Switzerland - Overview

Overview

People in Switzerland enjoy a vibrant and open space in which they are able to campaign and challenge authority through the exercise of their rights to free association, assembly and expression. While people can freely organise and assemble, there have been instances where the state has curtailed these rights, particularly for minority ethnic and religious groups. Free expression is protected in Switzerland and there is legislation in place to combat hate speech. The country has a range of media outlets and people have access to a variety of information sources, though media ownership remains concentrated in a state-owned broadcasting conglomerate.

Association

Article 23 of Switzerland’s constitution ensures the right to freedom of association. It guarantees that every citizen has the right to “to form, join or belong to an association and to participate in the activities of an association.” Articles 60 to 79 of the Swiss Civil Code govern the formation and operation of non-profit associations in Switzerland. It is relatively easy to establish an NGO in Switzerland, and the law does not make it mandatory for NGOs to register with the state, although this is advisable to facilitate proper relations with the authorities. Under Swiss law, NGOs can apply for a tax exemption where they can show their activities are in the public interest and their activities are clearly not intended to generate profit. In general, NGOs are able to operate freely in Switzerland, which is home to many international NGOs due to the presence of the UN and other international bodies in the country.

Peaceful Assembly

Though freedom of peaceful assembly is also protected under the constitution, there have been cases of this right being restricted, primarily when the state believed there to be a potential security threat.

In 2014, the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland was prohibited from holding its annual meeting in Fribourg over concerns of potential rioting or extremism. The cantonal court upheld the prohibition; however, the Federal Supreme Court later overruled the lower court’s decision in October 2015, citing the Council’s right to assemble. In 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, released a statement in which he called attention to troubling provisions in a proposed new law on assemblies in the Geneva Canton. The law proposed to make it mandatory for organisers of protests to secure prior authorization and gave authorities the power to completely ban all protests in certain circumstances. Restrictive rules on protests were in evidence during the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the UN offices in Geneva, when a pro-Tibetan protest was disrupted by police, even though a pro-China protest was later allowed to proceed unimpeded.

Expression

Swiss citizens are guaranteed the right to free speech and the press. To combat hate speech, the government has legislated against “public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination as well as denial of crimes against humanity.” There have been several cases that have gone to Swiss courts in regards to this legislation. For example, in a 2007 court ruling by the Swiss Federal Court, Doğu Perinçek head of the Turkish Workers’ Party, was found guilty of denying the Armenian genocide in a public speech given in 2005. His public denial is considered a crime per Swiss law. However, the Swiss Court’s ruling was later overruled by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in a 2015 landmark decision on the case, wherein the ECHR ruled that Perinçek was exercising his right to freedom of expression. Growing concentration of media ownership and a lack of adequate protection for whistleblowers are also identified as challenges to the full enjoyment of free expression in Switzerland.