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Why does Switzerland question international law?

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On Sunday, the Swiss decide on one of the most radical popular initiatives in their history. This does not mean the bizarre desire that calls for state support for farmers who let their cows grow their horns. This refers to the so-called self-determination initiative. It has submitted the national conservative SVP, the country’s most popular force. The initiative calls for national law to be more powerful than international law, including international law.

If the referendum finds a majority among the Swiss and the cantons, it would not only have far-reaching consequences for the country itself, but for the whole of Europe. Switzerland, which likes to see itself as a model democracy, would be the model for autocratic governments such as those of Vladimir Putin in Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. And it would be hailed for it by all European right-wing populists: from the Polish PiS on the Austrian FPÖ to the AfD.

How is that coming? The questions raised by the initiative and the concerns it articulates meet the political zeitgeist.

When US President Donald Trump spoke at the UN General Assembly last September, he sounded like the campaign leader of the SVP Initiative: „America will always prefer independence and cooperation to global governance, control and domination.“ Trump’s demand to „regain control“ is translated by SVP as „self-determination.“ The party of billionaire Christoph Blocher wants to keep Switzerland out of multilateral organizations as far as possible and instead link them with other countries through a network of bilateral treaties. It should always decide: the people.

The initiative is directed against a sense of powerlessness in the face of a world in which the national, the self-determined, over the international, the supposed foreign determination, increasingly losing influence. In which „the autonomous decision-making possibilities over mere Mitsprache at the international level lose ground“, as it formulated the Zurich international law professor Oliver Diggelmann. The initiative opposes either a Swiss, European or global elite. Against judges who create justice that never had to exist in a parliament or referendum.