Switzerland: Issues of domestic violence and police brutality against foreigners despite State’s efforts to implement ICCPR obligations

Published on 25 Jul 2017, 12:39 PM

Political initiatives such as the "Swiss law instead of foreign judges” seek to challenge the prevalence of international human rights in domestic courts. Photo credit: Le Temps

The fourth periodic report submitted by Switzerland under the Simplified Reporting Procedure was reviewed by the Human Rights Committee on the 3rd and 4th of July 2017. The Swiss delegation has referred to the several measures taken by the State in order to comply with its human rights obligations. Nonetheless, the Committee has raised concerns with regards to questions addressed in the State report, especially in relation to political initiatives that may have an impact on Switzerland’s international obligations, and the occurrence of domestic violence and police brutality involving foreigners. Other matters have also been addressed during the review such as racial profiling in law enforcement activities, gender inequality in the labor market and overcrowding in prison facilities. The webcast of the review is available here: part 1 and part 2.

"[With regards to domestic violence], we cannot simply deal with complaints that are reported to the authorities… they are only the top of the iceberg."

- Representative of the Swiss Federal Office of Justice

Initiatives from political parties

In August 2016, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) submitted an initiative under the title “Swiss law instead of foreign judges”, which foresees the prevalence of Swiss law over international law in cases of conflict. Throughout the review, Committee members discussed this proposal with concern for the State’s obligations at the international level, as it could have consequences even with regards to its membership to the European Court of Human Rights. The Swiss delegation recognized that some initiatives might enter in conflict with international law, but that it has in previous occasions took action to ensure that they were harmonized the State’s existing obligations. The Head of the Swiss delegation then clarified during the review that the SVP initiative has been assessed by the Government and that he is “optimistic that following discussions around it, the initiative will at the end be rejected.”

Still in the context of popular initiatives, the prohibition of construction of minarets in Switzerland was introduced in the Constitution in November 2009 after a popular vote. This has called the attention of the Human Rights Committee due to the violations such measure could represent in relation to the State’s obligations under articles 18 and 20(2) of the Covenant. In fact, one of the Committee members expressly stated that “this prohibition is against the Covenant.” In addition, the Committee demonstrated concern that, as a consequence of such measure, certain religions would benefit from more privileges compared to other forms of faith in the different cantons, and that this could also contribute to increase religious intolerance in the country.

Domestic violence

The Swiss delegation made reference to the several human rights treaties which it has become party to in recent years including the Istanbul Convention Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, recently ratified in May 2017. Despite such achievements, the Human Rights Committee has expressed its concerns regarding the incidence of domestic violence in the country, especially involving foreign women. The Committee has also pointed out the high number of proceedings on domestic violence that ended up being closed, and it inquired the State about the forms of assistance available to victims in different cantons. Furthermore, the prosecution rates are as low as 22% for the estimated 15.000 cases of domestic violence registered per year, including 1.719 cases in Geneva according to the State of Geneva’s Chief of Police.

In addition, one of the Committee members has raised questions on whether there are training courses for judges and police officers to properly identify and assess cases of domestic violence. According to the representative of the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, the police is trained to identify different forms of domestic violence such as verbal and physical abuse as well as through the deprivation of substantial means, including in cases of migrant women.

In the specific context of violence against foreign women, reference was also made by the Committee to the change in requirements for residence permit extensions in case of spouses who faced domestic violence. Since 2013, the Foreign Nationals Act allows spouses to have their permits extended even after separating from their Swiss partners if they have been victims of domestic violence.

Police brutality

During the NGOs briefings on Switzerland, several issues were raised with regards to violent practices by police authorities especially against foreigners. The Swiss delegation has nonetheless indicated throughout the session that the State adopts strict requirements for the selection and training of police officers, as well as for their progression in the career, in order to avoid any arbitrary use of force by the police.

Despite the indication by Switzerland in the State report that the levels of police brutality have not increased over the past years, one of the Committee members has questioned such conclusion in the absence of related data, which could also lead to issues of transparency. Furthermore, that member has inquired the State as to whether prosecutors are sufficiently independent from the police, as this could have an impact on the outcome of investigations on police violence. This issue regarding a possible lack of independence in relation to prosecutors was also highlighted by NGOs during the briefings that preceded the review since they are concerned about the close relations between the cantonal prosecutors and the police in Switzerland.

Finally, the Human Rights Committee has especially requested information on police brutality against foreigners in the List of Issues Prior to Reporting (LOIPR). In this regard, the Swiss delegation stated during the review session that the majority of complaints of mistreatment by the police received in 2016 were actually made by Swiss or European nationals, and not by foreigners.

Recommendations of the Committee

Within one year, the State party should provide information on the following recommendations from the Committee’s Concluding Observations:

Constitutional and legal framework for the implementation of the Covenant

  • Strengthen mechanisms to monitor the compatibility of popular initiatives with the Covenant, before their submission for voting;
  • Systematically assess domestic provisions that are inconsistent with the Covenant with a view to reconsidering them.


National Human Rights Institution

  • Establish an independent national human rights institution, with human and financial resources in accordance with the Paris Principles.


Conduct of police officers

  • Establish independent mechanism to investigate and prosecute violence or ill-treatment by police forces, and maintain statistics on such complaints.

The next (fifth) periodic report of Switzerland should be submitted by 28 July 2023.

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