Switzerland 2020

Parliament adopted draconian anti-terrorism laws. The government’s COVID-19 response disproportionately limited the right to freedom of expression. Parliament began reviewing the criminal law relating to sexual offences; Swiss citizens voted to include sexual orientation in hate-speech legislation. The government refused to resettle more refugees from the Greek islands, and temporarily suspended asylum applications at borders due to COVID-19. A landmark referendum calling for mandatory human rights due diligence for multinational companies was held.

Background

Between March and June, the government ruled by emergency powers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting a range of rights such as freedom of assembly and movement. Despite pressure by numerous organizations and associations, by year’s end, no comprehensive, independent study had been commissioned to determine measures to provide maximum protection to health workers in Switzerland.1 The Senate (2nd Chamber) accepted a government proposal to create an independent national human rights institution; the proposal was expected to go to the other Chamber in 2021. In September, Parliament decided to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Unfair trials

In May, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and UN experts criticized proposals for “draconian” new anti-terrorism laws.2 In September, Parliament adopted the laws which pre-emptively restrict a person’s liberty without charge or trial, and included a vague and overly broad definition of “terrorism”.

Freedom of assembly

At the start of the pandemic, the police lacked clear guidelines to implement emergency measures and disproportionately limited protesters’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly by imposing blanket bans on demonstrations in public and handing out fines in certain cantons. 3

Gender-based violence

In January, a parliamentary committee reviewed the criminal law relating to sexual offences.4 It instructed the government to submit a proposal to redefine sexual acts committed against a person's will. The current definition of rape required a female victim and the use of coercion or force.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people

Parliament voted in favour of introducing same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples will now have the same rights with the exception of certain restrictions in the area of sperm donation.

In July, hate speech legislation was extended to criminalize advocacy of hatred and discrimination based on sexual orientation, following a referendum in favour of the change.

Rights of refugees and asylum-seekers

There were allegations of disproportionate use of force by security staff at federal asylum-seeker reception centres.5 By December, no independent investigations had been announced or conducted. During the closure of the border with Italy from mid-March to mid-May, asylum applications at the borders were suspended, except for vulnerable people, as part of COVID-19 emergency measures.

In March, a parliamentary initiative calling for the introduction of a humanitarian clause in the legislation which penalizes “Encouraging unlawful entry, exit or an unlawful period of stay” was rejected. In July, the Federal Court upheld the convictions for “facilitation of unlawful entry” of human rights defenders Anni Lanz and Lisa Bosia Mirra, who had helped asylum-seekers in need to enter Switzerland.

The government refused to accept more refugees from the Greek islands, although several major cities offered relocation places. Exceptions included 54 unaccompanied minors with family ties to Switzerland who were relocated. After the destruction of Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, in September, (see Greece entry) the government accepted another 38 minors, intended to be resettled by the end of the year.

Corporate accountability

On 29 November, the referendum on the Responsible Business Initiative, calling for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence for multinational companies doing business abroad, was held and voted down. Although the initiative was rejected by the cantons it won the majority of the people’s vote. This was the first time that the voters of any country had said yes to this kind of mandatory due diligence.6

Impunity

In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Switzerland had violated the right to life after failing to take adequate measures to protect a man who committed suicide in police custody in 2014. Swiss authorities had also neglected to conduct an effective investigation.


  1. Garantir les droits des professionnel-le-s de la santé (in French only), (Press release, 18 August)
  2. Les lois antiterroristes sapent l’état de droit! (in French only), (Press release, 24 September)
  3. COVID-19: Des directives claires pour l'expression de l’opinion dans les lieux publics (in French only), (Press release, 5 May)
  4. Projet distinct de révision du droit pénal sexuel (in French only), (Press release, 18 January)
  5. Un régime rigide dans les centres fédéraux et des délais très courts (in French only), (Press release, 28 February)
  6. Multinationals seem too big for accountability. Switzerland may change that (News story, 27 November)

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