Freedom in the World
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Switzerland became a full member of the United Nations and continued to build a relationship with the EU through bilateral accords, while continuing to reject full EU membership. Nevertheless, criticism of Switzerland's notoriously secret banking system continued. Swiss voters narrowly rejected a proposal to severely tighten the country's asylum application laws.
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.
Switzerland has been governed by a four-party coalition--the left-wing Social-Democratic Party (SP), the populist right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), the right-wing Radical Democratic Party (FDP), and the center-right Christian Democratic Party (CVP)--since 1999. The composition of the seven-member executive Federal Council (Bundesrat)--in which the SP, the FDP, and the CVP have two seats each and the SVP only one--is a major bone of contention.
Officially neutral and nonaligned, Switzerland became a UN member state on September 10 2002, following a March 3 referendum. The Bilateral Accord I between Switzerland and the EU took effect June 1, 2002; it allows greater freedom of movement between the two areas. Bilateral Accord II negotiations began in late 2002; the main obstacle being Swiss banking secrecy, criticism of which intensified following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association and NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
In June 2002, victims of the former South African apartheid regime launched legal proceedings against Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse. UBS and Credit Suisse were heavily involved in the gold trade at the time, and South Africa was, and remains, a leading gold producer.
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.
Switzerland's Federal Assembly (parliament) consists of a 200-seat lower house (the National Council, elected by the Swiss people) and an upper house (the Council of States, elected by the cantons). The parliament appoints the seven-member Federal Council (Bundesrat), which exercises executive authority. The ceremonial office of president rotates annually.
The right to free speech is protected. There are private television and radio stations as well as privately owned publications in each of the most common languages. All are free from governmental interference. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Switzerland (tied with Costa Rica) 15th in press freedom in the world in its Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2002.
Freedoms of assembly, association, and religion are observed. While no single state church exists, many cantons support one or several churches. Unions are independent of the government and political parties, and approximately one-third of the workforce holds union membership.
The judicial system functions primarily at the cantonal level, with the exception of the federal Supreme Court which reviews cantonal court decisions involving federal law. Switzerland's judiciary is independent.
Foreigners constitute 20 percent of the population of Switzerland, which has the strictest naturalization 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. The Swiss narrowly rejected a proposal on November 24, 2002, to stop granting asylum to foreigners who arrive overland via any country Switzerland considers a potential safe haven. All of Switzerland's neighbors are considered safe, and with new carrier sanctions, approval would have made it difficult for foreigners to apply for asylum. The country's antiracist law prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech and actions, and is strictly enforced by the government.
The use of hard drugs has been one of the country's most pernicious social ailments. Government-sanctioned heroin clinics have been operating in Switzerland since the mid-1980s. In 1995, federal laws aimed at dissuading drug traffickers from entering Switzerland authorized pretrial detention of legal residents for as long as nine months.
Refusal to perform military service is a criminal offence. Every male over 18 must be prepared for military service, and many are issued weapons for this purpose. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict raised to 18 the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities and for compulsory government recruitment as of June 2002.
Transparency International ranked Switzerland 12th (tied with Norway) on its 2002 Corruption Perception Index.
Despite a 1996 gender equality law, women still face some barriers to political and social advancement. Only two women serve in the Bundesrat, and women occupy just 23 percent of parliamentary seats. 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. The law provides women 10 weeks of maternity leave but no salary guarantee.