What does discrimination mean?

Discrimination is an assault on the very notion of human rights.  Discrimination is the systematic denial of certain peoples' or groups' full human rights because of who they are or what they believe. It is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them as “less than human”.

This is why international human rights law is grounded in the principle of non-discrimination. The drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated explicitly that they considered non-discrimination to be the basis of the Declaration.  

Yet discrimination due to factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, class, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or health status – or a combination of factors – persists in many forms in every country in the world.

Them and us: fighting discrimination

While the perpetrators of discrimination and settings in which it occurs may vary, at the heart of all forms of discrimination are ignorance and prejudice.  Committed within society generally or at the hands of officials, discrimination and repression are an abuse of human rights as is the impunity too often enjoyed by those responsible. 

Some governments go so far as to openly justify some forms of discrimination in the name of morality, religion or ideology.  Discrimination enshrined in law – for example, where the law restricts women’s fundamental freedoms or refuses to recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights – effectively strips away human rights.

Violent manifestations of prejudice are often facilitated by official inaction.  Discrimination means that certain groups are denied equal protection of the law against violence inflicted on them, such as racist attacks, domestic violence, attacks targeted at people because of their actual or assumed religion or sexual orientation.

Discrimination in law enforcement can mean that certain groups are viewed by the authorities as ''potential criminals'' and so are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned.  It can also mean that they are more likely to suffer harsher treatment, possibly amounting to torture or other forms of ill-treatment, once in criminal justice system.

An individual’s identity or status may also affect the nature and consequences of their ill-treatment – for example, transgender women detained with male prisoners are particularly at risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Many individuals face discrimination based on more than one element of their identity – for example, Indigenous women face discrimination not only as women, but as Indigenous Peoples. Such multiple factors interact and change individuals’ experience of discrimination.

Injury to dignity

Acts of racial discrimination occur every day in every region of the world.  According to Amnesty International's research, many if not most of the victims of police brutality in Europe and the USA are black or members of other ethnic minorities.  States have an obligation to prevent racial violence by everyone, not just their own officials.

Yet in many countries racist ill-treatment is nourished by increasingly xenophobic responses to immigration, discrimination in the criminal justice system, and by parties to armed conflicts.

Violence against Indigenous Peoples, especially in the context of land rights disputes, is a continuing legacy of centuries of subjugation. Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately represented among the poorest in both developed and developing countries.

This pervasive poverty has its roots in the history of colonization and in the continuing systemic discrimination and non-recognition of Indigenous Peoples' individual and collective rights, including dispossession of their ancestral lands, loss of control over their natural resources and Indigenous knowledge, and their forced assimilation into the mainstream society and integration in the market economy.

There are numerous laws and practices restricting women’s fundamental freedoms – including freedom of movement and of expression.

From infancy, girls face worse treatment than boys in such forms as selective malnutrition and denial of equal access to education and health services. Women who are not married face many obstacles such as obtaining housing and credit; but married women or widows may also be treated as minors before the law.

Violence is used to terrorise women in the home, at work, in custody and in conflict, where rape is often used as  a “weapon of war”. Wherever it is inflicted, this violence is intimately linked to women's subordinate position in society and restrictions on women’s autonomy. Sometimes state officials perpetrate violence. Often they are complicit in the violence of others who may be employers, religious or customary authorities or family members.

Dozens of countries still have laws which criminalize homosexuality. Such discriminatory laws not only deprive a sector of the population of their human rights, they may also act as a licence to torture or ill-treat those detained.

By institutionalizing discrimination such laws can act as an official incitement to violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the community as a whole.

However, such concerns are not limited to countries where homosexuality is illegal. Institutionalized prejudice means that lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and transgender people who come into contact with the law for other reasons may be targeted for abuse. In some Central and Eastern European countries, lesbians, bisexuals, gay men and transgender people suffer limitations and restrictions on their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly ranging from the outright banning of Pride marches by municipal authorities to the provision of inadequate protection against attacks by counter demonstrators.

Key facts

International law guarantees human rights to all without distinctions based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Expert bodies of the United Nations have affirmed that this principle includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The thinking behind the principle is that it violates international human rights principles to be deprived of one’s rights because of a characteristic that one cannot change – such as one’s race or ethnicity – or because of a characteristic that is so central to one’s being that one should not be forced to change it, such as religion.

Governments are obliged to take essential measures to ensure the right of all to be free from discrimination. They must repeal discriminatory legislation which facilitates human rights abuses and denies equal access to justice. They must provide effective protection against violence in the broader community. The laws and institutions of the state must address the root causes of discrimination, rather than replicating or fomenting it for political ends.

Direct discrimination is the less favourable or detrimental treatment of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited characteristic or ground such as race or gender.

Indirect discrimination occurs when a practice, rule, requirement or condition is appears to be neutral but impacts disproportionately upon particular individuals or groups, unless that practice, rule, requirement or condition is justified. Governments are required to take account of relevant differences between groups in order to prevent indirect discrimination.
(source: AI)

As seen above, discrimination is the prejudicial or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on its actual or perceived membership in a group or category.
There are forms of direct discrimination, such as insults or physical attacks. More frequent are the forms of indirect discrimination, such as avoidance of contact, disparaging looks or disrespectful treatment.
Studies have shown that discrimination - even in its more subtle forms - can have dramatic consequences for health, such as raised blood pressure, heart problems, weakened immune system, anxiety, and depression.
Discrimination occurs in various contexts; for instance on the job, in public, in contact with the police, in the neighbourhood, at school, in restaurants, in the housing market, in the media, at court, in health care, and sports.
Discrimination can happen to anyone. There is no legitimate reason or justification for such attitude or behaviour. That's why we do something about it.
Some groups, however, are more subject to discrimination than others. Ethnicity, gender, language skills, sexual orientation, origin, and religious belief are the characteristics that indicate the probability to be exposed to discrimination. People who defend themselves against discrimination are often discouraged when they're termed 'hypersensitives'. Don't be daunted! Talk to us and we will look into your case.

some example cases

The following examples are taken from the “Legal Guide on racial discrimination” compiled by the EKR and humanrights.ch and published 2009 by the FRB.

Various forms of discrimination

Examples of racist remarks

An example of racist violence

Examples of cases of omission of assistance

Racial discrimination in various areas of life

Examples of cases in the working environment

Examples of racial discrimination by authorities

Example of racial discrimination in naturalization

Examples of racial discrimination in public service

Examples from school

Examples from the housing market



Legal means against discrimination

There are many kinds of discrimination that are punishable by the law. In these cases legal action can be taken. Here is a short overview of the legal basis concerning discrimination:

Swiss Criminal Code

Art. 261bis1

Racial discrimination

Any person who publicly incites hatred or discrimination against a person or a group of persons on the grounds of their race, ethnic origin or religion, any person who publicly disseminates ideologies that have as their object the systematic denigration or defamation of the members of a race, ethnic group or religion,

any person who with the same objective organises, encourages or participates in propaganda campaigns,

any person who publicly denigrates or discriminates against another or a group of persons on the grounds of their race, ethnic origin or religion in a manner that violates human dignity, whether verbally, in writing or pictorially, by using gestures, through acts of aggression or by other means, or any person who on any of these grounds denies, trivialises or seeks justification for genocide or other crimes against humanity,

any person who refuses to provide a service to another on the grounds of that person's race, ethnic origin or religion when that service is intended to be provided to the general public,

is liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding three years or to a monetary penalty.

1 Inserted by Art. 1 of the Federal Act of 18 June 1993, in force since 1 Jan. 1995 (AS 1994 2887 2888; BBl 1992 III 269).


Art. 1731

1. Offence against personal honour.


1.  Any person who in addressing a third party, makes an accusation against or casts suspicion on another of dishonourable conduct or of other conduct that is liable to damage another's reputation,

any person who disseminates such accusations or suspicions,

is liable on complaint to a monetary penalty not exceeding 180 daily penalty units2.

2.  If the accused proves that the statement made or disseminated by him corresponds to the truth or that he had substantial grounds to hold an honest belief that it was true, he may not be held guilty of an offence.

3.  The accused is not permitted to lead evidence in support of and is criminally liable for statements that are made or disseminated with the primary intention of accusing someone of disreputable conduct without there being any public interest or any other justified cause, and particularly where such statements refer to a person's private or family life.

4.  If the offender recants his statement, the court may impose a more lenient penalty or no penalty at all.

5.  If the accused is unable to prove the truth of his statement, or if it is shown to be untrue, or if the accused recants his statement, the court must state this in its judgment or in another document.

1 Amended by No I of the Federal Act of 5 Oct. 1950, in force since 5 Jan. 1951 (AS 1951 1 16; BBl 1949 I 1249).
2 Term in accordance with No II 1 para. 13 of the Federal Act of 13 Dec. 2002, in force since 1 Jan. 2007 (AS 2006 3459 3535; BBl 1999 1979). This amendment has been taken into account throughout the Second Book.


Art. 174

Wilful defamation

1.  A person in addressing a third party, and knowing his allegations to be untrue, makes an accusation against or casts suspicion on another of dishonourable conduct, or of other conduct that is liable to damage another's reputation,

any person who disseminates such accusations or suspicions, knowing them to be untrue,

is liable on complaint to a custodial sentence not exceeding three years or to a monetary penalty.

2.  If the offender has acted systematically to undermine the good reputation of another, he is liable to a custodial sentence not exceeding three years or to a monetary penalty of not less than 30 daily penalty units.1

3.  If the offender recants his statement before the court on the grounds that it is untrue, the court may impose a more lenient penalty. The court must provide the person harmed with a document confirming the recantation.

1 Penalties revised by No II 1 para. 16 of the Federal Act of 13 Dec. 2002, in force since 1 Jan. 2007 (AS 2006 3459 3535; BBl 1999 1979).


Art. 177


1 Any person who attacks the honour of another verbally, in writing, in pictures, through gestures or through acts of aggression is liable on complaint to a monetary penalty not exceeding 90 daily penalty units.1

2 If the insulted party has directly provoked the insult by improper behaviour, the court may dispense with imposing a penalty on the offender.

3 If there is an immediate response to the insult by way of a retaliatory insult or act of aggression, the court may dispense with imposing a penalty on either or both offenders.

1 Penalties revised by No II 1 para. 16 of the Federal Act of 13 Dec. 2002, in force since 1 Jan. 2007 (AS 2006 3459 3535; BBl 1999 1979


Art. 261

Attack on the freedom of faith and the freedom to worship

Any person who publicly and maliciously insults or mocks the religious convictions of others, and in particularly their belief in God, or maliciously desecrates objects of religious veneration,

any person who maliciously prevents, disrupts or publicly mocks an act of worship, the conduct of which is guaranteed by the Constitution, or

any person who maliciously desecrates a place or object that is intended for a religious ceremony or an act of worship the conduct of which is guaranteed by the Constitution,

is liable to a monetary penalty not exceeding 180 daily penalty units

The Swiss Criminal Code, however, presupposes wilfulness on the part of the offender. Only then can legal action against discriminating acts be taken.

Additional possibilities of taking action against discrimination are provided by the Swiss Civil Code.  More detailed information can be found in the “Legal Guide to racial discrimination” to be downloaded as PDF or purchased in book format at: http://www.edi.admin.ch/shop/00019/00150/