The World of International Organizations Explained

Swiss sense of international duty tested

Swiss crowds in Bern's Federal Square (ARÊTE/John Heilprin)

BERN, Switzerland — Voters in Switzerland overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure seeking to put the nation’s laws ahead of international obligations. But a third of all who cast ballots sided with a right-wing populist belief in “self-determination” above all else.

The initiative failed by a wide margin of 66.2—33.8 percent, in a setback for its sponsor, the Swiss People’s Party. Swiss government-funded TV broadcaster SRF headlined the initiative was “shipwrecked.” Voter turnout was just 47.7 percent, unusually high.

Yet the vote showed that even in a country with a long tradition of hosting international organizations, as many as a third of all those who voted preferred to put the promise of “Swiss law first” ahead of cooperation with international organizations, treaties and laws.

“The population does not want rigid rules to solve problems with international treaties. As it has before, the Parliament, Federal Council and courts should seek solutions on a case-by-case basis,” said André Simonazzi, spokesman for the Federal Council, a Cabinet of seven government ministers who are elected and take turns each year as Swiss president.

The voting outcome roughly matched the level of diminishing American support for U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found in a recent survey that only 30 percent of Americans did not want their country to have an active role in world affairs, down 6 points since when Trump was elected.

Ninety-one percent of those surveyed said that the United States could work most effectively with its allies and other nations, while 64 percent said that it should make more decisions that were aligned with the policies of allies and the United Nations.

Switzerland’s leading newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, said the Swiss vote outcome was a “triumph” for reason over “false promises” of stronger government, low taxes and disentanglement with the E.U.

“A rather unsuitable solution for regulating the relationship between national law and international law is off the table,” it said. “But the question of how a direct democracy country like Switzerland will deal with the constantly growing international law in future will continue to occupy politicians.”

The People’s Party initiative would have required putting the Swiss constitution above international law, giving citizens the final say on international treaties.

It was prompted by right-wing populist anger over Switzerland’s refusal to implement a previous initiative, also sponsored by the People’s Party, that gained narrow approval in 2010 and required foreign nationals who committed serious crimes to be automatically expelled after serving a sentence.

The Swiss parliament would not implement the initiative, however, after the Supreme Court opposed it based on the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Those court rulings had held that all offenders should have basic human rights, including the chance for a judicial review.

The Swiss system of “direct democracy” allows for citizens to cast votes several times a year on referendums and initiatives that seek to change the nation’s constitution.

Petition drives to gather the minimum 100,000 signatures needed to put something to a vote are usually costly in terms of campaign materials, time and effort. The People’s Party has deep pockets, however, primarily those of billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher, a powerful vice president of the party and former federal councilor.

An “important message” for human rights

If the party’s “Swiss law first” initiative had succeeded, it could have affected the landlocked nation’s complicated relationship and multiple treaties with the European Union. Switzerland is surrounded by E.U. members Austria, France, Germany and Italy and one non-E.U. nation, Liechtenstein.

It also might have impacted Switzerland’s relationship with other international organizations, primarily the United Nations, which has its European headquarters in Geneva and is a draw for other entities.

The party said it was “hardly surprised” its initiative failed to muster the simple majority needed for it to pass. Supporters and opponents spent millions on campaign materials. But the initiative only gained slightly more support than the 29 percent of voters who voted for the party in the quadrennial Swiss general elections, last held in 2015.

“The massive, aggressive and defamatory propaganda of the adversaries has clearly borne fruit,” the party said in a statement. “On the other hand, the voting campaign has nevertheless opened up a useful but previously muted debate on the relationship between Swiss law and international law as well as on the meaning of direct democracy.”

But human rights groups, warily watching the vote, expressed relief at the outcome. Amnesty International called it a recognition of the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights and an expression of support for legal certainty, separation of powers and protection of minorities.

“This weekend the Swiss people showed that they had not fallen for deceptive promises but instead used the ballot box to send out a clear signal that they want to live in a society where human rights apply to everyone,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo.

“Politicians in Switzerland and around the world should take note that a clear majority of the Swiss people have opted for human rights and rejected attempts to attack and scapegoat the weakest and most vulnerable groups in society,” he said in a statement. “At a time when many leaders around the world are trying to roll back human rights protections, the Swiss people have today sent an important message.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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