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CRIME

OPINION: Switzerland’s rape laws are not fit for purpose and reforms are long overdue

As they stand Switzerland's rape laws are more useful to perpetrators of sex assaults than to the victims, writes Clare O'Dea as she explains why new reforms are long overdue.

OPINION: Switzerland's rape laws are not fit for purpose and reforms are long overdue
Switzerland's Federal Criminal Court. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

It is widely accepted that Switzerland’s current rape law, last revised thirty years ago, is not fit for purpose. Partly in response to international obligations, the Swiss political system is finally addressing the problem and concrete progress is inching closer.

The failings in the current legal model include a too-narrow definition of what sexual act constitutes rape, the exclusion of male victims of rape, the requirement to prove violence or coercion, and the soft sanctions against convicted rapists.

Taken together, these weaknesses make Swiss rape legislation as it now stands a lot more useful to perpetrators of rape than it is to victims.

There were 757 rapes reported in Switzerland last year, and only 77 rapists convicted, some of whom did not receive custodial sentences. The overall number of reported sex offences in 2021 was 6,909. 

But extensive change is coming in all four problem areas, partly thanks to the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. A revision of the Swiss law, compliant with the Convention, is working its way through parliament. The Council of States has just supported the reform positions of the Federal Council, and the National Council is expected to go at least as far when it takes up the debate later this year.

The definition of rape is set to be expanded to include any kind of penetration against the will of the person, not just vaginal penetration by a penis. This means more sexual acts can be prosecuted as rape. Combined with the use of the gender-neutral word ‘person’, it also means that males will be recognised as victims of rape for the first time under Swiss law.

The Council of States also voted to introduce a minimum two-year prison sentence for convicted rapists. This is important because sentences under two years are automatically suspended in Switzerland, which has meant some rapists walk away without serving any time behind bars.

It is hard to imagine the anguish of victims seeing their abusers get off so lightly, without any prison time or even being named and shamed in their community. In ordinary circumstances, the names of convicted criminals are not made public in Switzerland.

These changes, if accepted by the larger parliamentary chamber, will represent a major step forward for victim’s rights, and bring Switzerland into line with most other European countries on rape law.

The final unresolved issue is how to proceed when the use of force is no longer part of the legal definition of rape. We know it is possible to do something to someone against their will without using force. There are many reasons victims may not resist, including the phenomenon of freezing in shock.

There is a growing international movement to reconceptualise rape and other sexual offences as violations of the victim’s sexual autonomy. More and more European countries – 13 and counting – are moving away from the violence-based definition of rape to a broader definition of rape being sex without consent.

Right now in Switzerland, the camps are split into those who advocate for the explicit expression of consent – ‘Only Yes Means Yes’ – as the best legal formula to establish rape, and those who say it’s the refusal of consent that must be expressed – ‘No Means No’. The Council of States opted for No Means No.

Unfortunately, all of this may be academic in a court setting where there is no record of such statements on the part of the alleged victim either way.  The use of force, threats or psychological pressure, is already hard to prove. So what’s the point of the change?

What it will hopefully do is reinforce the message that it is imperative to listen to the person you are about to have sex with and that what they want matters. Even if you don’t care what they want at that moment, the law does.

It tells potential victims that their wishes matter, that consent is not something to be brushed aside to satisfy one person’s demands. It is good to have this spelled out in law. Remember that marital rape, for example, only entered the Swiss criminal code in 1991.

When it comes to giving consent, I don’t think it matters which model you use – say yes or say no – putting consent at the top of the agenda between sexual partners will help make a cultural difference. But a lot more needs to happen outside the legal arena to make this a safer country for women and girls in particular.

Sadly, the unreported incidence of sexual assault and rape is high. Amnesty International commissioned a survey of women in Switzerland in 2019 in which 12% of respondents said they had had non-consensual sexual intercourse. More than one in five (22%) had been subject to unwanted sexual acts in their lives. Only 8% of these victims notified the police.

Could we produce a new generation of women who feel secure enough to say ‘I don’t want this’ and a new generation of men who would listen to them and respect their wishes? We are not there yet, especially not with the ubiquity of porn culture that has become markedly more violent towards women.

There are still some hard questions to be asked about why rape happens. Why is it that a subset of men will disregard the dignity, comfort or safety of another person for their own sexual gratification? How are we as a society contributing to this sense of entitlement?

Ultimately, weeding out rape culture will achieve a lot more than the courts can, even with this better law.

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?

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