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Human rights viewed from a Swiss mountaintop

  • 05 June 2013

Conversation on a mountain

We rode the funicular at a sharp angle to the top of Niesen mountain, a pointy peak 2.5km above sea level.

On one side, way below, yachts floated on lake Thun like white butterflies . On the other, Swiss dairy farmers, shoppers and truck drivers went about their chores while I took their pictures from the gods. Gliders and light planes flew among the peaks. It was breathtaking. If East Timor's mountains got snow they'd look like this.

As good international citizens dedicated to the spread of humanitarianism, the Swiss are preparing guidelines to help post-conflict societies learn from the mistakes of others. So it was that I had found myself in Bern, Switzerland, for a conference, to present a case study on East Timor.

Now Elizabeth, the main conference organiser, her husband Michael and their kids were hosting this excursion to the mountains. We tried to tell her she'd already done enough for us but she wouldn't hear of it. Over lunch we reflected on the perhaps unlikely similarities between Swiss and East Timorese society.

Arming the young

East Timor is currently considering introducing compulsory military service for its burgeoning youth population. Switzerland already has such a program (for young men). The policy has been vigorously contested since the end of the Cold War with many asking why a neutral country with no enemies needs an army at all — a proposition once mooted by Jose Ramos-Horta for East Timor, but later (sadly) abandoned.

The program in Switzerland has survived but alternative civil service (helping the elderly, for example) is now permitted and, consistent with its tradition of neutrality, Swiss soldiers may not fight in other people's wars. Given this and Switzerland's Protestant majority I wondered why Swiss Guards protect the Vatican (albeit with medieval meat-cleavers only) and learned that their role in Rome is a relic from the distant past.

Linguistic diversity is also common to both Swiss and East Timorese societies. Our hosts spoke in German, but the Swiss at the next table preferred French. Both were proficient in English. In Bern I'd found everyone spoke German and there were few concessions to French, even on street signs. Graffitists preferred English ('F... the cops'), and locals seemed to be touchy about Genevese who, they say, fancy themselves more frog than Swiss.

Ecclesiastical takeovers

Like East Timor, Christianity has played a big part in Switzerland's history and is evident at every turn. I visited the