Burkhalter moves to reposition Swiss diplomacy

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter speaking at the UN Human Rights Council Keystone

Switzerland’s new foreign minister, Didier Burkhalter, has signalled a return to a more traditional and strict concept of neutrality.

This content was published on March 1, 2012 minutes
Frédéric Burnand in Geneva and Mohamed Cherif,

Opening the 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which was notable for its urgent debate on Syria, Burkhalter condemned “all the human rights violations committed in Syria”.

He did this as other Western countries, including the United States and France, explicitly condemned the regime led by Bashar al-Assad. It signalled Burkhalter’s turning the page on the concept of diplomacy held by his predecessor, Micheline Calmy-Rey, while reaffirming Switzerland’s availability for a potential role as mediator.

Having called on “Syrian authorities to immediately end the use of violence and repression against the civil population”, Burkhalter underlined “it is important that the humanitarian crisis in Syria does not distract attention from the search for a political solution. An end to the current crisis in Syria must inevitably come through dialogue – real, inclusive dialogue”.

The Chinese foreign affairs minister, Yang Jiechi, also called for “a politically open dialogue”.

His Algerian counterpart, Mourad Medelci, said: “Algeria calls for the violence to stop – no matter where it comes from – to allow for the opening of an inclusive dialogue free from international interference.”

Message to big powers

According to Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva, Burkhalter’s choice of words had a precise aim.

“The first addressees of Didier Burkhalter are the big powers. His speech incorporated terms taken from Western powers but also from the Russians and Chinese, and from those, like Algeria, which support Moscow and Beijing,” Abidi said, adding that by doing so, Burkhalter is touching on a thorny issue.

“He is putting himself in the most difficult field concerning Syria, that of political mediation. But does Switzerland have the means to do so? Only time will tell,” Abidi said.

In an interview with, Burkhalter said: “It’s a general declaration. It’s intended to underline that a political solution must include as many players as possible. Past acts must be condemned and current humanitarian actions must be supported. But one can already think about reconstruction, something which will happen through a politically inclusive process.”

An immediate Swiss role in the bloody crisis in Syria is therefore unlikely, and even less so because Switzerland has announced the closure of its embassy in Damascus.

“At the moment we don’t have open channels of communication with the Syrian government. But if it is the wish of the international community, Switzerland is available to play its role of messenger, of supporting dialogue,” Burkhalter said.

Return to Cold War

Abidi read Burkhalter as trying to place Switzerland in the middle of the power struggles unfolding between the large Middle Eastern powers.

“With the double veto of China and Russia at the Security Council over the Syrian question and the tense relations between Russia and the West over Iran’s nuclear programme, the world is giving the impression of a return to the Cold War [1945-1989]. A period when the good offices of Swiss diplomacy and neutrality reached their peak,” Abidi said.

“Switzerland today is trying to position itself in the new configuration of an international scene marked by a new Russian vigour and a certain decline of the large Western powers, not forgetting the geo-strategic consequences of the Arab Spring.”

Rebooting diplomacy

Former Swiss ambassador and Middle East expert Yves Besson suggested Burkhalter was remoulding Swiss diplomacy in a more traditional concept with a stricter interpretation of neutrality.

“Since he’s been in the job, Didier Burkhalter, in each of his rare public interventions, has employed the word neutrality for external European situations,” Besson noted.

In an aside, Burkhalter reminded the media gathered in Geneva that his priority was to heal relations between Switzerland and its immediate neighbours.

Besson and Abidi agree it is possible to talk of a rupture, on the part of the very measured Burkhalter, with the line followed by Calmy-Rey, whose brand of diplomacy sought to engage the attention of the Swiss as much as that of foreign leaders.

“All new ministers must mark their territory and engage in a rupture compared with their predecessor. Even if it is still in the early stages, there has been a definite change in the line, the concept and the vision of the new foreign minister,” said Abidi.

UN resolution

The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the attacks on the civil populations by Syrian authorities.

The text was agreed by 37 votes with Russia, China and Cuba voting against it. Three countries abstained.

The resolution put forward by Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and supported by 52 other countries including Switzerland calls on the Syrian government to authorise “free access without hindrance to the UN and humanitarian agencies in order to evaluate the needs in Homs and other regions”.

The document “deplores the brutal actions of the Syrian regime over the past 11 months, notably the use of heavy artillery and tanks in residential areas”, causing “thousands of civilian deaths” and forcing thousands of others to flee.

It condemns the persecution and murder of opposition forces, human rights defenders and journalists. It also expresses concern about the lack of access to food, basic medical services and fuel, as well as threats and acts of violence against medical personnel, patients and health institutions.

Russia demanded the vote, denouncing the text as “unbalanced” and presenting a “unilateral political approach” of certain countries on the Syrian situation.

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New Sanctions

Meeting in Brussels on February 27, European Union foreign ministers targeted the financial sources of the Syrian regime for a new round of sanctions.

The EU froze assets belonging to the central bank, banned trade in precious metals, placed an embargo on cargo flights and added seven Syrian ministers to the list of people restricted from having a visa to travel in Europe.

The Swiss government has not yet announced whether it will also move to tighten its sanctions, but a spokesman for the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs told “Until now, the government has always followed the sanctions adopted by the European

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