Switzerland | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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A bad year for Switzerland, 2001 began with foreign criticism of its banking system, which was followed by a gunman's murderous rampage in a public building, controversial public referenda, the bankruptcy of its national airline, and a catastrophic, fatal tunnel fire. Combined, the events served to shake Switzerland's normally tranquil democratic foundations.

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 2000, international pressure forced Switzerland to make its notoriously opaque banking system less secretive. Investigations were initiated against key Russian businesspeople suspected of money laundering. Public assets deposited into Swiss accounts by Nigeria, Pakistan, and other countries were also investigated. However, a French parliamentary report issued in February 2001 accused Switzerland of continuing to tolerate money laundering. The report called upon the international community to pressure Swiss bankers to overhaul their culture of secrecy.

Criticism of Switzerland's closed banking system only intensified after the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. As governments moved to freeze bank accounts suspected of belonging to the Qaeda terrorist group, British Treasury Secretary Gordon Brown called Switzerland the "weak link" in the international effort to clamp down on terrorist finances. While firmly rejecting the charges, by November the Swiss government moved to freeze 24 bank accounts linked to several individuals with suspected terrorist connections.

In September, a man armed with assault rifles shot and killed 14 people in a local assembly building in the northeast town of Zug. The shocking crime cast a spotlight on Switzerland's notoriously relaxed security system; most politicians rarely use security details. The brazen attack also raised new questions over Switzerland's open gun laws. Every male over 18 must be prepared to be called for military service. Many are issued weapons, which they may keep at home. Within days of the shooting, new security measures were implemented nationwide. The weapons used in the Zug shooting were standard military issue. The creation of checkpoints at cantonal and federal office buildings, among other measures, introduced new restrictions in an otherwise overwhelmingly open and free democracy.

In October, Swissair, Switzerland's national airline, declared bankruptcy and grounded all its aircraft. Thousands of passengers were stranded for two days before the government temporarily rescued the company with a multibillion-dollar bailout.

Officially neutral and nonaligned, Switzerland is not a member of the United Nations or the EU. In a national referendum in March, voters again rejected United Nations membership. 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 1996, Switzerland joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program, through which it can participate in nonmilitary humanitarian and training missions. However, in a June 2001 referendum, voters approved arming Swiss soldiers who participate in international peacekeeping operations. The vote, which passed by an extremely narrow margin, followed a bitter fight between the government and a coalition of nationalist and pacifist parties concerned that Swiss youth would be put in danger. Switzerland's neutrality laws previously prohibited Swiss troops from carrying arms while on foreign 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 right to free speech is protected. 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.

The country's antiracist law prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech and actions, and is strictly enforced by the government. 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 World War II, 45 percent of those polled believed the country owes no apology to the Jews for its wartime behavior.

Foreigners constitute 20 percent of the population of Switzerland, which has the strictest nationality laws in Europe. Immigrants must live in the country for at least 12 years before obtaining citizenship. Towns can hold public votes on whether to grant foreign residents citizenship. While regarded as a democratic procedure, this practice is also seen as discriminatory.

In a local referendum held in March 2000, 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.

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 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.

A Nigerian asylum seeker died while in police custody in May 2001. Police officers forcibly restrained the man as they prepared to deport him, applying pressure to his thorax. He died of asphyxiation. A judicial inquiry was promptly convened.

In October, the EU called for stricter road transport regulations in Switzerland and throughout the Union after 11 people died in a fire in the St. Gotthard tunnel in the Swiss Alps. Two trucks collided in the tunnel, which lacked a dividing barrier between lanes. The accident closed the tunnel for days, severely disrupting a major commercial artery between Italy and Switzerland.

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 just 23 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 universal 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.

Freedoms of 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.

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.