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Switzerland’s New 'Terrorism' Definition Sets A Dangerous Precedent, UN Human Rights Experts Warn

Switzerland’s draft anti-terrorism legislation violates international human rights standards by expanding the definition of terrorism, and would set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, UN human rights experts warned today.

They expressed regret at the refusal of the Swiss authorities to change contentious sections of the draft law, now before parliament, but pleaded for a last-minute reversal.

“None of our recommendations have been implemented”, they said, referring to a 16-page formal letter sent to the government at the end of May. “No satisfactory response has been given to our primary concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism.”

The experts were particularly alarmed that the bill’s new definition of “terrorist activity” no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all. On the contrary, it may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists.

According to international standards, including the UN Security Council, terrorism always involves the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through the threat or perpetration of violence causing death, serious injury or the taking of hostages.

“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards,” they said. “This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The experts also warned against sections of the bill that would give the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide on preventive measures against them without meaningful judicial oversight.

“While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights,” the experts said.

The experts called on parliamentarians to keep in mind Switzerland’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights and to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.”

The experts further expressed concerns over suggested amendments to the criminal code envisaging the criminalization of support to terrorist organizations, which they said may endanger Switzerland’s long and distinguished humanitarian tradition. They urged Switzerland’s lower house, the Conseil National, to validate a recent proposal by the upper house, the Conseil des Etats, to expressly exempt impartial humanitarian action from criminalization.

“Protection of human rights and effective counter-terrorism measures are not mutually exclusive objectives, but should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing interests of any democratic society” they said.

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