Plans by the foreign ministry to close Switzerland’s embassy to Guatemala and the consulate general to Chicago have prompted protests by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and expatriates.
The closures are the latest in a series of changes in the country’s diplomatic network both in Europe and elsewhere over the past few years.
An alliance of charities and development aid organisations sent a letter to Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, urging him to reconsider the closure of the embassy in Guatemala City which also represents Swiss interests in Honduras and El Salvador.
Alliance Sud warns that the democratic changes in the three Central American states could be in jeopardy if NGOs lose the backing of a Swiss embassy in the region.
“Through its embassy in Guatemala, Switzerland has played an important role in promoting peace initiatives and respect for human rights,” it said in the letter dated July 24.
Weak state institutions, the international drugs trade, violence, impunity but also “the hunger of international concerns for commodities hamper truly democratic processes” in the three Central American states, according to Alliance Sud.
The foreign ministry has rejected the appeal by the NGOs.
It says the closure – by June 2013 – is the result of financial constraints imposed by the government’s foreign policy strategy adopted by the cabinet in March.
“Decisions which lead to closures are regrettable and have disadvantages. But given the limited financial means at the disposal, the government has no choice but to set priorities for its diplomatic network,” a spokesman said.
A series of measures to boost efficiency, notably in the consular services, has been taken, according to the ministry.
However, it adds that Central America will remain a focal point of Swiss development aid and that the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) will continue to run offices in Nicaragua and Honduras.
The consular service of the embassy in Guatemala City will be taken over by another Swiss representation in the region.
Meanwhile, the Swiss Club of Chicago has launched a petition to stop moves by the foreign ministry to shut down the consulate general in the Greater Chicago Area with jurisdiction in 12 states in the Midwest of the United States.
Its president, Martin Lagler, said in an email to Swiss expatriates and friends of Switzerland that the decision by the ministry “does not make sense”.
He said more than 150 people signed the petition on the first day of the campaign.
The latest reforms of the diplomatic network are also tabled at a regular session of the Council of the Swiss Abroad in Lausanne later this month. The meeting is expected to hear further details from a senior foreign ministry official.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) says it has been pushing the foreign ministry to “put its cards on the table”.
OSA is opposed to further cutbacks in the diplomatic network, said its director Rudolf Wyder.
“It is a loss of Switzerland’s presence abroad which we cannot afford. It also means reducing a service for Swiss people abroad even though their number is on the increase,” he said.
Besides the embassy in Washington, the mission in New York and the business hub in Chicago, there are five Swiss consulates general in the US. The representation in Houston, Texas, was downgraded several years ago.
The 24 standard Swiss consulates across the US do not issue visas.
As part of the restructuring of its representations, Switzerland is boosting its diplomatic presence in Asia and the Gulf states.
Switzerland has nearly 150 embassies/missions attached to international organisations and general consulates across the world.
The foreign ministry says the resources of these representations are much reduced. Most of them comprise not more than two diplomatic staff, apart from the ambassador, and often cover neighbouring countries.
The consulates play a role similar to communal administration for Swiss based in or passing through a particular country.
They can issue official documents, such as passports and identity cards, and assist citizens in exercising their electoral rights, with questions of nationality and marital status.end of infobox