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Swiss decide not to ban Nazi symbols

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15:15 CEST+02:00

A ban on the public display of Nazi symbols such as the swastika was rejected by the Swiss Council of States on Tuesday after an eight-year fight by politicians and associations to introduce a legal change.

The issue of Nazi symbols has come to the fore over the last decade as Swiss National Day celebrations on the Rütli on August 1st have increasingly been disrupted by right-wing extremists, newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reports

The Rütli is a meadow above the slopes of Lake Lucerne in the Swiss canton of Uri where the oath of the Old Swiss Confederacy is remembered every year.

There skinheads have openly displayed Nazi flags and symbols such as “SS”, a Nazi army emblem, and English sports brand Lonsdale, the middle letters of which stand for the first letters in the acronym for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP), the Nazi party in Germany from 1919 to 1945.

After former government minister Kaspar Villiger was booed by a neo-Nazi mob during his speech on the Rütli on August 1st 2000, politicians called for action to close a legal loophole. 

The public use and dissemination of racist symbols has actually been forbidden in Switzerland since a new anti-racism law came into effect in 1995.

However, a clause states that the display of offensive symbols is only banned when they are used to promote a corresponding ideology, a correlation that is often difficult to prove.

For example, Nazi war flags cannot be confiscated at the Swiss border if the owner claims not to be spreading propaganda.

After the neo-Nazi provocation on the Rütli both the Federal Council and National Council, the lower house of parliament, voted for the proposed ban, while the majority of cantons and associations also voted in favour.

The Swiss police officers' association at the time said they would welcome “the introduction of a tool to fight this phenomenon, which is poisoning our society and democracy”.

The police association called for a clear identification of the symbols that should be banned and several cantons and parties agreed.

However, the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the FDP (Liberals) rejected the new legal provision on the grounds that it was not sufficiently clear.

Then in 2010, the Federal Council also decided to renounce the new legal provision.

The government said it was too difficult to exactly define which symbols should be banned because right-wing extremists not only use unambiguous symbols like the swastika or Nazi salute, but also other symbols and codes such as the number 88, a numeric repesentation of of the phrase “Heil Hitler”.

“Such a new legal provision would lead to boundary issues between legal and illegal behaviour,” the government noted. 

These arguments and the reference to the existing anti-racism law won the politicians over and in June the National Council also rejected the proposed legal change. On Tuesday the Council of States, the upper house of parliament, followed suit.

Marcel Niggli, a professor of criminal law at the University of Freiburg, told the Tages-Anzeiger he believed the hands-off approach was “a scandal”.

“With their resistance, the parliament has cemented the unsatisfactory legal situation and delegated responsibility to the police.”

After the scenes on the Rütli, police in Canton Uri asked what action they could take against Nazi symbols.

“A police officer must decide if someone is campaigning with a Nazi symbol or not,” Niggli said.

That leads to a dilemma. If the police do nothing, they are accused of inaction, he said, whereas if they react they are seen to be suppressing freedom of expression.

According to Niggli, it is possible to clearly define a law banning Nazi symbols such as the swastika, as Germany has done.

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