A politician with intuition, courage and energy
She looks back on 16 years in the Swiss National Council as a representative of the Social Democratic Party, 17 years on the council of a municipality in Canton Berne and countless years of commitment to peace, women and human rights. What inspires the politician, lawyer and expert in international law, human rights and humanitarian issues? Why does she so actively work for peace in Eastern Ukraine? We interview our board member Margret Kiener Nellen on the occasion of her retirement from Switzerland's National Council and let her tell us why this does not mean the end of her activism.
When you look back on your 16 years in the National Council what were the highlights that still give you pleasure or make you proud today?
From 2009-2011 I was the first woman to chair the Finance Committee of the National Council. There I was able to set issues and invite women as experts and speakers. From 2015-2017 I chaired the Finance Commission for a second time. Then my deciding vote as president was particularly important for peace and women's issues, since a patriarchal majority of the SVP/FDP [Swiss People's Party/Liberal Democrats] not only wanted to close the Swiss Office for Gender Equality, but also to make massive cuts in government contributions to peacebuilding projects in international cooperation.
I am pleased that I was able to ensure that health insurance companies have to pay for breast reconstructions after tumour operations, that instructors for youth sports programmes are paid for courses for children from the age of 5, and that tax-free capital distributions to shareholders are limited from January 2020. I am also particularly proud of the steady growth of women's representation in the federal courts and in the federal administration, which I actively promoted.
I have always had an instinct for uncovering violations of the law, as was most recently the case in 2019 when I requested information from the Swiss intelligence service, which revealed that it was once again falling into a collecting frenzy like during the “Fiche Scandal” of the 1980s. This must be corrected immediately in 2020.
Where there is light, there is also darkness. What were the moments that made you angry or disappointed?
I am very angry that in the national parliament all motions to eliminate poverty were rejected, such as my motions for a nationwide minimum maintenance for children and a harmonised advance on alimony. It is a disgrace for one of the richest countries in the world with a population of eight million that there still are one million poor, the majority of whom are women, children and young people!
As a child, I experienced inequality first-hand and it is cruel. Just as cruel as the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. I have struggled against this in vain in this parliament dominated by the political right.
This Rosa Luxemburg quote gave me strength after defeats: "The revolution has no time to lose, it keeps on storming – over still open graves, over ‘victories’ and ‘defeats’."
What weighed on you most?
My family and I have been burdened by the many threats, including threats of rape and murder, and by defamatory remarks. I filed a total of 15 criminal charges and had police protection for a year and a half. Two men were convicted – one of them had threatened me with his army officer pistol should I be re-elected in 2015. In 2019, following a defamatory tweet from a newspaper editor, I filed a complaint together with Basel cantonal councillor Heidi Mück. We succeeded in getting the Swiss Press Council to investigate tweets from professional journalists.
For 17 years you were active in local politics in Bolligen, Canton Bern. What was different for you there as a politician than in the National Council?
Executive politics in a local council or as mayor is something completely different: you can initiate and plan projects and find solutions and then follow them through until they are implemented. For example: setting up day-care centres and day schools, introducing paternity leave, designing public spaces with playgrounds, etc.
How were you accepted there as a woman compared to in the National Council?
My acceptance in Bolligen was high: In 2000 I was the first woman and Social Democrat to be elected mayor of Bolligen. In the National Council, of course, it takes more to raise your profile among 200 elected members. As a National Councillor I particularly liked the parliamentary supervision of the Federal Council and the Federal Administration. You could achieve a lot in meetings with individual members of the Federal Council and the senior management of the Federal Administration.
In a newspaper interview you were described as "fearless". You said that women in politics in particular need courage. Why?
Switzerland is still very patriarchal. We women and all feminists have to revamp an entire system and the (still) prevailing mentality. That takes a lot of energy and also courage, because you automatically have many enemies – "all stupid men", as the Austrian author Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach so aptly put it. You are permanently swimming against the current and often run into concrete walls. But politics is fun when you work with like-minded people who have the courage to achieve what seems impossible! From the philosopher Hannah Arendt I learned that "courage is the cardinal virtue of the political". This always helped me when courage threatened to leave me.
In the 2019 elections, an above-average number of women ran for office. The proportion of women in the National Council is now over 40%. What is different today than when you were elected?
This result was only possible thanks to the nationwide women's strike of 14 June 2019 – the biggest strike in Switzerland's history since the national strike of 1918. The women's strike finally gave the necessary push for more women to be elected in all parties: 42% in the National Council and a low 26.1% in the Council of States. Women are still grossly underrepresented in the leading positions in parliament. Fifty-fifty is needed everywhere. Everything else remains discriminatory.
The political achievements so far have been accordingly meagre. We are waiting for better results for equality and climate protection. Looking ahead to the 2023 elections, a different political majority is becoming ever more urgent.
In the interview, you also said that as a temperamental person, you can sometimes "blow your top". What was such a moment?
When I found out that over 1 trillion (!) Swiss francs of tax-free dividends had been declared to shareholders. I unveiled a banner at the lectern in the National Council chamber to point this out: "Enough money is available for higher social security pensions!”
What advice would you give to women who are considering getting into politics?
Participating in the youth parliament, joining youth organisations or youth parties like the Young Socialists all are certainly ideal preparation. An experienced politician can act as a mentor and help you strengthen your strengths. It is important to define core topics and issues and to work with like-minded people.
In the last two years you have travelled to eastern Ukraine five times with missions of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). You also travelled there again in February 2020 after the end of your National Council mandate. What is the reason for your great commitment to Ukraine?
I visited the war zone for the first time in 2018. When I was elected president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Standing Commission on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues, it was clear to me that I had to organise a fact-finding mission to eastern Ukraine and talk to the authorities there as soon as possible. At the hospital in Dnipropetrovsk I saw the charred faces of the war wounded men. I knew then that I had to work towards opening the path to negotiations.
I am emotionally and intellectually committed to finding a resolution to this war, until the ceasefire that was signed long ago is finally implemented and lasting peace is here. The war has been going on since 2014, almost as long as the Second World War. The war in Ukraine won't let go of me – and I won't let go of it either until there is peace. That is why, my most important demand is: "No more dead, no more wounded"!
How are the women there affected by the conflict?
As in every war, women in eastern Ukraine are affected in multiple ways. Well over 1,000 missing persons are a burden on their families and on society as a whole. Civilians continue to lose their lives when apartment buildings, private homes or water supply systems are bombed. Agricultural land, routes to school and work are heavily mined. In many villages in the affected region, heavy weapons and military bases are a burden on civilian life. The women grow silent because they fear reprisals and threats from both sides of the conflict. No one talks about domestic violence and rape. This makes working for women's rights and human rights more difficult. International humanitarian law continues to be violated daily by both sides. People have enough of this and want only one thing: peace!
Probably the worst thing is: women in Ukraine feel totally forgotten by the world, especially by the West, which ignores the war and its daily cruelties.
What role do women play?
In the disputed villages and districts women keep society going under the most difficult conditions. When the men are at the front, become violent at home, die or are mutilated, it is the women who bear the burden of protecting the children and caring for the elderly – with their incomes limited because of the conflict and their miserable pensions. Along the 400-kilometre frontline, women from the affected communities are working to demilitarise the inhabited areas and to open further crossings to facilitate mobility. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has led to the closure of crossings along the frontline.
What do women in eastern Ukraine long for?
Women increasingly want all contacts to be normalised, hatred to be reduced and the stereotypical images of the enemy, prevalent on both sides, to end. Since leading a "Human Rights Table" in Mariupol in 2019, I see a great benefit in PeaceWomen Across the Globe holding a Women's Peace Table in eastern Ukraine. I would like to work for this together with committed and affected women.
On a less serious subject. You also sit on the Swiss Women's Football Council, you are president of the women's team at the Bolligen gymnastics club, you chaired the Association of Bernese Sports Federations and were co-president of the Women's Parliamentary Sports Group. Sport is obviously important to you. Why did you get involved in these bodies? Is it not enough for you to simply do sports?
As a person who is enthusiastic about sports and exercise, it was ideal for me to also be involved in various organisations for the promotion of sport. After participating in the planning and construction of a sports field in Bolligen, it was logical for me as a National Councillor to join other politicians in the non-partisan Women's Football Council to support women's football in Switzerland. In sports policy, everyone usually pulls in the same direction, which is something we have not yet experienced in terms of gender equality and financial and tax policy!
After your retirement from the National Council, you continue to work as a lawyer and as an honorary professor of international law. What issues would you like to focus on in the coming years?
At the international level, for peace and for compliance with international humanitarian law. I also want people affected by war and conflict, especially women, children and young people, to be compensated for injuries and damage, for example, if they are injured during a bombing or if their businesses are destroyed. I want to speak and write about the forgotten war in eastern Ukraine and, more generally, to focus on peace work and the role of women in peacebuilding.An example: in Minsk, Belarus, decisive negotiations for the implementation of the Minsk agreements for the peace process in Ukraine take place every fortnight. In February 2020, I gave my inaugural lecture on international law as honorary professor there.
In Switzerland, whether as a lawyer or as a journalist, I continue to campaign for equal pay and equal pensions for women, for the introduction of individual taxation and against all forms of discrimination. Women's, social and environmentally compatible financial and tax policies remain my core issues.
Margret Kiener Nellen was National Councillor of the Social Democratic Party (SP) for 16 years. A lawyer and expert in international law, human rights and humanitarian issues, she held various functions in parliament. Among them as President of the OSCE delegation of the Swiss Federal Assembly as well as a member of the Finance Delegation of the Swiss Parliament and President of the Finance Commission of the National Council. She was politically active in her municipality of Bolligen for 17 years, eight years also as mayor. She joined the board of PeaceWomen Across the Globe in 2010.