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Deiss calls for strengthening of key UN values

Joseph Deiss in his New York office

Joseph Deiss in his New York office


President of the United Nations General Assembly, Switzerland’s Joseph Deiss, says it will take a common effort to improve the UN’s standing as a moral authority.

Deiss told that the UN has made progress in reducing poverty as well as promoting development, sustainable economy and global governance.

The former foreign minister says Switzerland serves as a role model for other countries and membership of the UN has not compromised its neutrality.

Deiss’ 12-month mandate at the UN in New York runs out in September. You were very enthusiastic and had plenty of ideas when you took up your mandate at the General Assembly. Has your attitude towards the UN changed since then?

Joseph Deiss: My enthusiasm has even grown. I’m impressed with the diversity, the dimension and the achievements of the organisation. Also with the fact that there are 193 states here permanently representing the whole world. This is unique.

There are shortcomings and of course there is a need to act. We need all the players to contribute to improve the status of the UN as a moral authority.

Progress is only possible where solutions are reached by consensus. But often they are not optimal solutions and are therefore subject to criticism. What has the General Assembly achieved under your presidency?

J.D.: I believe we have made some progress, notably in the areas of development and poverty reduction as a summit confirmed the Millennium Goals. Or towards a green economy and economic sustainability which has been accepted as an important issue.

Progress has also been made with global governance – the way an organisation of sovereign states can take common decisions when facing global challenges. We were able to act as bridge builders between the Group of 20 most powerful nations and the General Assembly.

It’s not up to me to say to what extent I take credit for the achievements.

One of the most visible successes was the adhesion of South Sudan as 193rd member state which the General Assembly approved in its July session.

But beside that there is also the issue of Ivory Coast and the reviews of the Human Rights Council. The Assembly sent out strong signals and made clear that we protect and defend the values of the UN and human rights.

The suspension of Libya from the Human Rights Council was part of this. The General AssembIy took a strong stand for the civilian population. We said that the line had been overstepped in respect of human rights. But not much headway has been made in reforming the Security Council…

J.D.: True and it is a very difficult matter. It is the responsibility of the General Assembly and its reputation is at stake if it fails to agree and implement the reforms.

At least we were able to open up discussions on the subject. What was your personal highlight during your mandate?

J.D.: No doubt the adhesion of South Sudan to the UN. It brought back memories of 2002 when Switzerland joined the UN. As a rule the chairman of the General Assembly is neutral. Were there moments when you strayed from this policy?

J.D.: I made a point of calling for the need to defend the values of the UN more vigorously in meetings and discussions.

In a statement to the Assembly I urged the Human Rights Council in Geneva to act against ‘perverse regimes’. After the council decided to suspend Libya I told the General Assembly: ‘I’m proud to be your chairman.’ Nobody criticised me. To what extent has being Swiss and your political experience helped you in the post as chairman?

J.D.: It has certainly helped in difficult negotiations including those about the budget of the peacekeeping operations. The discussions between the member states lasted until four in the morning on the final day.

More than once I was also asked to intervene to say one thing or another apparently because I was best suited to do that as a neutral Swiss.

Everybody knows that Switzerland is neutral and this is certainly an asset. This is contrary to allegations by opponents of Swiss membership of the UN who warned the step meant the end of Swiss neutrality, independence and sovereignty.

Switzerland has a reputation as a reliable, pragmatic and solution-oriented partner. We are known to keep our promises, and this goes for contracts as well as for meetings.

Switzerland is seen again and again as a role model in many ways. I often pointed out in speeches at home that the rest of the world sees Switzerland as a paradise and that the only people who don’t know that are the grumbling Swiss themselves. What about the votes on a minaret ban and on the deportation of criminal foreigners?

J.D.: The others took note of the results of the initiative, but I was hardly ever asked about them. I don’t think that our image suffered a great deal because of the votes.

I see another problem. The world takes us as a role model, but many Swiss believe Switzerland is unique and very special. We have to ask ourselves whether we live up to those high standards.

This is my message: If we begin to question others’ basic rights, including the freedom of religion, we undermine our own rights. So let’s be careful. You seemed to really enjoy your mandate. How much will you miss New York and UN?

J.D.: It’s true I felt in my element. It was such a wonderful and eventful year. And working with my team of 20 people from 15 nations gave me tremendous satisfaction. I will miss all of it. But I will try to find comfort in that I can be closer to my family again and have a less busy schedule.

The post of president is a serious matter but I can honestly say it was fun.

The UN and the Arab Spring

The outcome of the upheavals in North Africa is not only key for individual countries and their populations but also for democracy as such and for the UN, says Deiss.

The upheavals showed the importance and the shortcomings of the international body.

Deiss highlights the Responsibility to Protect concept which the UN Security Council invokes in its resolution 1973 to justify international intervention in Libya.

He says the sovereignty of a member state and the protection of human rights had to be weighed against each other.

It stipulates that other states have the right and moral duty to intervene if a state cannot guarantee basic rights of its citizens.

Deiss says the suspension of Libya from the Human Rights Council and the decision to let the International Criminal Court deal with Gaddafi confirms key tenets of the UN Charter.

The reaction of the UN to events in Syria has been hesitant, according to Deiss. The UN took until the beginning of August to approve a declaration by the president of the Security Council to condemn the military action against civilians.

Deiss argues that the UN is expected to defend basic rights also in Syria and to apply the same criteria in every country.

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UN funding

The core activities of the UN are financed by mandatory contributions and voluntary payments.

The amount of the contributions is calculated according to the economic power of a member state.

Switzerland paid SFr26.2 million in compulsory contributions towards the regular budget for 2010 as well as SFr3.1 million for the International Criminal Courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Some SFr113.5 million also went towards international peacekeeping operations and SFr4.5 million for the renovation of UN headquarters in New York.

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Joseph Deiss

Born in 1946, Deiss was Swiss foreign minister between 1999 and 2003.

He acted as economics minister between 2003 and 2006 when he stepped down from the cabinet.

Deiss was also a member of the Swiss House of Representatives between 1991 and 2003.

From 1984 until his election to the cabinet he was a professor of economics at Fribourg University.

Between 1993 and 1996 he was head of the Swiss price watchdog.

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(Adapted from German by Urs Geiser),


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