Switzerland’s responses on the Xinjiang issue: A brief footprint so far
By Ilham Rilin Fiadi
The issue of human rights violations against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, still remains a global concern nowadays. The issue has also made Switzerland play a role in the process of guaranteeing and clarifying human rights there. Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a European country that is not a part of the European Union (EU), as well as a country that has a permanent commitment to neutrality. Switzerland, however, still continues to maintain strong international cooperation, one of which is China’s bilateral relations. In foreign affairs, Switzerland has the main agenda of foreign policy in terms of the promotion of Human Rights.
Human rights have been placed at the core of the nation’s value system contained in the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation. Switzerland is also noted to have ratified around 14 international treaties regarding the enforcement of human rights. This is a step to realize the commitment of the Swiss state in supporting the enforcement of human rights. In the Uighur issue, there are several coverages on human rights that are considered to be a concern, including issues of racism, minorities, freedom of opinion and religion, gender, praise, and children’s rights. Some of these human rights issues are related issues that Switzerland has tried to enforce in its own country.
Switzerland’s Foreign Policy on the Xinjiang Issue
In practical terms, previously, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) had a special Foreign Policy Strategy for the 2016-2019 period, the core of its foreign policy was the promotion of peace, mutual respect, equality, and non-discrimination. The promotion of human rights in foreign relations has also previously been explicitly stipulated in the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation in article 54. With this, it can be seen that Swiss foreign policy is about the enforcement and promotion of human rights.
In 2019, the FDFA voiced concern regarding the situation in Xinjiang and requested China to allow the UN access to the region. Granting access to the United Nations is considered important in order to collect reports on issues that occur in Xinjiang that are clearer, more reliable, and avoid politicizing the issue that could lead to a prolonged conflict. Foreign policy on the issue of human rights violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang is, of course, still related to Switzerland’s interests in the clarity of guaranteeing the protection of human rights by the Chinese government.
Switzerland’s Diplomacy with China on the Xinjiang Issue
Switzerland has participated in various forums to ensure compliance with human rights, including during the 2018 UNHRC Review of China in which Switzerland urged China to close detention camps in Xinjiang and requested access for UNHRC, and permission for independent UN Investment to access detention camps. In the bilateral dialogue between Switzerland and China in 2018, Switzerland emphasized the issue in Xinjiang, where there is the issue of serious human rights violations in detention camps. Switzerland also conveyed the mandate of the UN Human Rights mechanism and the importance of civil society participation.
The diplomatic steps taken by Switzerland through holding the annual dialogue with China above are aimed at manifesting its foreign policy agenda in promoting human rights in Xinjiang. In the diplomacy carried out by Switzerland with China on this fairly sensitive issue, it can avoid disputes and maintain relations between the two. However, it should be noted that the dialogue between the two countries, which has been carried out since 1991, is felt to be lacking in its implementation and achievement of transparent human rights guarantees in China.
Switzerland and the Joint Letter Against China’s Policy in Xinjiang
The United States alongside Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United Kingdom held a panel discussion with the aim of raising awareness of the human rights violations that occurred in Xinjiang on March 13, 2019, in Geneva, Switzerland. Then, on July 8, 2019, the first joint letter was issued to the 41st Session of the UN Human Rights Council. The letter expresses collective concern over the widespread surveillance, restrictions on religious freedom and the large-scale arbitrary detention of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. The letter also urges China to uphold its national laws and international obligations, and calls for open access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the United Nations High Commissioner. Switzerland signed the letter in 2019.
Switzerland’s participation in the signing of that letter was perhaps a symbol of the push for the guarantee and promotion of human rights in Xinjiang which has long been sought, although this is done politically, namely in a ‘one-block way’ against China’s policy in Xinjiang. It also feels that the bloc based on the joint letter consists of countries that are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and are fully democratic countries. The unification of expressions in a bloc by that joint letter is also considered to be an effective step in encouraging China so that the issue will be immediately resolved.
Switzerland’s Support Withdrawal on the First Joint Letter in 2021
By early 2021, there were 44 signatories to the first joint letter regarding the situation in Xinjiang. However, in October 2021, Switzerland withdrew its support for the letter on the grounds that the majority of Swiss senators assumed that the Chinese government’s strategy on human rights issues was sufficient. In addition, this decision was also based on the factor of a “strategic dialogue” with China in 2021.
Switzerland’s withdrawal in the letter is considered to be Switzerland’s political strategy in maintaining relations between Switzerland and China through the “Strategic dialogue”. Switzerland’s political strategy can stabilize China’s confidence in Switzerland in terms of cooperation, considering that Switzerland and China have close relations, one of which is that China is Switzerland’s largest economic partner. However, Switzerland’s resignation in support of the letter does not mean that the agenda of promoting human rights in Switzerland’s foreign policy is stopped. This is because, in bilateral relations, Switzerland-China still prioritizes human rights as a key aspect of its relationship, including the human rights issue in China.
 OHCHR, “Ratification Status for Switzerland,” https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=169&Lang=EN
 FDFA, “Switzerland concerned about the situation in Xinjiang, China,” November 26, 2019,https://www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/documentation/media-releases.msg-id-77232.html#context-sidebar
 UNPO, “East Turkestan: Switzerland and China Continue Human Rights Dialogue,” June 22, 2018, https://unpo.org/article/20915
 U.S Mission Geneva, ”U.S.-Hosted Event on Protecting Fundamental Freedoms in Xinjiang, China,” March 13, 2019,https://geneva.usmission.gov/2019/03/13/u-s-hosted-event-on-protecting-fundamental-freedoms-in-xinjiang-china/
 SWI, “Swiss-China human rights dialogue to resume in 2022,” December 8, 2021, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss-china-human-rights-dialogue-to-resume-in-2022/47174936
 VOA, “Why Israel and Switzerland Stayed Silent on Uyghur Human Rights in China,” November 2, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/a/why-israel-and-switzerland-stayed-silent-on-uyghur-human-rights-in-china-/6297319.html
Ilham Rilin Fiadi is a current undergraduate student studying international relations at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University of Jakarta, Indonesia.