Racial discrimination is still as prevalent as ever in Switzerland, according to the president of the Federal Commission against Racism.
But Georg Kreis told swissinfo that a law against racism, which is ten years old this year, had succeeded in putting the issue high on the domestic political agenda.
In a nationwide vote in September 1994, the Swiss approved new legislation aimed at cracking down on racist behaviour. The country’s anti-racism law was formally adopted on January 1, 1995.
The law has not been universally welcomed. Earlier this year the rightwing Swiss People’s Party called for a parliamentary amendment to the legislation after the Federal Court used it to justify a ruling which imposed limits on what can be discussed at closed gatherings.
Kreis, who has headed the Federal Commission against Racism since it was established in 1995, says much still needs to be done to tackle racial discrimination – both in public life and behind closed doors.
swissinfo: Switzerland’s anti-racism law came into force ten years ago. What has been achieved since then?
Georg Kreis: I have the impression that the problem of racism has increased over the past ten years, but I also think it is being taken more seriously. Society has become much more aware of racism and we are better equipped to fight against it [than we were ten years ago]. Not everybody may be happy with this, but all in all I think that the work we have done as well as the rulings handed down by the courts have shown that we are on the right track.
swissinfo: Who exactly does the anti-racism law seek to protect?
G.K.: Well, above all it offers protection to minorities, because they suffer most from discrimination. And in certain situations, such as in school classrooms for example, even the majority Swiss can find themselves in the minority.
The courts have even ruled on the odd occasion that a racist attack on Swiss people can be considered an offence.
swissinfo: Racism and racist acts committed in public are an offence under the law, but what about discrimination that takes place in private? Are the legal provisions really sufficient to fight or even eliminate the hidden side of racism in Switzerland?
G.K.: Let me pick you up on the use of the word ‘eliminate’. It’s dangerous to think in terms of completely destroying racism, because this is a totally unrealistic goal. In reality, only acts of racism committed in public are punishable by law.
swissinfo: So what if anything can be done to tackle racism not seen or heard in public?
G.K.: Expose it and get involved in taking action against racism wherever you see or hear it, but make sure that you are not putting yourself in danger by doing so.
swissinfo: Earlier this year the Federal Court effectively limited what can be discussed at closed gatherings by saying that anti-racism law could be applied to neo-Nazi meetings. The rightwing Swiss People’s Party attacked the move. What's your response?
G.K.: What we’re talking about is a misunderstanding [of the Federal Court’s message], which was that you cannot go about pretending that what is effectively a public meeting of a large group of people who do not know each other is the same as a private family gathering.
This is all about a choice between conflicting rights. On the one side there are practical and clearly defined steps that can be taken to clamp down on rightwing extremism. On the other side there’s the very theoretical fear about the loss of freedom to hold meetings and the protection of privacy.
And anyone who thinks that they need to defend their right to hold barbecue parties in their back garden is just making it clear that they are not interested in fighting against racism.
swissinfo: The Federal Commission against Racism regularly comes under attack from the Right, and in particular from the People’s Party. How do you deal with this?
G.K.: First of all I would ask [anyone who criticises us and our work] to do so constructively by discussing specific cases. And if that doesn’t happen, you have to ask yourself whether what these people are really trying to do is ensure they have the right to be as racist as they want to be.
swissinfo: What’s your reaction to the recent decision by Swiss insurance company Mobiliar to charge higher car-insurance premiums for people from the former Yugoslavia?
G.K.: We’re currently looking into the legal grounds for this. It could well be that this kind of discrimination is actually legal. But that doesn’t mean we should not be extremely worried about the socio-political message this decision sends out.
swissinfo-interview: Jean-Michel Berthoud
Georg Kreis was born in Basel in 1943.
He studied at Basel University and gained a PhD in contemporary history.
He is director of the Europa Institute at Basel University.
He was appointed president of the Federal Commission against Racism in 1995.
This week marks the tenth anniversary in Switzerland of the United Nations-sponsored International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The treaty came into force in Switzerland on December 29, 1994.
The convention sets standards for governments at the national, state, and local level to address racial discrimination in a wide range of areas.
In compliance with the JTI standards