Banning Nazi salutes in Switzerland deemed legally complicated

Far-right groups gathered at the Ruetli in Switzerland on August 1, 2005. Keystone / Sigi Tischler

Displaying a Nazi symbol or making a Nazi salute in public is not always a crime in Switzerland. The authorities now say it’s possible to ban such symbols or gestures but such a change would encounter “major legal and editorial obstacles”.

This content was published on December 15, 2022 minutes

Switzerland has a certain tolerance when it comes to Nazi symbols and gestures. Nazi salutes and swastikas are banned only when used for propaganda purposes. Political efforts to scrap this distinction have been ongoing since 2003. 

Majorities in government and parliament have so far judged freedom of expression to be more important, but the perception seems to be shiftingExternal link with a number of parliamentary motions and the Council of the Swiss Abroad calling for zero tolerance.

Initially hesitant, the government promised to look into the matter. On Thursday, the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ) issuedExternal link a report on the legal options for a ban.

It concluded that a ban on Nazi, racist or extremist symbols is possible, but making such a change would “come up against major legal and editorial obstacles”.

Furthermore, lawyers see no need to act. They say that in most cases, the public use of Nazi, racist or extremist symbols, as well as those promoting violence, is already punishable in Switzerland, the FOJ said. Cantonal laws provide the police with sufficient instruments to intervene, particularly during demonstrations, it added.

If criminal law was expanded, all symbols of racial discrimination would have to be included as well as Nazi symbols, the FOJ said.

Also, it would be possible to add “an explicit ban on the use of Nazi and racist symbols” to the article on discrimination in the Criminal Code. Alternatively, a special law could be passed to regulate the ban in more detail.

Practical problems

The report highlights the practical difficulties of formulating such a ban.

“The norm should be drafted in a sufficiently open manner so that the courts can take into account the context of the act in each case. However, the wording should be clear and precise, so that everyone can know what is permitted and what is prohibited,” it stated.

Exceptions should also be made so that the use of the symbols in question for scientific, educational, artistic or journalistic purposes remains possible.

‘Urgent need’

In a joint statementExternal link the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities and the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland said the need for a ban was “urgent” and that there must no longer be legal uncertainty regarding the use of Nazi symbols.

“Switzerland must also align itself with the situation of its neighbours and cannot justify a marginal position,” it said.

The organisations called on parliament and the government to study the legal options presented in the report and to focus initially on the issue of Nazi symbols, gestures and flags as a first concrete step.

“Until now, attempts to ban racist, extremist and discriminatory symbols have always failed because no one could agree on a list of these symbols,” it said.

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