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A landlocked, mountainous country in central Europe, Switzerland has enjoyed centuries of political neutrality and relative peace. One of Europe’s oldest democracies, its various governments over time have been seen as some of the world’s most stable and, though not formally a member of the European Union, it enjoys strong ties with neighbouring States. Although home to a number of the UN's human rights mechanisms, the country's human rights record has not been without criticism, most notably regarding discrimination towards its minorities.


Switzerland is a small landlocked European country, which shares borders with France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. A quarter of the country's mountainous terrain is unproductive and, with the exception of hydro-electric production, provides few natural resources. The capital city is Berne.

Population and language

Switzerland is home to 7.7 million people: an ethnically and culturally diverse population. Reflecting the country's location at cultural and linguistic crossroads, around two-thirds of the population speak German, while 20 per cent speak French and 7 per cent Italian. Rhaeto-Rumansch is also spoken by a significant minority.[1] More than 20 per cent of people living in Switzerland are foreign nationals[2].


Swiss national politics has long operated on the principle of direct democracy, whereby the Federal State holds a limited role and many decisions, and the majority of budget allocations, are made at the level of the Cantons (States) and Municipalities (Local Authorities). At the federal level, government operates through a Federal Council (Cabinet), in which the four major parties are all represented.[3] The Council is elected by both houses of the Parliament, though in practice changes in membership are rare, a practice that has made the Swiss government among the world's most stable. In 2003, in a rare political shift, the anti-EU Swiss People's Party (SVP) overtook the Free Democrats (FDP) and Social Democrats (SP) to become the most popular party and was an accorded an additional seat in the Council in lieu of the waning Christian Democrats (CVP).

The national political practice of consensus politics took a hit in 2007 when the the SVP declared itself in opposition, following parliament's refusal to re-elect the SVP's leader to the Council over the party's anti-immigration election campaign. The SVP expelled its two councillors as a result of the decision, one of whom remains in the Council as a member of a breakaway political group, the Conservative Democratic Party (BDP). The SVP returned to the Council the following year. The most recent federal elections of 2011 showed declining support for the SVP for the first time in 20 years, though they remained the most popular party.[4]

The Presidency rotates through the members of the Council, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf will hold the Presidency until January 2013, though the Council as a whole holds the office of Head of State.


Switzerland has a modern highly developed economy based on varied activities, most notably the banking and insurance industries, though also including chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machine and precision tools and electrical and mechanical engineering. Of the ten largest global companies in continental Europe, four are based in the country. Switzerland is also holds the world's largest stores of offshore wealth, its banks hold more than US$2.1 trillion of foreign funds, and it protects its banking customers with stringent secrecy laws. This practice, alongside the scale of the industry, has led to international pressure in recent years to provide details of foreign customers to foreign government's in order to combat tax evasion. The United States, in particular, has enacted tax legislation that will penalise Swiss banks for withholding information on American account holders in the country.[5]

A founding member of the European Free Trade Association, and part of the Schengen Area, Switzerland's economic activity is highly tied with that of its European neighbours, which led the country into recession following the global economic crisis of 2008 and the ensuing sovereign debt crisis. The recent strengthening of the Swiss Franc against the Euro has damaged the country's exports and tourist industries, as goods have become significantly cheaper in neighbouring Eurozone countries. This trend which has caused some commentators to speculate that the country may return to recession.[6]

Media and civil society

Switzerland has substantial constitutional and legal protections of media freedom and a strong record on enforcing those rights, a record which has led Reporters Without Borders (RWB) to consistently rate the country in the top ten of its Press Freedom Index.[7] However, this strong record has not been without flaws. RWB have been critical of the State's prosecution of journalists in relation to violating laws on military secrets,[8] and Freedom House has highlighted the limited use and knowledge of transparency laws.[9] Switzerland also has a highly developed civil society: Geneva in particular represents a hub for NGOs working in the area of human rights.

Human rights and children's rights

In many respects, Switzerland has a strong record on human rights, Geneva is home to a number of the UN's human rights mechanisms, but the country's record has not been without criticism. In 2010, a referendum to revoke appeal rights in relation to some deportation cases was successful, a development that some human rights organisations alleged violated the State's international obligations.[10] The Committee against Torture has also expressed concern about the treatment of persons being repatriated as part of the State's immigration policies, particularly surrounding the death of Nigerian citizen, Joseph Ndukaku Chiakwa, who died whilst being forcibly removed from the country.[11]

  1. BBC, "Switzerland Country Profile" 4 January 2012
  2. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, "Switzerland Country Profile"
  3. Hauser Global Law School Programme, New York University, "The Swiss Legal System and Research" by Gregory M. Bovey, November 2006
  4. The Guardian, "Swiss election sees nationalist party lose share of the vote" 23 October 2011
  5. The Economist, "Don't ask don't tell: Amid a global squeeze on tax evasion, Switzerland it the prime target" 11 February 2012
  6. BBC, "Swiss franc 'could bring recession'" 17 August 2011 and The Guardian, "Strong Swiss franc strangles economy" 22 August 2011
  7. Reporters Without Borders, "Press Freedom Index" 2002-2012
  8. Reporters Without Borders, "Military court acquits three journalists with Zurich-based weekly" 18 April 2007
  9. Freedom House, "Freedom of the Press 2011: Switzerland"
  10. Amnesty International, "Swiss deportation referendum success puts human rights at risk" 28 November 2010
  11. UN Committee against Torture, Concluding Observations, May 2010 CAT/C/CHE/CO/6


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