© 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 the summer of 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 term‘human rights’ is 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
In the free trade agreement with China, human rights are not even mentioned once. Public Eye drew attention to this deplorable state of affairs with a number of direct actions.

Around that time, a particularly jarring example of human rights violations in China could be seen in forced labour camps in which three to five million prisoners were estimated to be working. 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 that are 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 free trade 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.

Even after the FTA came into force, Public Eye and partner organisations continued to highlight the untenable human rights situation in China. In 2019, as evidence became increasingly overwhelming that more than one million people belonging to the Uyghur minority population were being held in countless detention camps in Xinjiang and increasingly required to perform forced labour, we called for the suspension of the FTA. Parliament rejected a motion to this effect, however.

We commissioned a legal opinion to clarify the options of Switzerland imposing trade sanctions within the framework of the FTA. The report confirmed our fears: the current free trade agreement between Switzerland and China offers no guarantee against products of forced labour entering Switzerland; they are even entitled to tariff concessions. The report therefore recommends that Switzerland lay down the foundations of its human rights policy in its future foreign economic policies, e.g., by means of a new foreign economic law, that would define the conditions under which international treaties are negotiated in a democratic process. We have heeded this advice and have since been working towards the drafting of a foreign economic law that sets out human rights and environmental principles and goals to shape the future of Swiss economic relations.