Throughout November and December of 2020, the government of Switzerland has attempted to convince the Swiss public, parliament, and Foreign Affairs Committee to approve the renewal of a readmission agreement with the People's Republic of China's (PRC) Ministry of Public Security (MPS). Despite its best attempts to force the issue, the government has met significant pushback from policymakers, as the establishment of the original agreement in 2015 was kept hidden from the eyes of lawmakers and the citizenry.
Exploring Readmission Agreements
Before exploring the situation in Switzerland, one must first understand what a readmission agreement includes. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nation's (UN) premier migration agency, readmission agreements are, "binding bilateral or multilateral agreements between States that establish and facilitate the bases, procedures and modalities for one State to promptly and in an orderly manner return non-nationals who do not or no longer fulfill the conditions for entry or stay on its territory."
Chinese, Swiss Readmission Agreement
The readmission agreement between the PRC and Switzerland is extremely irregular, especially when compared with readmission agreements maintained by the Swiss with other foreign governments. These differences are the greatest in three key areas: bilateral functionality and operational freedom.
In the vast majority of readmission agreements with the government of Switzerland and other states, such as the one signed with the United Kingdom (UK), all steps are bilateral. This means that actions of equal importance can be taken by either government as they see fit. One state does not traditionally have more power or freedom granted to it than the other. In the Swiss-PRC readmission agreement, however, this is not the case. Instead, the PRC is granted nearly unlimited assistance from Swiss representatives and unhampered access to any region in Switzerland. Whereas members of the Ministry of Public Security can enter Switzerland, members of the Swiss Federal Department of Justice (FDJ) can not enter the PRC.
Bilateral functionality, or the lack of it, is not the only area of distinction between the Swiss-PRC readmission agreement and others like it. MPS officers, routinely decried by humanitarian non-government organizations (NGOs) for their brutal and inhumane techniques, are free to move within Switzerland as they see fit.
What is the Ministry of Public Security? According to an investigation conducted by The Intelligence Ledger and published on the Argo Initiative, the Ministry of Public Security is the PRC's premier law enforcement and secret police agency. Reminiscent of the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi), MPS is granted nearly unlimited authority by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to pursue political, law enforcement, or internal order cases as it sees fit. Although originally responsible for domestic and foreign intelligence collection, the Ministry of State Security's (MSS) establishment in 1983 required the MPS to refocus its efforts on traditional law enforcement and internal stability missions. According to multiple humanitarian NGOs, the MPS has repeatedly committed crimes against humanity and engaged in gross human rights violations.
Under the agreement, MPS officers are allowed to enter Swiss territory on unofficial status, meaning they are not required to declare the reason for the visit or their status. Furthermore, officers operating under the auspices of the readmission agreement are not supervised and allowed to move freely to any region of Switzerland. According to available sources, The Intelligence Ledger has been able to confirm MPS officers are permitted to stay in-country for up to fourteen days, and allowed to interview up to sixty individuals over the course of that period.
Even more concerning, the government of Switzerland has ceded all power to limit which MPS officers are allowed into Swiss territory. As stipulated in one of the agreement's closing paragraphs, Switzerland has no part in officer selection and can not provide input to authorities in Beijing. Switzerland, however, must keep the identity of MPS officers secret from foreign intelligence services and the Swiss public. As multiple Swiss journalists and defense analysts have noted, not one other country has this type of arrangement with Switzerland.
At the end of an MPS officer's visit, he or she is required to submit a report to the PRC's embassy in Geneva for communication to the Swiss government. This report plays a critical role in helping to determine which individuals will be returned to the PRC and which will remain. As it appears that the Swiss government does not conduct verification of the intelligence provided by MPS officers, this is a largely one-sided arrangement, with Chinese representatives receiving clearance to 'escort' Chinese nationals back home.
The Intelligence Ledger has confirmed that the MPS utilized the Swiss-PRC readmission agreement to force thirteen individuals, including four who were asylum seekers, to return to the People's Republic of China. It is not clear if the Swiss government was able to ensure the safety of these individuals, as the agreement does not grant Swiss authorities an avenue to ensure the wellbeing of non-citizens upon their return to China.
From July to October of 2020, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) warned that the government of the PRC has pursued multiple avenues to return Chinese nationals living overseas back to China for prosecution. The Intelligence Ledger assesses that readmission agreement between the PRC and Switzerland is simply one more way for the PRC to pursue this objective.
The Intelligence Ledger is unable to make a determination if the Swiss government will renew the deal. Although resistance is growing amongst the Swiss public, parliament, and Foreign Affairs Committee, the executive of the Swiss government can renew or cancel the agreement as it sees fit.
One thing is for certain, however. If the Swiss choose to renew, it will pose a significant threat to the security of the European Union, as MPS officers operating on tourist visas will maintain their unfettered access to any region of Europe. As such, it would do NATO states well to force the Swiss government to cancel and renegotiate the readmission agreement, as it posses a significant security threat in its current form.