Anne Peters is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Basel, a position she has held since 2001. In the academic year 2004/05 she was Dean of the Faculty of Law. Prior to taking up the tenured post she was Assistant Professor at the Walther-Schücking-Institute of Public International Law at the Christian Albrechts University Kiel, where she obtained the Habilitation-qualification on the basis of her Habilitation-Thesis “Elemente einer Theorie der Verfassung Europas” (Elements of a Theory of the Constitution of Europe).
The constitutional context of the popular vote of November 29
On 29 November 2009, the Swiss people voted in a popular referendum in favour of an absolute prohibition of the construction of minarets on Swiss territory. The vote was 57.8 % in favour, and 23 of the 26 cantons were in favour of the prohibition. The turnout was 53.4 %, which is relatively high for Switzerland.
Currently, four minarets exist in this country, and one application for a construction permit is pending. The legal consequences for this pending application are not entirely obvious, whereas the consequences for future buildings of minarets are clear: Due to the popular decision, a new provision will be inserted into the Swiss Federal Constitution (Bundesverfassung/Constitution Fédérale) which will enter into force immediately. The new Article 72(3) will be: “The construction of minarets is prohibited.”
The federal referendum was triggered by a popular initiative launched in April 2007 by a group of 16 people, 14 of whom were members of the “Schweizerische Volkspartei” (Swiss Popular Party), whose political programme is partly directed against migrants.
Under the Swiss Federal Constitution, a federation-wide popular initiative can be launched by gathering 100’000 signatures of Swiss citizens (a population of roughly 7 million) within 18 months (Art. 139). Reaching this threshold was no problem in the case of the anti-minaret- initiative. The sufficient number of signatures was collected in July 2008.
Once the threshold had been passed, and the formal correctness of the proceeding had been verified by a governmental office, the material validity of the initiative was scrutinized before the text of the initiative itself was put to vote. The Swiss Federal Constitution prohibits popular initiatives which “infringe preemptory norms of international law” (Article 139(2)). It is incumbent on the federal parliament to examine whether this is the case or not (Article 173 (1) lit f.)). The reason for vesting the power of scrutiny in parliament and not in the federal court is respect for popular sovereignty. According to the framers of the constitution, the verdict of inadmissibility of an initiative, a verdict which obviously curtails popular sovereignty, should only be pronounced by that federal body which enjoys the most direct democratic legitimacy. Parliament is composed of the directly elected representatives of the people, whereas the Swiss federal court has only an indirect democratic basis (the judges being elected by the parliament).
In the case of the anti-minaret-initiative, the parliamentary decision was easy. The initiative affects the freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Swiss constitution and under Article 9 of the European Convention of Human rights (ECHR), Art. 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political rights (CCPR), and the international legal prohibitions of discrimination (Art. 14 ECHR and 2(1) CCPR). However, it is quite obvious that these fundamental rights do not pertain to the body of ius cogens, as defined in international law, accepted by Swiss practice, because a large number of states do not accept religious freedom, and many have submitted reservations relative to religious freedom to the universal human rights instruments. In the Parliamentary Resolution on the admissibility of the popular initiative, the Swiss Federal Parliament highlighted that the adoption of the initiative would entail a violation of international law. However, Parliament did not have the power to declare the initiative inadmissible and void, because the wording of the constitutional clause on the inadmissibility of initiatives is clearly limited to ius cogens.
Therefore, the initiative had to be put to a popular vote, and the government fixed the date of 29 November 2009. During the campaign, almost all political parties and the government recommended the people to vote against this initiative. The clear supportive result of 29 November was a big political surprise, because previous opinion polls had predicted only between 30 and 40 percent of approval, which would have not sufficed for an endorsement of the proposal. The clear outcome manifests a widespread diffuse fear of islamisation. The “victorious” Swiss popular party immediately announced to launch a second initiative targeted at a prohibition of burcas in the public sphere.
Domestic remedies against the prohibition
It is foreseeable that individuals will seek to challenge the new constitutional prohibition before the domestic judiciary. Clearly those persons will have ius standi who apply for a construction permit for minarets. Such an application will – due to the novel constitutional prohibition – necessarily be denied by the competent local authorities.
After exhausting the domestic remedies, such an applicant will be entitled to raise a constitutional complaint before the federal court with the claim that his or her freedom of religion has been violated by the refusal. The federal court (Bundesgericht) will not have any margin of discretion in deciding such a complaint, because the new provision prohibiting the construction of minarets has constitutional status. It therefore constitutes a constitutionally entrenched restriction of the constitutional rights guaranteeing the free exercise of religion (Article 15 of the Swiss Federal Constitution) and of the constitutional prohibition of discrimination on the ground of religion (Art 8(2) Swiss Federal Constitution). So far, the notion of “unconstitutional constitutional law” has not been accepted in Swiss constitutional doctrine. The prohibition of minarets has been adopted by the sovereign with the clear intention and in full cognizance of the curtailment of fundamental freedoms going with it. Therefore there seems to be no room for balancing in order to solve the conflict between the two opposing constitutional precepts.