Nov 24, 2010

East Turkestan: Will Switzerland remain silent on minority plight in China not to compromise mutual economic agreements?

China will remain one of the most important trade partner for Switzerland. In spite of the modest attempts of Chinese – Swiss human rights dialogue, nothing indicates more powerful Swiss efforts to draw attention to this “sensitive subject”. 

Switzerland will shortly be starting negotiations with China designed to produce a free trade agreement, something the Swiss have been eagerly pushing for. spoke to Thomas Braunschweig, responsible for trade policy at the Berne Declaration, one of the non-governmental organisations to have expressed concerns.

As the fastest growing global economy, China represents an increasingly important market for Switzerland. It is already Switzerland’s third-most important trading partner, behind the United States and European Union. 

A feasibility study carried out earlier this year suggested that Swiss gross domestic product (GDP) could be boosted by 0.23 per cent and industry could make annual savings of around SFr290 million ($297 million) as trade barriers are lifted. If the agreement is reached, it will be the first between China and any European country. 

But a number of charities and development aid groups - Alliance Sud, the Berne Declaration, the Society for Threatened People and the Swiss-Tibetan Friendship Society - warned on Tuesday that it was unethical for Swiss companies to benefit from poor human rights standards in China. How do you regard the prospect of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China?

Thomas Braunschweig: We are not against the negotiations, which will give Switzerland some room to encourage China to pledge itself to respect human rights. What we are demanding is that binding clauses on human rights should be included in the agreement, and that there should be a preliminary study about the impact that an FTA could have on ordinary people’s economic and social rights. Depending on its findings, such an assessment would show whether negotiations can be started or not. As far as human rights are concerned, what specific improvements could this bring about?

T.B.: We must be realistic. In the context of a free trade agreement, Switzerland will certainly not be able to bring about any substantial improvement in the human rights situation in China. Obviously the Chinese side will not allow itself to be put under pressure. 

But our country can make a contribution, for example by guaranteeing that it will not import Chinese products manufactured under conditions which fail to respect human rights or the core norms laid down by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Or by monitoring the large Swiss firms working in China, particularly in the mining and trading of raw materials, to ensure that they do not benefit from the favourable conditions in the country to trample on human rights for the sake of low cost production. Has Switzerland already introduced such measures in the framework of the FTA negotiations?

T.B.: As far as the assessments are concerned, we have asked the State Secretariat for the Economy (Seco) several times to make such studies, for example in the context of negotiations with Vietnam and India. But the government has always refused. It has argued that such analyses are too costly and methodologically not reliable enough. In other words, it has found relatively simple excuses, because the various United Nations bodies involved in human rights have been asking for such analyses for more than ten years now.

As for binding clauses on human rights, Switzerland, unlike the European Union, has never included any in its agreements. The only thing this country does is to include a reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as part of the preamble, which is not binding, and this makes it pointless. This is a cowardly strategy by the government. Switzerland already has very close trade ties with China. How does it approach the question of human rights?

T.B.: There’s a dialogue between Switzerland and China at government level aimed at encouraging respect for human rights [the Chinese-Swiss dialogue on human rights]. It focuses on the death penalty, respect for minorities, freedom of religion and the economy and human rights, stressing the social responsibility of companies. For example, when China was last evaluated by the UN, Switzerland was one of the only countries to speak out about the rights of the Uighur minority. A very sensitive topic. 

But this discussion between Switzerland and China is not really enough, since we haven’t seen any concrete results.