United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent thanks the Government of Switzerland for its invitation to visit the country and for its cooperation. We thank the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs for organizing the visit.
The views expressed in this statement are of a preliminary nature. Our final report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2022.
During the visit, the Working Group assessed the human rights situation of people of African descent in Switzerland, and gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance they face. The Working Group studied measures and mechanisms to prevent systemic racial discrimination and to protect victims of racism, as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination.
As part of its fact-finding mission, the Working Group visited Bern, Zurich, Lausanne and Geneva. It met with senior officials of the Swiss Federal and Cantonal Government, Parliamentarians of the Council of States, officials from the Federal Commission against Racism, the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture, the Federal Statistical Office, among others, as well as law enforcement authorities at the Federal, Cantonal and municipal levels. It also met with politicians of African descent at the municipal level in Geneva. It also visited the Pöschwies Correctional Facility in Zurich and the Centre de la Blécherette-Police cantonale in Lausanne.
The Working Group also met with civil society representatives of African descent. We thank civil society, human rights defenders, lawyers and academics as well as Africans and people of African descent in the different Cantons, including families of affected communities and individuals who shared their experiences. We welcome their efforts to promote and protect the human rights of people of African descent in Switzerland.
The Working Group welcomes the good practices and positive steps taken to guarantee the human rights of people of African descent in Switzerland including the following:
The steps towards an operational national human rights institution.
Switzerland’s stated acknowledgement during the country visit of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (2001) as a comprehensive framework and solid foundation for the fight against racism.
The launch of the International Decade of People of African Descent in Zurich in 2020.
The planned establishment of a working group to implement the December 2021 recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The prosecution, including of politicians, for incitement of racial hatred in public spaces or public services.
Funded civil society projects by people of African descent that complement the Cantonal integration programmes and target integration efforts to the host community, for example, Project Farafina in Vaud, the Run Against Racism in Zurich; the Week Against Racism in several cantons and cities.
Emerging public discourse involving the State and civil society on the presence of racist and/or colonial symbols in public space.
The specific focus by the City of Geneva and the Canton on anti-Black racism as a particular form of human rights violation. The Parliament of the City of Geneva approved a budget line for the fight against anti-Black racism and two supplementary budget lines for UPAF (Popular African University) and the Couleur Café Festival. The Geneva Cantonal Human Rights Commission can investigate and initiate inquiries on any issue and is presently examining motions and bills specifically addressing anti-Black racism (specific Action Plan) as well as the issue of geographical places bearing names linked to colonialism, the trade in enslaved Africans and racism. The Listening Against Racism Counselling Center under the impetus of the Bureau pour l'intégration des Etrangers (BIE) offers space for dialogue, support and advice.
Consultations convened by the Canton of Geneva comprised exclusively of people of African descent from across the Diaspora, after public demands for change in 2020, who formulated 12 measures to inform the Canton’s anti-racism activities.
Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is concerned about the prevalence of racial discrimination and the human rights situation of people of African descent in Switzerland.
Although Switzerland has ratified most international human rights instruments relevant to anti-racism and affirms its treaty obligations, this often appeared unrecognized at the cantonal level, and federal officials cited lack of oversight or authority in matters of cantonal responsibility, including education, health, and policing. The distance between federal responsibility for human rights and cantonal operations was cited as a structural barrier to racial justice efforts, even though matters of State priority, like police training and asylum determinations, are effectively federalized. Human rights can still be fulfilled in a decentralized, federalist system.
The reaction to and treatment of people of African descent is not necessarily mitigated by Swiss nationality. To the contrary, Swiss born/naturalized people of African descent are presumed to be migrant, alien and/or refugee – the other.
The Working Group has learnt that the normative and institutional framework to address racialized acts and omissions is inadequate. Many of the existing mechanisms do not have a mandate to make binding decisions or recommendations, and the courts do not offer a meaningful alternative for many.
There is insufficient of recognition of Switzerland’s ties to colonialism and the trade and trafficking in enslaved Africans, and its relevance to modern manifestations of racial discrimination. Switzerland’s modern day wealth is directly connected to the legacies of enslavement. Swiss banks invested heavily in the slave trade and in the institutions of enslavement, as well as in the apartheid system. The textile industry, the chocolate industry, and the coffee industry, instrumentalized enslavement and colonialism.
Switzerland does not maintain racially disaggregated data. This is a fundamental barrier to recognizing and addressing ongoing and serious racial discrimination and injustice in education, health, employment, housing, detention, the administration of justice, and more.
In the words of a young person of African descent to the Working Group, ‘To grow up as a child and not see yourself in positions has an impact’. With a few exceptions, people of African descent are generally underrepresented in many sectors of Swiss society. The Working Group takes exception of the fact that persons of African descent are underrepresented even in mechanisms that are established to address racism against them. Some persons of African descent that make it to the higher ranks of Swiss society are seen to experience racism, which has led some of them to retreat.
The Working Group heard shocking reports of police brutality and the expectation of impunity for police misconduct, extending over decades. Global demand for policing reform in 2020 appears not to have impacted policing practices, with the important exception of consultations held in Geneva.
Policing related to narcotics, including street stops and searches, has disproportionately targeted men of African descent. Racial profiling and police controls of young Black people humiliate, criminalize and stigmatize. People of African descent reported public strip searches and cavity searches conducted with impunity. Police forces in their action to fight drug trafficking have largely targeted Black men, especially young people. The highly publicized police operations include brutal arrests, racial profiling, humiliating and degrading treatment and reinforcing negative racial stereotypes in the public realm.
The Working Group spoke with the family of Nzoy Roger Wilhelm, who was killed by police on a train platform in Morges in 2021. It has also followed closely the cases of Mike Ben Peter, Lamin Fatty, Herve Mandundu, Mohammed Wa Baile and Omar Mussa Ali. Some of these cases represent the most tragic outcomes of racial profiling. In each case, troubling barriers in the access to justice for the victims and their families persist. Families have been forced to retain expensive counsel and experts, prove “close relationships” in order to pursue claims, and face the systematic invoking of self-defense by the police.
The Working Group’s attention was drawn to the inadvisability of lodging complaints about racism by people of African descent. Reports of reprisals and counter charges from the police and lack of redress were frequent.
Although police in Vaud suggested that citizens could film police misconduct and report it, in questioning the validity of racial profiling and police misconduct, the Working Group heard direct reports of arrests and prosecutions for filming police and the imposition of serious fines and probation periods in that canton.
The Working Group noted inadequate dialogue on systemic racism or the influence of negative racial stereotypes on decision-making by police, prosecutors, or the courts, leading to a culture of denial, which obstructed accountability and reforms.
There is not adequate independence in the investigation and prosecution of police misconduct, brutality, and killings. In practice, the proximity of the police, public prosecution, and the judiciary, and the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, obstructs independent investigation of police conduct and segregation of roles, and impacts the likelihood of a fair hearing and fair treatment. The Canton of Geneva has an internal affairs division where police misconduct is investigated by police themselves, although it reports directly to the head prosecutor of the Canton.
The situation of Brian K. is one of a stolen childhood and a superimposed adult identity with stark racial connotations. The Working Group met with Brian K., in person, at Pöschwies Correctional Facility in Zurich. Racial discrimination and injustice is evident at every stage of this case, including the denial of the childhood, access to family, and education fiercely protected for white Swiss children as a matter of law, policy, and values. Enhanced penalties and extreme penalties, including years of solitary confinement, also suggest a strong reliance on negative racial stereotypes and racialized beliefs about Black men, even as children. For these reasons and more, Brian K.’s situation is a stark example of systemic racism in Switzerland. Given the express concerns of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent takes note of the abolition of the cantonal decision in order to guarantee humane conditions of detention.
Multiple people in detention reported verbal harassment, violence, and acts of provocation by prison and security personnel, including the use of racial slurs and negative racial stereotypes with impunity.
The Working group learnt about the diverse effects of racial discrimination on the right to health. People of African descent experience considerable strain of their physical and mental faculties due to the extra effort needed to continue their lives. Limited social and economic mobility also inhibits their potential to afford health insurance and health care. Medical professionals are not exposed to patient models of people of African descent African origin; they are therefore not able to interpret symptoms of diseases on bodies of persons of African origin. Misdiagnoses are not uncommon. There is lack of concern about diseases that affect persons of African descent such as sickle cell anaemia, pre-eclampsia, and fibroids in the health system. Translation in the health system is insufficient, and left to the peril of hospitals. The Working Group was informed that doctors and patients get by with signs. Racial stereotypes are reported to influence the experiences of people of African descent in the healthcare sector.
In the health sector, doctors’ failure to interrogate their own racialized beliefs may endanger health and lives. Many people of African descent encountered disregard or neglect when presenting illness, pain, or symptoms to medical personnel. Women of African descent with conditions like fibroids, common for Black women, reported the minimizing of excruciating pain until surgery became an emergency. Women of African descent are said to receive less care during labour because of the misconception that they are meant for childbirth, they can endure pain more and they exaggerate pain. In multiple cantons, women of African descent reported being diagnosed with “Mediterranean Syndrome,” a medical shorthand for being dramatic. There is lack of concern about diseases that affect persons of African descent with respect to pregnancy and maternal health, women of African descent reported misdiagnoses, conduct of invasive procedures without notice or consent, failures to screen for pre-eclampsia, leading to loss of pregnancy. Although doctors did not demonstrate interest or expertise in racial aspects of maternal health, racially inappropriate conduct, including intersectional violence, reportedly occurs regularly. LGBTI youth of African descent also reported challenges to access appropriate health and guidance specific to their needs. One LGBTI person of African descent reported inappropriate racialized inquiries from seven different doctors involved in her pregnancy.
Chronic racial stress was a significant issue among people of African descent, sometimes exacerbated by health interventions. For example, one woman seeking assistance for chronic racial stress occasioned by long-term workplace racial harassment was advised by her psychologist to change her jewelry style from gold to silver to better complement her skin tone and to consider whether her workplace attire was appropriate.
The Working Group heard several reports of child welfare intervention and the involuntary removal of children from their parents with racialized rationales offered to justify these extraordinary decisions. In some cases, caseworkers or guardians were appointed and made decisions without speaking with the children, questioned the provenance of the parents’ clothes and property, and interpreted struggles in school as parenting failures despite failures of the schools to communicate with the parents.
The Working Group heard reports of racial discrimination in education from nearly every person of African descent the Working Group met. Manifestations include racial slurs, harassment and provocation; singling out children of African descent who react to racism rather than those committing racist acts; disproportionate punitive measures and racialized decision-making in schools and universities; marking down students of African descent; use of illustrations that demonstrate racial hierarchies; inaccurate or false narrative of the history of enslavement of Africans in curricula and discrimination in clinical practice, among others.
Authors and contributors of African descent are largely absent from the Swiss curriculum. Students report being criticized and penalized for relying heavily on authors of African descent, even in African studies, and the expectation that white authors offered a metric of racial credibility.
Parents of children of African descent reported racialized misconduct and decision-making toward their children. Upon raising concerns, they were often excluded by the schools . Students of African descent were reportedly channeled into special needs classes, told people of African descent could not do mathematics and, channeled away from science education, and otherwise subject to harmful racial stereotypes and assumptions about their ability. One ambidextrous child was made to see a psychologist for years.
The stringent requirements of integration may enhance precariousness. For example, people hesitate to seek social aid out of fear that their permits will not be renewed. In some instances, authorities expressed expectations for integration to impact private religious beliefs. Migrants of African descent face consistent discrimination accessing formal employment and integrating professionally.
People of African descent reported discrimination based on hair texture, an undue burden that polices Black identity and upholds white supremacy. The formal and informal dress codes and grooming policies in place prohibiting natural hairstyle have been used to justify exclusion of people of African descent from employment.
People of African descent experience significant difficulties in securing private rentals and housing. Government officials acknowledged their inability to ensure non-discrimination by private landlords because they are considered as bearing the risk and had to the right to choose their tenants.
The Working Group heard the testimonies of the ordeal of asylum seekers from Eritrea, rejected for asylum and stranded for years in precariousness. Overcrowded centres are located in isolated remote areas with barriers to health care and employment. This unfavorable treatment to encourage persons to leave the Swiss territory creates desperation and escalates harm to young children whose parents are in this situation.
The use of racialized hate speech in political rhetoric is a particularly toxic form of racism. Civil society provided examples including the white and black "sheep" political campaign ("Schäfchenplakat ") led by the Democratic Union of the Center in 2007. Many campaigns promote the hardening of migration policy by mobilizing degrading images or words against Black people in Switzerland.
Legacies of legalized racial hierarchy and racialized “humor” creates an enabling environment for the harassment and violence many people of African descent face. People of African descent reported police sexualizing individuals during pubic strip searches, teachers conducting school games like “Who’s afraid of the Black man”.
Harmful racial stereotypes have been reinforced by media discretion to frame topics, choose photos, that shape and perpetuate public imaginary toward people of African descent. Although the Government reports new engagement with people of African descent, reportedly, negative racial stereotypes continue to be instrumentalized by the media.
The Working Group recommends the following measures and approaches to assist Switzerland in its efforts to combat all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance:
The Government and authorities should implement Switzerland’s international commitments and the specific recommendations, including those of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Universal Periodic Review, and other recommendations made by international and national institutions and experts to address racial discrimination faced by people of African descent.
Encourage the Government to strengthen the mandate of the national human rights institution, including its mandate to receive and process individual complaints related to cases of racial discrimination, and sufficient human and financial resources to enable to fulfil its responsibilities in compliance with the Principles relating to the status of national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (the Paris Principles). This also includes measures to ensure effective coordination between the Federal Commission Against Racism and the new National Human Rights Institution.
Dismantling systemic racism requires urgency, starting with a nationwide racial equity audit across all institutions, centering the experiences of people of African descent, to define the problem and develop new approaches and solutions.
Revisit its policies on racially disaggregated data, as it may fail to achieve its human rights targets without racially disaggregated data, based on the principle of self-identification, to illustrate areas of ongoing concern, show trajectories of improvement over time, and to allow racial disparities to drive efforts at remediation and redress.
Engage personnel with specific expertise in recognizing and addressing anti-Black racism in criminal justice contexts to immediately review solitary confinement, racial profiling, and the administration of justice for young people of African descent.
Switzerland should convene an independent, parallel review in all cases of children in adult or quasi-adult detention situations with a particular focus on the role race may have played in the burdening of children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Switzerland should embed genuine independence and gravity into the investigation and prosecution of misconduct by police and public officials. An independent prosecutor should be appointed for police misconduct as a matter of course. Police charged with violence toward members of the public should immediately be reassigned until a final determination with respect to the case is complete.
End impunity for police violence against people of African descent and support access to justice for victims and their families. Establish an independent mechanism to investigate all previous deaths as a result of police operations, deaths in custody and in asylum centers, police misconduct including racially motivated acts and omissions, hold perpetrators accountable and provide redress to victims. Cantons should also consider the recording of data on racial profiling cases, control stops and searches, all forms police violence and racism. An independent complaint mechanism with oversight and disciplinary authority is necessary for the police in every Canton.
Legislatively prohibit racial profiling.
Create Conviction Integrity Units in the offices of the Public Prosecutor, with the specific purpose of reviewing and ensuring that stops, arrests, detentions, convictions and sentences do not rely on racialized decisions, in adequate evidence, or otherwise disregard the rights of all persons subject to criminal supervision.
Establish an ombudsperson at the federal level and in all cantons
Healthcare personnel should receive specific guidance about systemic racism in health and healthcare, including research showing how doctors’ decisions may reflect anti-Black bias, and mechanisms to confront and mitigate their own biases, as well as education about racialized differences in health, risk, and expression of symptoms. There is need to diversify patient-hood models in order to accustom medical practitioners with patients of African descent.
In education, there is an urgent need to address the role of teachers, school administrators, education leadership, and students in systemic racism that appears pervasive at all levels of education. Age-appropriate interventions must replace a culture of denial or blame-shifting.
School curriculums must be revised to include the contributions, history, and cultural and knowledge production of people of African descent. Replicate projects such as increasing Black authors in libraries in the Canton of Vaud, and use the children’s book titled ‘Ticheri a Les Cheveux Crepus’, as recommended in Kindergartens in the city of Geneva.
The Government should adopt measures to increase the number of teachers and academics of African descent in educational institutions and guarantee the requisite academic freedom for diversity of perspectives.
The requirement of integration as a pre-requisite to regularization of a person’s stay in Switzerland should be given a subjective interpretation in order to avoid prejudice to persons that need protection such as long-term regular residents, persons and families with dependant children, refugees and asylum seekers.
With respect to child removal, clear policies for immediate review by a judicial tribunal of removal decisions with an opportunity to be heard must be public and available in all languages. The State has also the obligation to elaborate clear measures that the family can take to ensure return of the removed child with all deliberate speed in the best interest of the child.
Urgently address the living conditions in the centers where asylum seekers have to stay if they do not have a stay permit for Switzerland and ensure essential services and access to medical assistance.
Provide multi-year funding for associations and projects of people of African descent. This would supplement other measures to build bridges with these community organisations, facilitate transmission of government messaging and enhance constructive dialogue.
The launch of the International Decade of People of African Descent needs to be supplemented with more programmes and activities in all Cantons.
Having reviewed the recommendations of the Geneva consultations of 2020-21 with people of African descent, the Working Group encourages the Government to fully implement the 12 proposals in Geneva and elsewhere as appropriate and to engage in similar consultations in other Cantons.
The Working Group would like to reiterate its satisfaction at the Government’s willingness to engage in dialogue, cooperation and action to combat racial discrimination. We hope that our report will support the Government in this process and we express our willingness to assist in this important endeavour.