Tuesday 1 December 2009

Minaret-banning Switzerland chairing the Council of Europe

Twittering Julien Frisch was the first to make me aware of the matter, and later I saw Carl Bildt mention it on his blog, Alla dessa dagar. I decided to take a look at the web pages of the Council of Europe:

Switzerland has taken over the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers, the principal decision-making body of the Council of Europe, for a period of 6 months. From 18 November 2009 to 11 May 2010, Switzerland will focus on 3 main areas: protection of human rights and the primacy of law, strengthening of democratic institutions, and increasing the transparency and the effectiveness of the Council of Europe.

The priorities of the Swiss chairmanship are introduced in the following terms:

Switzerland attaches paramount importance to respect for the values underlying the European identity. Continuing the previous Chairmanships’ efforts, Switzerland will maintain the emphasis on respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, identified at the Warsaw Summit in 2005 as the Council of Europe’s core objective.

It must be pretty embarrassing for representatives of the Swiss government to chair the decision-making body of the CoE, when the government’s good intentions have been disavowed by its own people.

The other member states may think twice when they hear suggestions along these lines:

Switzerland, a country which possesses a long experience of participatory democracy, undertakes to strengthen democratic structures for citizen participation.

A pretty helvetic confederation, if I may say so.

Ralf Grahn

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  1. Basic cvili rights, like the freedom of religion, should be placed above and beyond the reach of the ballot box. Otherwise, the majority can just vote away the rights of a minority.
    One of the roles of courts, at least here in the US, is to protect the rule of a majority over a minority.
    Without protections for minorities - we have mob rule! Too easy!

  2. ESLaPorte,

    You are right, in the end we have to believe in certain "unalienable rights", beyond the reach of mob rule, 'demos' or parliament.

  3. Yes, rights should be "unalienable rights", and this does not appear to be so in Europe.

    We now see reports that other far right parties in Europe, notewothry Geert Wilders, want to pass bans in their countries. Also, here in the US the right-wing is gloating over this ban as a "victory." Geert Wilders has connections to the Thatcher Centre for Freedom, which is associated with right-wing think tanks here in the US. How much is the American right wing active in all of this?

    We should not fret. Switzerland is a member of the Council of Europe and a party to the ECHR - and we should expect this ban to be thrown out. I noted that on the COE's website it takes about 10 years for a case to be decided. Europe and the rest of the world need to beef up human rights institutions. It should not take 10 years for a case to be decided.

    Maybe there could be a "rocket docket" for a case that affects so many people's freedom in Switzerland?

  4. ESLaPorte,

    The European Convention on Human Rights, with amendments and the European Court of Justice, as well as the European Union with its Charter of Fundamental Rights, are - in my humble opinion - more modern, comprehensive and protective than the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.

    You are right, the success of the European Court of Human Rights has practically suffocated it, despite some measures to alleviate the problems of the enormous backlog.

    This is one of the consequences of unanimous decision making in international organisations; hard to achieve real reform.

    (I am not quite sure how much better cases on unconstitutionality fare under the US federal justice system and the Supreme Court at this point in time.)

    If I understand correctly, the laxity of the Swiss government shown by letting a referendum go ahead, despite the potential breach of the country's international obligations, ironically makes official Switzerland squirm at the pillory for as long as it takes to get the coming Court case decided. Thus, they might be the most fervent wishers for the "rocket docket" you mentioned.

  5. I disagree with both of you.

    To whom are you going to give the power to decide on these rights, over which neither parliament nor popular referendum is to have power ?

    As to minarets, I see this as a planning matter. The Swiss are quite entitled to take the view that these structures do not conform to the way that they would like their country to look.

    It is certainly not a religious thing. The mosques are not affected, for example.

  6. Fergus,

    You don't believe in "unalienable rights", and you don't believe in respecting the European Convention on Human Rights, if I understand correctly.

    In your view, planning matters are constitutional and there is no problem in directing the constitution against a certain religion?

    Defending Christian traditions by showing nothing of Christian values is a sorry state of mind.

    You have chosen your company, knowing who have hailed this "victory".

  7. Ralf, you don't understand correctly. I have a considerable amount of respect for the ECHR and similar documents, and for their effect on civilising our behaviour.

    However, "inalienable" is a word that hints at the kind of fundamentalism that is anathema to our best traditions.

    Those who are so keen at subverting the dogmas of the past seem equally keen at constructing dogmas a.k.a. "inalienable" rights carved into the same kind of stone as those that they abhor.

    I haven't followed the debate in Switzerland. If it was conducted on sectarian lines, I regret it. If the intention of the proponents was to direct the constitution against a certain religion or to defend Christian traditions by showing nothing of Christian values, then I condemn it.

    Yes, I think that it is legitimate for planning issues to be addressed in constitutional law: why not ?

    I don't know whose company I am keeping with these views but as I am satisfied that I have reached them conscientiously, I don't much care who agrees with me.

  8. Fergus,

    More than a dash of European Enlightenment and natural law inspired the Founding Fathers in America.

    Should we backtrack again?


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