Can Think Tanks Remake Switzerland's Famously 'Neutral' Foreign Policy?

Swiss policy of neutrality has always made foreign affairs everyone’s business. Which is exactly why think tanks can play such a key role in refining the policy, says Former Secretary of State Franz Blankart.

Can Think Tanks Remake Switzerland's Famously 'Neutral' Foreign Policy?
François Nordmann

Our version of direct democracy does not allow the government to pass foreign policy laws without the consent of the people. The Constitution stipulates that before Switzerland signs any international treaty, the matter must be put to a vote, through either an optional or compulsory referendum. Some concepts, including neutrality and development cooperation, strike a chord in public opinion, and the government cannot ignore that.

The government is responsible for defining and running foreign policy, in other words setting up the objectives and choosing the means to achieve them within the legal framework – which is quite ample in reality – established by the Swiss Constitution. The government is also accountable to Parliament.

Its pragmatism and good sense of balance make Swiss diplomacy stand out. Our foreign relations tend to operate on a series of logical and coherent principles. The country maintains multilateral diplomatic relations – it became a full member of the United Nations in 2002 for instance – but also bilateral relations, first and foremost with its neighboring countries and the European Union.

Parliament can exercise influence and control over foreign policy. It is also consulted through various parliamentary committees and it can participate in the budget process. In addition, let's not forget that the Swiss media and some university institutes are there too.

Finally, there are the study groups, aficionado clubs and think tanks – organizations that are in the business of carrying out specific studies, theorizing on scenarios and suggesting new ideas. The question, though, is that with the government, Parliament, media and universities already jockeying for influence over foreign policy, is there really any room for think tanks and other policy groups to contribute?

Former Secretary of State Franz Blankart faced just that question when asked recently to assess Foreign Policy Forum, a think tank established in 2009. Also known as "Foraus," the think tank brings together young academics carrying out research into different fields, including law, economics and public policy. Divided into regional groups, the academics are tasked with carrying out apolitical, objective discussions on 10 different themes related to foreign policy or national security.

Blankart believes that such independent, clear and original ideas have much to contribute to Switzerland's foreign policy choices. The former secretary of state also places a tremendous amount of faith in young people, who he believes should choose what kind of foreign policy they want, and then do everything in their power to make those ideas reach the ears of society's most influential members: top-ranking civil servants, council members' special advisers, members of Parliament and journalists.

Today, there are about 5,000 think tanks worldwide. About 30% of them are in the United States, 1,200 in Europe and several hundred in China. And they come in all different shapes and sizes. Some think tanks are affiliated with universities or specific political parties. Others champion specific political causes, or focus on specific fields of government activity, such as defense.

The organizations stand out because they are interested in public politics and because they offer scientifically, well-founded and unique analyses that lead to operational conclusions. Think tanks are supposed to share their knowledge both with government officials and the public at large. Therefore, they need to know how to communicate and intervene immediately without bias, but with conviction and accuracy.

Avenir Suisse ("Swiss Future") is one of the oldest operating think tanks in Switzerland. Financed by big industry, it has a permanent staff, produces regular publications and hosts seminars. It focuses on economic, social and energy issues as they relate to both Swiss and European policy making.

Foraus focuses on what's known as "open and constructive foreign policy." Since 2009, it has published studies about climate change – to coincide with the Copenhagen Summit, about Switzerland's collaboration with the European Union in terms of security, and about initiatives to maintain world peace. Foraus has also examined the issue of Swiss neutrality, the European Convention on Human Rights and the concept of national sovereignty.

As French philosopher Auguste Compte once said, "ideas govern the world."

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Atiim Jones Photography

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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