Black and white photographs of torture victims in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
Photographs of torture victims in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. © Shutterstock/WDEON

Switzerland’s activities in the field of dealing with the past are based on four key principles: the right to know, the right to justice, the right to reparation and the guarantee of non-recurrence. These principles recognise the rights of victims and define the obligations of states. They are based on the work that Louis Joinet developed for the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1999.

Right to known

The right to know and the duty to remember include:

  • the individual right of victims and their families to know the truth about the wrongs inflicted on them and their relatives;

  • the collective right of society to know the truth about the past events and circumstances that led to serious human rights violations. 
    These rights play an important role in ensuring that such events do not recur.

The state has an obligation to ensure that injustices are not erased from the collective memory, and to prevent the development of revisionist ideas. The most frequently employed instruments in this context are extra-judicial commissions of inquiry, also known as truth and reconciliation commissions. They aim to lay bare the administrative machinery that committed, or failed to prevent, the abuses, in order to ensure that they do not recur. In addition, the commissions are responsible with securing evidence for the judiciary. Thus, the majority of measures simultaneously contribute to documentation, and to the creation and preservation of archives.

Right to justice

The right to justice and the duty to investigate and criminally prosecute human rights violations are based on two principles: firstly, any victim can assert their rights and is eligible for fair and effective legal remedy. This includes ensuring that the responsible person(s) will be held accountable and that reparations will be made.

In addition, the state has the obligation to investigate human rights violations. It must arrest and prosecute perpetrators, and punish them, if their guilt is proven.

Right to reparation

The right to individual and collective reparation includes individual measures for victims, their relatives and dependants. It comprises, for example, restitution, i.e. the attempt to restore a victim’s previous situation, or compensation for physical or mental injury. It also includes lost opportunities, bodily harm, defamation, legal costs and rehabilitation. Also covered are medical care, including psychological and psychiatric treatment.

Collective measures of reparation include symbolic acts such as commemorative events for the victims, the construction of memorials or the public recognition of its responsibility by the state. By such means, the state can discharge its duty of remembrance and contribute to restoring the victims’ dignity.

The guarantee of non-recurrence

In order to prevent the recurrence of injustices, measures are required such as the vetting of officials in public institutions as well as the reform of administrative and legal institutions. This includes:

  • disbanding paramilitary armed groups (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration),

  • reforming security institutions,

  • repealing emergency laws,

  • removing officials from office who have been proven in a fair and transparent procedure to be implicated in serious human rights violations, and

  • reforming state institutions and laws in accordance with the norms of good governance and the rule of law.

Bilateral and multilateral activities

Bilaterally, Switzerland supports initiatives for dealing with the past upon request in various priority contexts. The FDFA advises and supports partner states and accompanies political processes such truth and reconciliation commissions and programmes concerned with the rehabilitation and compensation of victims, as well as the reform of authorities and institutions or the construction of memorials.

Multilaterally, Switzerland launches initiatives and initiates resolutions. The mandate for a UN special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence resulted from one such initiative. In 2019, the Human Rights Council also adopted a resolution on dealing with the past that emerged from a Swiss initiative.

Switzerland is also involved in the education and training of experts and helps to develop new ideas and approaches for dealing with the past. For example, Switzerland is supporting methods to protect and improve access to archives that are important in efforts to deal with the past. In 2019, the International Council on Archives approved the Guiding Principles for Safe Havens for Archives at Risk, which were drawn up by international experts in a process launched by Switzerland.

The four pillars of dealing with the past (PDF, 1 Page, 54.2 kB, English)

Last update 25.07.2023


Peace and Human Rights Division

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