How An Otherwise Progressive Switzerland Fails Its Children

Switzerland's Federal Council, it's seven-member collective head of state, has been called to intervene to guarantee children the right to be heard, notably in divorce cases.

Swiss kids playing by Lake Zug
Swiss kids playing by Lake Zug
Magalie Goumaz

GENEVA — Swiss children have no say in the courtroom. In the case of divorce, they are interviewed only one in 10 times, when listening to them should be the rule and not the exception. The practice depends on the cantons, or regions, of the country, on the judges and their sensitivity. It's a situation that angers children's rights organizations, which are taking the issue to the Swiss Parliament.

Interviewing children is pertinent not only for divorce cases but also for other domains such as education, health, recreation and immigration. The Federal Council has been asked to establish an accurate report on the matter and to make adjustments that will be processed during the parliamentary session.

In ratifying the 1991 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Switzerland guarantees that all children have the right to be heard in matters affecting them.

"This is far from being the case," says Daniel Stoecklin, a children's rights specialist at the University Institute Kurt Bosch. "It's ironic for a country so developed and that's such a champion of democracy," he says. "But the Swiss have a tendency to think that all is well at home, and that the issue of the rights of the child is only relevant in poorer countries."

Switzerland applies the convention by leaving so much flexibility that the exceptions are more so the rule. Micaela Vaerini is a lawyer specializing in family law who has witnessed many different scenarios in divorce cases.

"Some judges are more sensitive to a child's right to be heard and conduct an interview even in the absence of litigation," Vaerini says. "Other judges aren't as sensitive. They believe that a child is too young, and that it will be pointless, so they consider the reservations of the parents."

For example, she tells the story of two children who were to be placed in the custody of their mother. "The youngest wanted to stay with her the mother," Vaerini recalls. "The older one, a teenager, wanted to live with his father, with whom he shared interests and whose house was closer to his school. And despite the reluctance of the mother, who feared a lack of supervision, we ruled in favor of the child. The siblings were separated."

Vaerini is also awaiting a District Court ruling on an appeal that she filed. "A mother was suffering from anorexia and was hospitalized, and her child, a 12-year-old, was placed with a foster family without really being heard. For me, that's unforgivable. Even more so because he has a father!"

A paternalistic society

Stoecklin attributes the Swiss approach to the fact that the agencies serving children have a weak understanding of the UN Convention. There is confusion about the difference between the rights of children and the protection of children. There is also an adherence to a paternalistic approach, where agencies believe the parents or the authority figure know what's best for the child.

"The convention was developed in the spirit of emancipation in the 1970s and 1980s," Stoecklin says. "Since then, the traditional model has come to prevail once again. And we see it as well in the speech of young people who are the most fervent defenders of their rights."

He recommends several measures: better training for those working with policies regarding children (including the judiciary), the establishment of a universal policy regarding children, and the creation of an ombudsman to oversee issues related to children's rights.

Judge Florence Dominé Becker, in Neuchatel, regularly interviews children between the ages of six and 16. "In the case of disputes between couples, letting them know that their child will be interviewed allows the parents to face their responsibilities," she says. "But even when there are no disputes between the parents, it's important to hear what the child has to say because they also have a point of view, which is not always expressed."

This doesn't mean that the child's wishes will always prevail. Dominé Becker recalls a particular case in which the outcome seemed obvious — at first.

"The parents had agreed on custody matters," she recalls. "But when I interviewed the child, who was already 15, he told me that he would rather live with his father because of a conflicting relationship with his mother. So I called the father again to relay the wishes of the child, but unfortunately his work commitments kept him from becoming more involved. This case stuck with me because I felt like the child was relying on me, and in the end he wasn't able to get what he ultimately wanted."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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