid-1980s, women were prohibited from participating in the Bundesrat. In 1997, journalists revealed that hundreds of women had been forcibly sterilized under a cantonal law passed in 1928. In June 1999, Swiss voters rejected a government proposal to introduce paid maternity leave. Swiss law bans women from working for two months after giving birth, but without any guaranteed wages during that period.

Workers may organize and participate in unions and enjoy the right to strike and bargain collectively. Unions are independent of the government and political parties, and approximately one-third of the workforce holds union membership.

This 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.