The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Switzerland is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Switzerland is not a state party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Switzerland is a state party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
According to Article 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Swiss Confederation (as amended through February 2017):
1. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed.
2. Every person has the right to organise meetings and to participate or not to participate in meetings.
The primary national legislation governing assemblies is the Law of 1 November 2008 on public demonstrations. Authorisation for assemblies must be sought, although the system functions as a de facto notification regime.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the state and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
The Swiss police operates on a cantonal rather than a federal basis. The 2008 Swiss Federal Law on Use of Force, however, specifies that police use of force must be proportionate to the circumstances, and the age, sex, and health of the persons concerned must be taken into account. Cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are explicitly prohibited.Art. 19, 2008 Swiss Federal Law on Use of Force.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
A specific provision governs the use of firearms by the police. In Article 11 of the 2008 Law, it is stated that:
1. Weapons must only be used as a last resort.
2. Firearms may only be used to prevent escape or to arrest persons who:
a. have committed a serious offence;
b. are strongly suspected to have committed a serious offence.
3. A warning shot may only be fired if a verbal warning is, or is likely to be, ineffective.
4. Any use of a weapon must be reported to the competent authority.
The rules on use of firearms are more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2017 Concluding Observations on Switzerland, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern about:
(a) the law of 1 November 2008 on public demonstrations; and
(b) the law of 14 October 2016 on the charging of security costs incurred during demonstrations in the Canton of Geneva.
It was particularly concerned about:
(a) the excessive nature of the conditions that must be satisfied in order to organize a mass event requiring the deployment of specific and extraordinary police resources, including an event of a political nature, whereby the request for authorization must be submitted three months in advance and must indicate the business name of the company contracted to provide security at the event; and
(b) the excessive amount of the fines that may be imposed — up to 100,000 Swiss francs — notably for organizing an unauthorized demonstration.
The Human Rights Committee called on the authorities to
re-examine its legislation with a view to ensuring that all individuals fully enjoy their right to freedom of assembly, including the right of spontaneous assembly, and that any restrictions imposed are in compliance with the strict requirements of article 21 of the Covenant.
The 2017 Universal Periodic Review of Switzerland did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
Switzerland has not been found in violation of the right of peaceful assembly by the European Court of Human Rights.