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Former ambassador and Swiss Red Cross president dies

Franz Muheim, then president of the Swiss Red Cross, knocking down a symbolic wall and 'breaking the silence around victims of torture', in 1997 Keystone

The former Swiss ambassador Franz Muheim has died aged 89. He played a significant role in Switzerland’s attempt to join the United Nations and later became president of the Swiss Red Cross.

This content was published on November 15, 2020 - 13:50
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Muheim, whose mother tongue was French, carried out various diplomatic activities in Belgrade, Rabat, Washington and London before becoming head of the foreign ministry’s international organisations between 1984 and 1989. He then served as ambassador in London until 1994 and president of the Swiss Red Cross from 1996 to 2001.

In 1986, three-quarters of voters rejected Switzerland’s accession to the UN (it eventually joined in 2002). “Following this debacle, he was concerned above all about ensuring that this failure would not jeopardise Switzerland’s participation in other international organisations,” wrote former Swiss ambassador François Nordmann in an obituaryExternal link published in Le Temps.

The main one was UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which had been weakened by the opposition of Western countries, including Switzerland, to its Senegalese director-general Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, who was supported by developing countries and the Soviet bloc. Freedom of the press was suffering, with the consequence that the US and UK had pulled out.

When M’Bow ran for a third term at the end of 1987, Muheim feared that his re-election would increase pressure in Switzerland to follow the US and UK’s example. “Franz Muheim, trying to work out how to counter the risk of further weakening Switzerland’s presence on the international stage, turned to … Franz Muheim!” Nordmann explained.

‘Gift for anticipation’

Muheim’s namesake, a well-known and influential politician from central Switzerland, was about to step down from the Senate. Ambassador Muheim suggested politician Muheim join UNESCO’s executive board so that, in the event of M’Bow’s re-election, Switzerland would have a representative in Paris whose reputation and know-how would enable it to guide the director-general’s management – and thereby neutralise any Swiss desire to leave the organisation.

As it turned out, M’Bow was defeated by Federico Mayor and Franz Muheim (the politician) sat “with distinction and authority” on the executive board from 1987 to 1991.

“This episode demonstrates Ambassador Muheim’s sensitivity to Swiss political life and his gift for anticipation, as well as his ability to move around on the international stage defending Swiss interests,” Nordmann concluded.

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