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Switzerland acknowledges 'systemic racism' in the country

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Switzerland acknowledges 'systemic racism' in the country
Protestors in Geneva demonstrate against racism. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Despite a UN human rights group having accused Switzerland of being home to racist attitudes in the past, the country has never officially acknowledged it — until now.

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In October 2022, the UN Human Rights Council released a report indicating that Switzerland discriminates against people of African descent. 

“The ubiquity and impunity of this misconduct indicates a serious systemic problem exists," it said.

According to media reports, "Switzerland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva broadly accepted the findings, although questioned the experts' use of a limited number of examples to draw wider conclusions." 

Though the problem has reportedly been lingering for years, Switzerland has never officially acknowledged it — until now.

As RTS public broadcaster reported on Monday, the government's Anti-Racism Service (SLR) admitted, in an unprecedented move, “the existence of systemic racism in Switzerland.”

This includes “discrimination or exclusion based on racial criteria, such as skin colour, names, languages, accents, etc, as well as prejudices built up throughout history and now so deeply rooted in our society that they go unnoticed.”

In 2022, 708 cases of racial discrimination were registered in Switzerland, according to Federal Commission against Racism. Most of them took place in workplace and schools.

As an example of discrimination, the SLR report mentions difficulties that Albanian, Turkish, Tamil, and African people face in finding housing or jobs.

And that kind of attitude sometimes continues even after these foreigners obtain Swiss citizenship.

For instance, as The Local reported earlier, foreigners who become Swiss but who have distinctly foreign names or are visibly of other ethnic backgrounds, don’t have the same opportunities to get hired as their native Swiss counterparts.

A similar phenomenon affects the search for apartments: researchers found that applicants with Kosovan or Turkish names were not given as many opportunities to view apartments as non-foreign applicants.

READ ALSO: How employers and landlords in Switzerland 'discriminate against Swiss citizens of immigrant origin'

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However, researchers pointed out that Switzerland is no exception and similar discrimination against job applicants from immigrant backgrounds exists in other countries across Europe as well.

There have been various instances of racism in recent years, though many cases go unreported.

Among the ones that made news was a job advert for a truck driver, with the company specifying that the successful candidate must be a 'Helvetian' who eats pork — effectively excluding Muslims and Jews.

READ ALSO: 'We eat pork': Swiss company's job listing for a driver accused of discrimination

Another, more recent example is that of a yodeller in the canton of Appenzell who performed in a black wig and painted black face.

Though this incident stirred controversy — as a black wig and face are not part of the typical yodelling attire — a court ruled that such a performance during a carnival did not quality as racism, especially as the yodeller didn’t make disparaging comments about Africans.

READ ALSO: Swiss yodeller cleared of racism over 'black face' performance

What does the law say?

In Switzerland, racial discrimination is defined as "any form of unjustified inequality of treatment, verbal statement or physical use of force that discriminates against a person or a group of persons on the grounds of their ethnic origin, race, language or religion." 

There are several legislations in place, including a constitutional article, prohibiting racism and racial discrimination of any kind.

Article 8 of the Federal Constitution guarantees every person living in Switzerland the right to equal treatment.

Specifically, no one may be discriminated against because of their origin, race, gender, language, religion or way of life.

Anyone found to be guilty of breaking this law is subject — depending on the severity of the offence — to a fine or up to three years in prison.

Does this system actually work?

Yes, at least in some cases.

The most recent example, which is still making news in Switzerland, is that of a French comedian, Dieudonné.

In 2019, he stated publicly while performing in Geneva that "the gas chambers never existed," referring to Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where millions of Jews had perished. 

A case against him was filed at the time by the Coordination against Anti-semitism and Defamation (CICAD) organisation.

A Swiss court found him guilty of racism and he was sentenced to a 36,000-franc fine, but he appealed the verdict to a higher court, claiming a right to free expression guaranteed by the Swiss constitution.

However, last week, on April 14th, Switzerland’s highest court upheld the previous ruling, stating that Dieudonné’s remarks “grossly minimised the Holocaust” and criticising his “inclination to make fun of the victims of the Holocaust.”

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What measures will Switzerland take to curb racism now that it acknowledged its existence?

The SLR is pledging to step up its  fight against racism, starting with identifying the most vulnerable people, and then finding solutions in collaboration with public and civil authorities.

Concretely, it has committed to the following measures:

  • Awareness and prevention to fight against racial discrimination and defend human rights
  • Strengthen legal protection against discrimination
  • Publicise this information at national and international level
  • Provide funds to support anti-racism and human rights defence projects
     
     

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