U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Switzerland

SWITZERLAND   Switzerland is a constitutional democracy with a federal structure and an independent judiciary. The bicameral Parliament elects the seven members of the Federal Council, the highest executive body, whose presidency rotates annually. Because of the nation's linguistic and religious diversity, the Swiss political system emphasizes local and national political consensus and grants considerable autonomy to individual cantons. The Swiss armed forces are a civilian-controlled militia based on universal military service for able-bodied males. There is virtually no standing army apart from training cadres and a few essential headquarters staff functions. Police duties are primarily a responsibility of the individual cantons, which have their own distinct police forces kept under effective control. The National Police Authority has a coordination role and relies on the cantons for actual law enforcement. Switzerland has a highly developed free enterprise industrial and service economy strongly dependent on international trade. The standard of living is very high. The Government fully respects human rights, and there were no major human rights problems. However, there continue to be instances of violence against foreigners and lingering concerns over minor violence against foreigners in police custody. In 1994 an independent government inquiry cleared police of similar allegations. The implementation of a new law against asylum seekers who are suspected of committing a crime has led to charges of unjustified detention or incarceration. However, the federal court has overturned police and lower court actions deemed in violation of the new law. Some laws still tend to discriminate against women. However, amendments to the law on gender equality were to have come into force in January 1996. The Government is taking serious steps to address violence against women.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings. On November 13, Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Alaa Nazmi was shot and killed in Geneva. No suspects have been identified; a group calling itself the International Justice Group claimed credit for the killing, in "retribution" for anti-Islamic actions.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution proscribes such practices, and there were no reports of violations. In response to claims of minor violence in 1994 against persons in cantonal police custody, the Federal Government conducted an inquiry and exonerated the cantonal police forces. Prison conditions meet minimum international standards, and the Government permits visits by human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The legal prohibitions on arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile are fully respected at all levels of government. A suspect may not be held longer than 24 hours without a warrant of arrest issued by the investigative magistrate. A suspect has the right to choose and contact an attorney as soon as the warrant is issued; the State provides free counsel for indigents. Investigations are generally prompt even if in some cases investigative detention may exceed the length of sentence. Release on personal recognizance or bail is granted unless the magistrate believes the person is dangerous or will not appear for trial. Any lengthy detention is subject to review by higher judicial authorities. There is no summary exile, nor is exile used as a mean of political control. Non-Swiss convicted of crimes may receive sentences which include denial of reentry for a specific period following completion of a prison sentence.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. The judiciary provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. The Constitution provides for public trials in which the defendant's rights are fully respected, including the right to challenge and to present witnesses or evidence. All courts of first instance are local or cantonal courts. Minor cases are tried by a single judge, difficult cases by a panel of judges, and murder (or other serious cases) by a public jury. Trials are usually held expeditiously. Citizens have the right to appeal to a higher instance court, ultimately to the Federal Court. There were no reports of political prisoners. Most cantons since 1991 have suspended the incarceration of conscientious objectors and have replaced it with public service work. This change of policy took place in expectation of a new law instituting a civilian service alternative for conscientious objectors, even though the law then in effect provided for no exemption. Parliament passed the new law and it is to come into force in January 1996. The new law essentially decriminalizes refusal to serve in the military if such refusal is motivated by reasons of conscientious objection.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Cantonal laws regulate police entry into private premises. These regulations differ widely from canton to canton, but all prohibit such practices without a warrant. All government authorities respect these provisions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom. The authorities may legally restrict these freedoms for groups deemed to be a threat to the State, but no groups were restricted during the year. In addition, an article of the Penal Code criminalizes racist or anti-Semitic expression, whether in public speech or in printed material. Most broadcast media are government-funded but possess editorial autonomy, and foreign broadcast media are freely available.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for complete freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice. There is no single state church, but most cantons support one or several churches out of public funds. A taxpayer may opt out of contributing to church funding in all cantons, but in 19 cantons private companies may not.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Under the Constitution and the law, citizens are free to travel in or outside the country, to emigrate, and to repatriate. Switzerland has traditionally been a haven for refugees, but public concern over the high number of asylum seekers generated pressure on the Government to tighten its policy. The prominent role played by some asylum seekers in narcotics trafficking led to passage of a new law in February. The new legislation introduced tougher measures aimed at refugees suspected of committing crimes or illegally avoiding repatriation. The law contains the following key elements which apply only to those suspected or convicted of a felony: preliminary incarceration of an asylum seeker waiting for a decision concerning his asylum request; detention prior to repatriation to avoid escape; and restrictions on freedom of movement to inhibit access to the local narcotics market. In all of these measures, the new law obliges the police to inform a judge of their action. At that point, the judge can overturn the police action. If the judge approves incarceration, the detained asylum seeker's right of appeal is more circumscribed than that of citizens or foreigners with legal status. Nevertheless, the Federal Court has overturned decisions by judges who were deemed to have implemented the new law improperly, without sufficient regard for the rights of asylum seekers. The new law does not apply to noncriminal asylum seekers whose asylum applications continue to receive orderly consideration. The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. Refugees whose applications are rejected are allowed to stay temporarily if their home country experiences war or insurrection.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully (at all local, cantonal, and federal levels), and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. In addition, initiative and referendum procedures provide unusually intense popular involvement in the legislative process. Participation by women in politics continues to expand. Women were disenfranchised until 1971 at the federal level, but since then their participation in politics has expanded unabatedly. Women occupy 41 of the 246 seats in the Parliament, 1 of 7 seats in the Federal Council (cabinet), and a record 16 in the cantonal government executive bodies. The Federal Office for Equality Between the Genders released a brochure intended to encourage and facilitate women's participation in the country's political life. In addition, petitioners succeeded in collecting enough signatures to force a vote on mandated equal gender representation in all federal institutions. A referendum on this issue will not take place for several years, given the legal process the proposal must follow. In September voters rejected a local initiative to require a fixed percentage of elective seats for women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International And Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

All major international human rights groups are active and operate without government restriction.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution and laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, language, or social status, and the Government effectively enforces these prohibitions. To ensure that the disabled are in no way discriminated against or disadvantaged, a member of Parliament proposed in October a formal amendment to the Constitution for this purpose.


While there are no data about violence against women, indications are that a problem exists and that many cases go unreported. The Federation of Women's Organizations and other groups have heightened public awareness on the problem of violence against women. The law prohibits wife beating and similar offenses, and spousal rape is explicitly considered a crime in the Penal Code. The Penal Code also criminalizes sexual exploitation and trafficking in women. The authorities effectively enforce these laws. Victims of violence can obtain help, counseling, and legal assistance from specialized offices sponsored by local and cantonal authorities. Although the Constitution prohibits all kinds of discrimination, some laws still tend to discriminate against women. However, the Government is taking effective action against this, and Parliament has recently passed significant legislation improving the treatment of women. Amendments to the law on gender equality were approved by the two houses of Parliament and were to have come into force in January 1996. Their goal is to facilitate lawsuits by individual women (or organizations representing them), to reduce the burden of proof on female plaintiffs in discrimination cases (or even reverse it in some instances), and to strengthen the authority of the Federal Office for Equality. In August the Government transmitted to Parliament for ratification the 1987 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Significant disparities still exist between the wages received by men and women. Despite the statutory requirement of equal pay for equivalent work, some studies (whose veracity cannot be confirmed) suggest that women's wages lag on average 15 percent behind those of men.


The Government demonstrates its strong commitment to children's rights and welfare through a well-funded public education system and medical care. The federal and cantonal governments, as well as organizations defending children's rights, in recent years have devoted considerable attention to possible abuses against children, especially sexual abuse. For convicted perpetrators of the latter, the law mandates imprisonment for up to 15 years. In June 1994, the Government approved the 1989 U.N. Convention on Children Rights and transmitted the draft bill to Parliament for ratification, albeit with some reservations. In addition, it decided in July to intensify its actions against child abuse. The Government plans to subsidize a prevention and information campaign and the activities of groups defending children's rights.

People with Disabilities

There is no discrimination against disabled persons in employment, education, or in the provision of other state services. The Government has not mandated that buildings or transportation facilities be made accessible. An umbrella organization representing most associations defending the rights of disabled persons participates actively in the political scene. This organization is particularly active on issues concerning transport and mobility of the disabled, and their professional integration. Disabled men will no longer be required to pay the tax on men who have not accomplished their military duty.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Reported attacks against foreigners (including abusive language) were less frequent in the first half of the year than during the same period of previous years. Between January and June, 22 alleged racist attacks were reported compared to more than 90 for all of 1994. Investigations of these attacks are conducted effectively and lead in most cases to the arrest of the responsible persons. Persons convicted of racist crimes are commonly sentenced to at least 1 year's imprisonment. In accordance with the country's first antiracism law which was approved in September 1994 (and which criminalizes racist and anti-Semitic actions or public speech), the Government appointed in August a new commission against racism. This group of experts will focus on preventive measures and will serve as a mediator for conflicts between individuals.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

All workers, including foreigners, have the freedom to associate freely, to join unions of their choice, and to select their own representatives. The Government does not hamper the exercise of these rights. About one-third of the work force is unionized. The right to strike is legally recognized and freely exercised, but a unique labor peace under an informal agreement between unions and employers--in existence since the 1930's--has meant fewer than 10 strikes per year since 1975. There were no significant strikes in 1995. Unions are independent of government and political parties, and laws prohibit retribution against strikers or their leaders. Unions can associate freely with international organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

By law, workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the law protects them from acts of antiunion discrimination. The Government fully respects these provisions. Periodic negotiations between employer and worker organizations determine wages and other labor matters at the national and local levels. Nonunion firms generally adopt the terms and conditions fixed in the unions' collective bargaining. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Although there is no specific constitutional or statutory ban on forced or compulsory labor, it does not occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment of children is 15 years, and children are in school up to this age. Children over 13 years may be employed in light duties for not more than 9 hours a week during the school year and 15 hours otherwise. Employment of youths between ages 15 and 20 is strictly regulated; they cannot work at night, on Sundays, or under hazardous or dangerous conditions. The Federal Office for Industry, Trade, and Labor effectively enforces the law on working conditions.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. The lowest wages fixed in collective bargaining are always adequate to provide a decent standard of living for workers and their families. The Labor Act established a maximum 45-hour workweek for blue- and white-collar workers in industry, services, and retail trades, and a 50-hour workweek for all other workers. The law prescribes a rest period during the workweek. Overtime is limited by law to 120 hours annually. The Labor Act and the Federal Code of Obligations contain extensive regulations to protect worker health and safety. There have been no reports of lapses in the enforcement of these regulations, but the degree to which enforcement is effective is unclear. The Government is currently overhauling the 1948 Labor Act, in part to strengthen provisions for workers' health and safety. A worker may opt out of a dangerous assignment without penalty.

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.