UN expert warns of Switzerland law’s ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

UN expert warns of Switzerland law’s ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

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[JURIST] An independent UN expert announced [press release] on Friday that proposed changes to a Swiss law that imposes heavy fines for people who protest without prior governmental authorization would “unduly restrict the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.” Maina Kiai [official profile], the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, stated that the rights to speak freely and peaceably assemble are cornerstones of democracy, and that the proposed changes would unduly infringe upon those rights. Kiai expressed particular disdain for the provision that would impose a fine of 100,000 Swiss Francs, or approximately $110,000, on anyone who protests without first obtaining authorization from the Swiss government or fails to comply with police injunctions. Kiai said the fines were excessive and would “have a chilling effect on the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression.” Kiai also expressed his disappointment with the Swiss government, who had previously championed many peaceful assembly initiatives:

The exercise of fundamental freedoms should not be subject to a previous authorization by the authorities. … The State has the prime responsibility to protect peaceful assemblies, and cannot circumvent its duty by forcing organizers to provide security personnel. … Switzerland is leading important initiatives with respect to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The proposed changes to the law on demonstrations in the canton of Geneva are not in consonance with these positive efforts.

The proposed changes in Swiss law will be put to a referendum on Sunday.

The UN, as well as human rights groups, have criticized nations’ recent crackdowns on peaceful assembly. In December, a group of UN human rights experts denounced a Malaysian law [JURIST report] that limits citizens’ freedom to protest. In November, the UN issued a report [JURIST report] condemning Syria for violating a myriad of human rights, including the right to peacefully assemble. Earlier in November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon [official profile] urged Egyptian officials to protect the right to assemble [JURIST report]. That same month, Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] accused the Ugandan government [JURIST report] of infringing on citizens’ freedom of speech and assembly rights.