Alert: Afghanistan one year on: open season on the defence of human rights

Switzerland: New anti-terrorism measures may open the gates to information obtained by torture


Geneva, 10 June 2021

This coming Sunday 13 June, the Swiss will vote on the Federal Act on Police Measures to Combat Terrorism (Loi fédérale sur les mesures policières de lutte contre le terrorisme), which, if enacted, will allow the police to take preventive measures against “potential terrorists” without any meaningful judicial oversight. The designation as “potential terrorist” does not require the existence or prospect of any crime, a fact that could negatively impact the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities by civil society groups.

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the members of its global Torture and Terrorism Working Group are concerned over the serious risk of arbitrariness such reforms will entail and the human rights violations their implementation could bring about, including breaches of the right to liberty and security of the person. A neglected but important concern is that its preventive measures will likely be based on unreliable information, including in many instances from foreign secret services. We have seen time and again that torture is systematically used by intelligence agencies in many of the countries that are most likely to share information about possible threats.

We fear that the law creates a legal grey area where the police can rely on foreign intelligence without being able to guarantee that it has not been obtained through torture, giving a de facto stamp of approval to internationally prohibited practices. “One of the lessons learnt from the United Kingdom’s ‘control order law’, which provides powers similar to those in the Swiss law, is that the security services have been repeatedly relying on intelligence provided by other countries and which had been obtained through torture,” said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock. “The UK practice has been to shield such torture-tainted intelligence under the cover of State secrets privilege and ensure impunity to the torturers, whatever the cost. Switzerland must not follow the same path.

While legal measures are paramount to protect society from a real terrorist threat, strategies to address violent extremism and terrorism can only be effective if they bring together security and human rights. This is why, two years ago, the OMCT and its worldwide SOS-Torture Network have launched a global Torture and Terrorism Working Group, comprised of civil society experts from countries that all face a real terrorist threat.

We have seen the impact of similar laws in our countries, an experience Switzerland should avoid”, warn the members of the Working Group. “The type of definition present in the Swiss law has led to overreach. The reliance on secret intelligence with murky origins has damaged the rule of law. And the cooperation of Western countries with our security apparatuses has legitimized abuse. The tendency has been to create “suspect communities”, often stigmatizing groups that were already vulnerable, with a very real risk to create sympathy for extremist ideologies. Far from leading to more security, in our experience this type of laws have led to human rights violations.”

A large human rights coalition and UN experts, among others, have expressed their deepest concern and opposition to the law, as it expands the definition of terrorism to any activity involving the “spreading of fear”. The new anti-terrorism legislation gives sweeping powers to the federal police to assess the likelihood that an individual, over the age of 12, commits a crime in the future and to subsequently adopt measures which can entail deprivation of liberty (house arrest for anyone over the age of 15) for up to nine months, electronic surveillance, travel bans, with very limited judicial oversight and outside the criminal justice system.

“We need strong intelligence services, and good law enforcement responses. But creating an alternative to our criminal justice system based on intelligence that may in addition be torture-prone will not help”, said Staberock. “No one can seriously argue that the designation of a 12-year-old as a “potential terrorist” will be a good thing for the child or for anybody else. The real risk will be to push that child and their family towards extremism. What is needed is to bring people back into society, not drive them out, thus creating more security threats.”

The Torture & Terrorism Working Group is an initiative led by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), gathering 17 prominent human rights organisations from around the world, all working in contexts of tense security situations, including terrorist violence and counter-terrorism laws and measures. The group seeks to build collective understanding and guide anti-torture advocacy in environments affected by terrorism and violent extremism. The following organisations are members of the Torture & Terrorism working group: The Quill Foundation (India), KontraS (Indonesia), The International commission of Jurists Kenya (ICJ Kenya), SUARAM (Malaysia), Cairo Institute for human rights studies (CIHRS), Gulf Center for human rights (GC4HR), Christian action for the abolition of torture Democratic Republic of Congo (ACAT DRC), CLEEN Foundation (Nigeria), Human Rights Association (IHD, Turkey), PROMO-Lex Association (Moldova), ODHIKAR (Bangladesh), Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Office of Civil Freedoms (Tajikistan), Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS, Argentina) and the Russian Committee Against Torture (CAT).

For more information, please contact :
Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications

+41 79 539 41 06

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