Sanctions against China: The Federal Council is playing for time and is hoping for Parliament

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sanctions policy

Adopt EU human rights sanctions – and thereby anger China? The Federal Council is shirking a decision

For more than a year, the state government has been examining the question of whether Switzerland should also take on so-called thematic sanctions from the EU in the future. These are also directed against China’s dealings with the Uyghurs. The skepticism in the Federal Council is great. He is playing for time – and hopes for support from Parliament.

Chinese security forces in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang Province (2017 archive image).

Ng Han Guan / TBEN

The Federal Council and sanctions: That’s a tiresome story. The negative highlight was a press conference on the day of the Russian attack on Ukraine. Federal President Ignazio Cassis left the room after a short statement without answering any questions. Hopelessly overwhelmed experts from the administration were left behind. What exactly the Federal Council decided on sanctions remained unclear.

According to reports, Economics Minister Guy Parmelin (SVP) wanted to proceed in the same way as after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia in 2014. At that time, the Federal Council did not accept the EU sanctions, but issued a regulation preventing them from being circumvented with the help of Switzerland.

Not least due to pressure from the EU and the USA, the Federal Council changed its mind and made a fundamental decision a few days later: Switzerland would accept the EU sanctions against Russia in full.

However, the Federal Council continues to shy away from another fundamental decision in sanctions policy. The question at stake is whether Switzerland should adopt the so-called “thematic” sanctions regime of the EU. There are currently three of these: one in the area of ​​chemical weapons (since 2018), one in the cyber area (2019) and one for serious human rights violations (2020). In this country, the question of whether Switzerland should take on the EU human rights sanctions has given rise to speeches.

The report is available, but the Federal Council is waiting

Since March 2021, this list has also included Chinese officials and authorities who are said to be responsible for serious human rights violations against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. After the publication of a UN report on the situation in Xinjiang at the end of August, Swiss politicians from various parties called for Switzerland to follow suit with the sanctions.

But the Federal Council is taking its time on this issue. As early as May 2021, in response to a proposal by National Councilor Nicolas Walder (Greens/GE), he wrote that the adoption of thematic EU human rights sanctions within the framework of the embargo law was being discussed within the administration. The SECO website states that the thematic EU sanctions are – although four years old – a “new concept” that works differently than previous geographically oriented sanctions. The question of a takeover must therefore be discussed “with the attention it deserves”.

“The Federal Council is playing an unworthy game for time.”

The legal situation seems clear: the current embargo law does not oblige Switzerland to adopt the thematic EU sanctions, but would allow adoption on a case-by-case basis. A report commissioned by the Federal Council in 2021 on the advantages and disadvantages as well as the options for action has been available for some time. As a spokesman for the responsible economic department (EAER) explains, the decision-making bases that had been drawn up were “taken up again and updated in the light of the Russian military aggression in Ukraine”. In May, the Federal Council wrote that it would probably finalize its position by the end of August. This has still not happened.

Nicolas Walder (Greens/GE)

Nicolas Walder (Greens/GE)

Gaëtan Bally/Keystone

Green National Councilor Walder speaks of an “unworthy game for time”. The Federal Council wanted to avoid an answer. The man from Geneva submitted a motion yesterday to build up pressure.

The economic department confirms that the state government has meanwhile dealt with the subject for the first time. But the Federal Council only decided to “deepen its analysis in this regard before making a decision”. According to the WBF spokesman, the corresponding work has not yet been completed and was carried out taking into account the current discussion in Parliament.

Hoping for backing from Parliament

There, the sanctions policy within the framework of the embargo law is on the agenda. In June, a centre-left majority in the National Council advocated that Switzerland’s embargo law should now allow an independent sanctions policy. However, the Council of States wanted nothing to do with this week.

The Federal Council has legitimate hopes that the Council of States will prevail in the end. With regard to the thematic sanctions, he should take this as a signal that Parliament supports the current sanctions policy and does not want it to be tightened. Economics Minister Guy Parmelin (SVP) is against adopting the thematic EU sanctions, one hears in Bern. Skepticism is also high in other bourgeois departments.

Federal Councilor Guy Parmelin speaks in the Council of States at the autumn session of the federal councils, on Monday, September 19, 2022, in Bern.  (KEYSTONE/Peter Schneider)

Federal Councilor Guy Parmelin speaks in the Council of States at the autumn session of the federal councils, on Monday, September 19, 2022, in Bern. (KEYSTONE/Peter Schneider)

Peter Schneider / KEYSTONE

For example, Switzerland is unlikely to take over the EU sanctions against China for the time being. If the international pressure becomes too great, as in the case of the Russia sanctions, the Federal Council could still change course in the short term.

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