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Switzerland’s new “terrorism” definition sets a dangerous precedent worldwide, UN human rights experts warn

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GENEVA (11 September 2020) – Switzerland’s draft anti-terrorism legislation violates international human rights standards by expanding the definition of terrorism, and would set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, UN human rights experts* warned today.

They expressed regret at the refusal of the Swiss authorities to change contentious sections of the draft law, now before parliament, but pleaded for a last-minute reversal.

“None of our recommendations have been implemented”, they said, referring to a 16-page formal letter sent to the government at the end of May. “No satisfactory response has been given to our primary concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism.”

The experts were particularly alarmed that the bill’s new definition of “terrorist activity” no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all. On the contrary, it may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists.

According to international standards, including the UN Security Council, terrorism always involves the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through the threat or perpetration of violence causing death, serious injury or the taking of hostages.

“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards,” they said. “This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The experts also warned against sections of the bill that would give the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide on preventive measures against them without meaningful judicial oversight.

“While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights,” the experts said.

The experts called on parliamentarians to keep in mind Switzerland’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights and to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.”

The experts further expressed concerns over suggested amendments to the criminal code envisaging the criminalization of support to terrorist organizations, which they said may endanger Switzerland’s long and distinguished humanitarian tradition. They urged Switzerland’s lower house, the Conseil National, to validate a recent proposal by the upper house, the Conseil des Etats, to expressly exempt impartial humanitarian action from criminalization.

“Protection of human rights and effective counter-terrorism measures are not mutually exclusive objectives, but should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing interests of any democratic society” they said.

ENDS

*The experts: Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Ms. Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression;and Mr. Ahmed Shaheed,Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Yasmine Ashraf (yashraf@ohchr.org/+41 22 917 2059)

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and  Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org) 

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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