The Swiss upper house on Tuesday aborted an attempt to criminalize the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.
During the debate, the country’s foreign minister criticized the original anti-BDS motion, saying it threatened the essential right of civil society to criticize governments.
The upper house, the Council of States, did vote in favor of a motion that calls on the government to review its regulations to ensure organizations involved in “racist, anti-Semitic or hate-motivated actions” do not receive funding from the Swiss state.
But the text of the upper house motion differed substantially from an anti-BDS measure that had passed in the lower house, the National Council, in March.
The final text adopted on Tuesday was stripped of all references to BDS and the Middle East, on the recommendation of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house.
Swiss foreign minister Didier Burkhalter told the upper house on Tuesday that sufficient controls on financing of foreign organizations were in place and he backed the amended motion removing all references to BDS.
“We should not throw away the baby with the bath water,” Burkhalter said. “Swiss values must not be abandoned, especially when democracy and civil society are supported, in accordance with the constitution, which provides general support for peace, democracy and civil society.”
Burkhalter told lawmakers that the problem with the original motion was that it threatened the right to challenge governments.
“Such a measure would obviously sweep away all possibility for civil society to criticize governments,” Burkhalter said. “That is something that is definitely not desirable and it is above all something that goes against progress.”
“The Middle East is an extremely polarized context,” Burkhalter said. “Much courage is necessary to allow the voices of nonviolence to be heard, which are in general those of civil society.”
The anti-BDS motion had been sponsored in the lower house by the right-wing People’s Party. It urged the government to ban any funding to nongovernmental groups “implicated in racism, anti-Semitism, incitement to hatred or BDS campaigns.”
According to Israeli media, the Israeli group NGO Monitor, which specializes in smearing supporters of Palestinian rights, provided details on the “Swiss government’s funding of organizations that propagate anti-peace, anti-normalization, BDS and one-state policies.”
The Swiss People’s Party used NGO Monitor’s claims to accuse a host of well-known human rights defenders, including Badil, Addameer, Al-Haq, Breaking the Silence and Zochrot, of anti-Israel smears and incitement and even links to terrorism.
NGO Monitor’s intervention should be seen in the “context of Israel’s aggravated attempts to discredit the rule of international law” and to criminalize organizations that call for “respect of basic rights, an end of the occupation and blockade of Gaza, equality for Arab citizens of Israel and justice for the refugees to return to their homeland,” the campaign group BDS Switzerland said on Tuesday.
“The right of citizens to advocate for BDS is part and parcel of the fundamental freedoms protected by the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights,” Robert Kolb, a professor of international law at the University of Geneva, said in a press release from BDS Switzerland that welcomed parliament’s rejection of the anti-BDS language.
Attacks on rights defenders
Last week, Al-Haq director Shawan Jabarin spoke to The Electronic Intifada about the attacks on human rights organizations and the BDS movement.
Jabarin said that while the campaign to delegitimize human rights defenders has been ongoing, the “level of attacks is new.”
“NGO Monitor is the main tool in the hands of Israeli officials and the [Israeli] foreign ministry,” Jabarin asserted.
Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, justice minister Ayelet Shaked, public security minister Gilad Erdan and diplomats around the world are openly involved in attacking rights organizations, Jabarin said.
This week Netanyahu vowed to advance a law that would severely restrict funding from foreign governments to Israeli organizations.
According to The Times of Israel, the legislation would add to “pressure on left-wing groups critical of Israeli policies.”
In rejecting the People’s Party motion, Switzerland joins the European Union, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden in resisting pressure to curtail BDS as a tool to defend the rights of the Palestinian people.