Five years after Switzerland signed a free trade agreement with China, the STP and Tibet organisations note that China’s influence is increasing. This is also affecting the fundamental rights of Tibetans in Switzerland – who must be protected.
Tibet has been under Chinese control for over 60 years; the 1959 uprising was brutally put down and has led to countless Tibetans fleeing ever since. With around 7500 members, the Tibetan exile community living in Switzerland is the largest in Europe. In the context of the Cold War, Tibetan refugees were openly welcomed and a Tibet Bureau with a personal representative was even opened in Geneva.
In recent years, Switzerland has grown closer to China. This is clearly demonstrated by the free trade agreement between Switzerland and China, signed in 2013, which makes no mention of human rights or the situation of minorities.
China’s long arm in Switzerland
The STP and Tibet organisations in Switzerland are concerned about the Chinese government’s increasing exertion of influence – also in Switzerland. In particular, concern has been caused by the violations of the right to free expression, the right to a distinct identity, the right to freedom of movement and the right to privacy:
- Free expression: In Switzerland, it is not always possible to express an opinion on the human rights situation in Tibet. Increasingly, restrictions are being imposed in connection with demonstrations and events (e.g. Xi Jinping’s state visit in 2017).
- Right to a distinct identity: Switzerland no longer recognises Tibetan origins in identity documents and now just specifies “China” as the country of origin.
- Freedom of movement: In recent years, it has become more difficult for Tibetans to obtain travel documents, also in Switzerland. People whose applications for travel papers are refused or rejected by the Chinese authorities cannot leave Switzerland.
- Right to privacy: China’s exertion of influence and surveillance of the Tibetan diaspora in Switzerland are increasing. This is also confirmed by the Federal Intelligence Service.
What the STP is doing
The campaign “Rights for Tibetans – also in Switzerland!” is supported by the STP and its partner organisations: the Tibetan Youth Association in Europe (TYAE), the Swiss-Tibetan Friendship Association (GSTF), the Tibetan Community in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (TCSL), and the Tibetan Women’s Organisation in Switzerland (TWOS). In a report, these organisations shed light on the situation of Tibetans in Switzerland and, in a petition, they call on Switzerland to do more to protect them.
On 10 September, Tibetan organisations and the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) submitted a petition. In the petition, 11,330 people called on the Federal Council and parliament to better protect the rights of Tibetans in Switzerland.
Lisa Mazzone, National Councillor (Greens / GE) and President of the GfbV emphasises: “The Federal Council must not be guided solely by economic interests towards China. The protection of the human rights of Tibetans has priority. “Rosmarie Quadranti, Co-President of the Parliamentary Group Tibet (BDP / ZH) adds: “China’s influence is growing. This also has domestic political consequences for Switzerland and for the Tibetans living here – these should not be underestimated. We must not let China put up with everything.”
The undersigned call on the Federal Council to work internationally and vis-à-vis China for the observance of human rights in Tibet and to officially receive the Dalai Lama during his visit to Switzerland. Politicians and authorities are also called upon to guarantee freedom of expression, to campaign for the observance of the freedom of movement of Tibetans living here, and to guarantee protection against surveillance and the observance of privacy for Tibetans in Switzerland.
Tibetans in Switzerland
Tibetans in Switzerland are well integrated. However, their situation has worsened in recent years.
Around 145,000 Tibetans live outside Tibet, mostly in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Around 7500 people of Tibetan descent live in Switzerland, constituting the largest Tibetan exile community in Europe.
The special relationship between Switzerland and Tibet began in the 1960s, when Switzerland was the first country in all of Europe to take in Tibetan refugees. In the context of the Cold War, Tibetan refugees were openly welcomed. In 1963, the Federal Council approved the intake of a thousand refugees. In 1964, at the request of the Dalai Lama, it allowed a Tibet Bureau with a personal representative to open in Geneva.
However, Tibetan organisations and the STP believe that Switzerland has grown closer to China in recent years and that this has caused the Swiss government to now be less focused on commitment to the observance of Tibetans’ rights.
Violation of basic rights under Chinese influence
The closer economic ties between China and Switzerland are affecting Tibetans in Switzerland. This is evident with regard to designation of origin, freedom of movement, free expression and China’s exertion of influence.
In their report on the situation of Tibetans in Switzerland between 2013 and 2018, the STP and Tibet organisations refer to four problem areas, showing how China’s influence in Switzerland is increasing and that the basic rights of Tibetans in Switzerland must be given greater protection. For this purpose, in addition to desk research, 14 people of Tibetan origin were interviewed between December 2017 and January 2018 about the following three problem areas:
Designation of origin and freedom of movement
In November 2014, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) decided to harmonise the designations of origins on Tibetans’ foreign national identity cards. Until then, not only the designation “China (People’s Republic of)”, but also the designation “Tibet” was possible. Since harmonisation, “China (People’s Republic of)” is now the only valid designation.
Although SEM describes the change as a purely administrative measure, it entails serious consequences for those affected. According to the survey conducted for the report, many of those affected perceive the designation “China” as an encroachment on their personal rights and identity.
For many years, it has also been more difficult for Tibetans to obtain travel documents. Their need for protection is not being fully acknowledged by Switzerland. For instance, to obtain their passports, Tibetans with residence permit B or C must apply to China’s representatives. This gives China a lever to intimidate and control the Tibetan diaspora. People with no passport, who are afraid to go to the Chinese embassy or whose application is refused or rejected without reason, have their freedom of movement impaired. Applications for replacement travel documents submitted to the Swiss authorities are often also unsuccessful, because those affected cannot adequately prove that they are undocumented. Without travel documents, they cannot leave Switzerland.
The report shows that the basic right to free expression is not always fully guaranteed for Tibetans in Switzerland. For instance, there were restrictions on freedom of expression surrounding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in January 2017. While a China-friendly demonstration to welcome the president was permitted at Bundesplatz, a demonstration by Tibetans was only possible at a safe distance and at obscure times. A peaceful demonstration by young Tibetans was ended by a disproportionately large number of police officers.
Other examples of restrictions on free expression with regard to Tibet include the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival in 2014, where a peaceful protest by young Tibetans was suppressed, as well as the Dalai Lama’s visits, which regularly present Swiss authorities and politicians with a foreign policy dilemma.
Surveillance and interventions in the private sphere
The report also demonstrates China’s growing exertion of influence in Switzerland. China’s soft power strategy encompasses the state media and the Confucius Institutes, which are intended to convey a positive image of China. Two such institutes have already been inaugurated in Switzerland. In addition, Chinese authorities are attempting to monitor and intimidate Tibetan human rights activists in Switzerland. This is shown by the example of activist Golog Jigme, who was monitored and filmed during a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.
China’s surveillance of the Tibetan diaspora also occurs by digital means. For instance, evidence that the Tibetan exile community has been targeted by attempted digital surveillance has also been found in the context of Switzerland. This intimidates the Tibetan community in Switzerland and makes them feel that they are being monitored to an increasing extent.
Switzerland must take a stronger stand for the protection of fundamental rights in Tibet, but also for protection of the Tibetan community in Switzerland. This is demanded by the STP and Tibet organisations.
In the context of the campaign “Rights for Tibetans – also in Switzerland!”, the STP and Tibet organisations demand:
- That Switzerland, internationally and towards China, proactively takes a stand for the observance of human rights in Tibet and the protection of Tibetans’ culture and language
- That His Holiness the Dalai Lama be officially received by the Federal Council on his next visit to Switzerland
- That freedom of expression on the situation in Tibet be guaranteed in Switzerland without restriction That alternatives to “China” be found for the designation of origin in identity documents.
- That the observance of freedom of movement be actively supported via the acknowledgement of the need for protection and via the issuing of passports to those affected
- That tangible measures be taken to protect against surveillance, to respect the private sphere of Tibetans in Switzerland and to intervene with the Chinese authorities when necessary.
Contact person at the STP:
Angela Mattli, Campaign Manager, Minorities and Discrimination
Tel. +41 (0) 31 939 00 03