International Law Day: Globalisation and Democracy

Bern, Press release, 14.10.2011

On 14 October 2011 the Directorate for International Law of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) held its traditional International Law Day in the Grand Council Chamber of the Canton Bern. The event focused on the effects of globalisation on the Swiss system of direct democracy. The International Law Day thus contributed to the public discussion on the importance of international law and the way in which it interacts with national law.

Globalisation is leading to the increasing international interconnectedness of our country and to a growing number of international law obligations. What changes does this involve for the Swiss legal system? What is the relation between the increasing number of international obligations and Switzerland's institutions of direct democracy? Do national laws have to be adjusted to the changed circumstances? Are democratic rights of co-determination reduced as a result of international law? What happens when there is a possibility of a contradiction between international law and national law? Questions such as these were discussed at the International Law Day, an event organised by the Directorate for International Law (DIL).

The overall focus of the discussions was on the relation between decisions by the people and Switzerland's international obligations. There was a strong specific focus on the discussion about the validity of popular initiatives that could be contrary to international law.

The conference opened with a keynote address by President of the Swiss Confederation Micheline Calmy-Rey on the relation between globalisation and democracy. Mrs Calmy-Rey pointed out that increasing globalisation has radically changed the role of national states. The higher level of global interconnectedness and the transition from a bipolar to a multipolar world with numerous actors have considerably weakened the once dominant role of national states on the international scene. She said that the challenge was to take account of these developments in our direct democratic institutions. "The instrument of the popular initiative must be adapted to our increasing international interconnectedness so that it can retain its effectiveness. She stressed that an adjustment of this kind would not undermine  Swiss identity in any way.

Elisabeth Bronfen, Professor  of English and American Literature at the University of Zürich, analysed the question "Why International Law?" from a cultural theory perspective. She said that her research had shown that democratic systems needed a universal legal principle of legitimation such as international law. Professor Adrian Vatter, Director of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern, gave an overview of voting patterns during the initiatives and referenda in Switzerland that were relevant to minority issues.

The reform proposals by the Federal Council on the relation between popular initiatives and international law obligations formed the basis for two rounds of discussion between lawyers, politicians, journalists and culture workers. They discussed both the importance and the role of direct democratic institutions in the light of increasing globalisation and the question of the existence and the justification of possible restrictions on democratic popular rights.

Further information:

International Law Day: “Globalisation and Democracy”

Address for enquiries:

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