© How Hwee/Keystone
After over two years of negotiations, Switzerland and China concluded a free trade agreement in May 2013. It was signed in July 2013 and entered into force in summer 2014. Together with the China Platform, Public Eye undertook a critical analysis of the agreement. The sobering conclusion was that the China agreement fails to cover human rights. Public Eye is disappointed by the Federal Council’s lack of courage in its stance; it has not once dared to mention human rights in the agreement.

Before the negotiations started, Public Eye co-founded the China Platform and worked with its partner organisations to draft a position paper (in german/french). The paper calls for human-rights issues to be explicitly acknowledged in the agreement between Switzerland and China.

The National Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee also supported these demands. It called on the Federal Council to integrate a chapter on sustainability in the free trade agreement with China. This was aimed at ensuring that Switzerland gears itself towards ‘best practice’ free trade agreements of other countries and particularly, that it respects the key labour standards set out by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

That was a start, but our demands went further, to include human rights alongside labour rights. Switzerland is bound by national legislation and international law to respect relevant human rights – a requirement confirmed by the legal opinion (in german) commissioned by the China Platform from the Swiss Competence Centre for Human Rights. In addition, the opinion stated that Switzerland must use its influence to ensure that these rights be sufficiently accounted for in the free trade agreement.

Disappointing result

Despite this, in the agreement with China, the words ‘human rights’ are not even mentioned once. This puts Switzerland at odds with the global trend and its own practice of recent years. This is a serious step backwards. It is extremely important to embed minimum standards as regards human and labour rights, especially when it comes to China.

  • © Martin Bichsel
  • © Martin Bichsel
  • © Public Eye
Im Freihandelsabkommen mit China werden die Menschenrechte nicht ein einziges Mal erwähnt. Public Eye machte mit verschiedenen Aktionen auf diesen Missstand aufmerksam

A particularly jarring example of human rights violations in China can be seen in forced labour camps in which three to five million prisoners are estimated to work. Public Eye and its partner organisations invited prominent Chinese dissident Harry Wu to Switzerland back in 2012. At numerous events and discussions with officials and parliamentarians, he reported emphatically on the inhumane conditions of Chinese forced labour camps – one of which he himself was held in for 19 years.

Human rights activist Harry Wu called on Switzerland to include the people who produce the goods to be imported within the framework of the free trade agreement with China in its considerations.

Although it lacks solid human rights foundations, the Swiss parliament nodded the agreement through in March 2014.

In the absence of binding minimum standards for labour, human, and minorities’ rights in the agreement, as a rule, goods produced in forced labour camps in China must now be treated in the same manner as other goods. Switzerland missed the chance to advance its humanitarian tradition and advocate an improvement in the human rights situation in China.