“Shrinking civic space” also in Switzerland

Not only in China, Hungary or Turkey civil society organizations are put under pressure when they speak out on political issues or commit themselves to specific concerns and groups. This fall, civil society in Switzerland also experienced the “shrinking civic space”.

s on civic engagement suddenly appeared not only in Egypt, China, Russia, Turkey or Hungary, but also in our northern neighbor, which for historical reasons has been very sensitive to state restrictions on civic engagement. In February 2019, the German Federal Fiscal Court withdrew the status of the non-profit organization ATTAC, a non-governmental organization critical of globalization, and thus also its tax exemption. The reason given for the punishment was that non-profit organizations are only eligible for tax relief if they are politically active “on the side”. Only parties are allowed to be mainly politically active.

In Switzerland, numerous civil society organizations advocate for certain political, societal, social, cultural or ecological concerns. Although they have always been a thorn in the side of politics, administration and business, this has never been a fundamental problem in terms of the separation of powers. However, two examples from mid-September 2020 show a new trend:

Case 1: Cooperation with the mountain forest project is terminated in Val Lumnez

In the run-up to the federal vote of 27.9.2020 on a revised hunting law, the “Bergwaldprojekt” (Mountain Forest Project Foundation) recommended a “No” in the interest of the protection forest. As a consequence, the volunteers of the Project had to stop their longstanding reforestation work in the community of Lumnezia due to a decision of the community council. The political decision of the local council not only left the 1300 volunteers dismayed, who in the last 30 years have performed over 50,000 hours of free work in the destroyed forests, but also brought the organization high additional financial costs.

Case 2: Member of the Swiss Senate Ruedi Noser puts NGOs under pressure

On 24.9.2020, a motion by Ruedi Noser, a member of the Swiss Senate, commissioned the Federal Council to review compliance with the requirements for tax exemption of legal entities from direct federal tax on the grounds of non-profit status in the case of political activity. The tax exemption was to be revoked if the requirements were not met. Noser cited as examples the commitment of animal and environmental protection organizations against the Hunting Act as well as the slogans of aid agencies, women’s, human rights and environmental organizations and other NGOs and church organizations for the corporate responsibility initiative, which was voted on November 27, 2020. Noser questioned the civil society organizations that are involved in advocacy work, questioning their charitable commitment to the “general interest”. He wrote literally in the motion: “Their activity aims rather to bring a topic from self-interest into the discussion. It is therefore necessary to critically question whether such an activity is in the general interest according to the applicable rules and qualifies for tax exemption due to non-profit status. The political commitment of tax-exempt churches should also be critically examined from this perspective. If the revocation does not happen, and the ban on political activity is interpreted generously, the Federal Council is obliged to adapt the requirements for the tax exemption of legal entities and to open up the tax exemption to wider circles”.

Info: www.parlament.ch/de/ratsbetrieb/suche-curia-vista/geschaeft?AffairId=20204162

Case 3: Cantons direct and pervert volunteer work

Volunteering is by definition self-organized and unpaid civil society involvement. Five years ago Guido Graf, Social and Health Director of the Canton of Lucerne, took over the care of migrants and refugees from Caritas after 30 years. From one day to the next, the volunteers who had been working for Caritas until then came under state control. The same is also the case in the canton of Fribourg. There the canton handed over the coordination of the volunteers in the migration sector to the company ORS, which had already made international headlines for its rigid treatment of refugees in asylum centers. It is not surprising that the cantons are interested in coordinating volunteers, especially in the asylum sector. In this way, they can more easily avoid negative publicity when volunteers in asylum centers discover grievances and irregularities. In connection with the Corona pandemic, Lucerne’s Social Director Guido Graf went even further in mid-November 2020: he launched an appeal to volunteers with medical training to work under the direction of the canton in the canton’s three drive-in test centers. A minimum availability of 50 percent was also required. As compensation, the volunteers will receive CHF 100 to 240 per day. What was advertised here under volunteer work is, strictly speaking, employment at a precarious wage, as has been known in Germany for years under the name of 1-Euro-Jobs.

Case 4: The Federal Office of Health prohibits volunteering by seniors

In March 2020, the Federal Office of Public Health declared the age group over 65 generally as a risk group. From one day to the next, thousands and thousands of senior citizens were not only no longer able to look after their grandchildren, but also had to give up volunteer work at Pro Senectute, the Red Cross as well as in old people’s centers and parishes. Only after researchers on ageing at all universities and the former Federal Minister and President of Pro Senectute, Eveline Widmer Schlumpf, raised their voices did the federal government realize that this drastic measure went several steps too far.

Of course, not every political activity of non-profit organizations can be tolerated. Right-wing extremist or fanatical-religious campaigns are also and especially in an open and liberal society a no-go. It is not only legitimate, but necessary that the state keeps a close eye on non-profit and tax-exempt organizations. Foundations, for example – especially church-based ones – should have long since been required to show transparently where their money comes from and where it flows to. At the same time, Switzerland, which likes to see itself as a pioneer and defender of direct democracy, must be vigilant against attempts to sanction the advocacy activities of civil society. Turning up one’s nose at autocratically led states does not seem credible if politicians, administrators or the judiciary in this country want to limit or ban the political influence of civil society.