Libya case reveals flaws in Swiss diplomacy

Protestors in Libya rally against the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi Keystone

One year ago Geneva police arrested Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's son and his wife on charges they had abused their servants. The crisis that ensued would only grow.

This content was published on July 10, 2009 - 21:04

Though some progress has been made to heal Swiss-Libyan ties in recent months, the Gaddafi affair has brought Switzerland into direct conflict with another government – unprecedented for a neutral country that champions diplomacy.

"Switzerland excels in mediation, but it has hardly ever been directly involved in a crisis with another state," said Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva. "The Gaddafi case has presented challenges."

So, looking back, what lessons can be drawn?

The government has locked horns with Geneva's cantonal authorities over who should be responsible for handling the case. The crisis that began on July 15, 2008, has not only tested the Swiss government's ability to resolve matters with dialogue but also the country's federalist system itself, Abidi says.

Rapid escalation

The crisis started when Geneva police apprehended the youngest son of Colonel Gaddafi, Hannibal Gaddafi, and his wife, Aline, who was heavily pregnant at the time.

The Gaddafis were charged with mistreating two servants during their stay in a luxury hotel in Geneva.

The case was not the first time Hannibal Gaddafi had had brushes with the law. But the Swiss incident was different.

Rather than being asked to leave – as had happened with previous incidents in France and Germany – Gaddafi and his wife were arrested and spent two nights in custody. They posted a SFr500,000 bail ($462,000) and were released. The case was eventually dropped after the servants withdrew their complaints.

In Bern the likely impact of the affair was not recognized. When it happened, the foreign minister and many high-ranking Swiss government officials were on holiday, including those at the foreign ministry. But Tripoli retaliated quickly and detained Swiss citizens, closed Swiss firms, reduced flights and recalled diplomats.

Diplomats for diplomacy

Abidi says another lesson the Swiss could draw concerns experts and other foreign ministry officials who could step in when police are faced with a high-profile domestic incident with international connotations.

This raises question of how well the foreign ministry is prepared within to handle such a crisis, Abidi said.

"When there's an incident with a member of the Gaddafi family, it affects the state of Libya," he said. "Countries like France or Germany, which have also had to deal with Hannibal's escapades, realise that."

The justice or foreign minister should have gone to the scene immediately. "You cannot expect policemen or a judge to act like a diplomat," he said.

He also believes it is imperative to form a task force that has sufficient knowledge of the country in question to provide advice, he said. Other countries already have such teams.

On July 22, Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister, interrupted her holiday to phone her Libyan counterpart, Abdulrahman Shalgan, to protest against Libya's retaliatory measures. Libya immediately threatened to cut crude oil deliveries.

Search for a negotiator

In the weeks and months that followed, Switzerland launched diplomatic initiatives but attempts at reconciliation failed. Libya wanted an apology. Switzerland refused and stayed on the defensive.

Abidi says Switzerland misjudged the nature of the Libyan regime and applied normal procedures used in international relations instead of dispatching a high-ranking government official to make amends.

"Someone like the foreign minister should have been sent quickly to express Switzerland's desire to maintain good relations with Libya," he said.

It was only after six months of tension that Swiss diplomats were able to find the right channel of communication. In January 2009 at the Economic Forum in Davos, Calmy-Rey met Seif al-Islam, another of Gaddafi's sons and a supporter of closer ties with the west.

It was the first contact with a member of Gaddafi's clan but the parties reached no agreement. Calmy-Rey went to Tripoli in May, a second positive step, Abidi said. Following that trip, Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz expressed his readiness to visit Libya.

Such a visit might allow two Swiss nationals, still prevented from leaving Libya, to return home. It is supported by Dubai, whose mediation has been sought by Libya.

"This case has highlighted Switzerland's isolation," Abidi said. "Even western administrations have not really come to Switzerland's support. That contrasts with the recent reaction of the European Union following the arrest of British diplomats in Iran."

Frédéric Burnand, Geneva (Adapted from French by Tim Neville)

Legal moves

Geneva lawyers dropped the case against Gaddafi and his wife in September 2008 after the two servants the Libyans had allegedly abused dropped their complaint.

An independent commission shed light on the arrest in a report released on December 14, 2008. It concluded that Geneva police had committed no illegal acts but criticised the force on several points, saying officers could have used more tact.

In April 2009, Hannibal Gaddafi filed a civil complaint against canton Geneva, arguing that the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations had been breached.

According to the lawyer representing the Libyans, Charles Poncet, records of civil proceedings against the canton will be filed in a court of first instance in Geneva on September 24, 2009.

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Libyan oil

In 2007 and 2008, Libyan oil accounted for over 50% of Swiss crude-oil imports.

Switzerland imports annually about 4.5 million tons of crude oil processed in two refineries and more than 7 million tons of refined products from Europe.

In Switzerland, the oil company Tamoil owns more than 350 service stations and the refinery Collombey in canton Valais. Libya holds 35% of the group's shares.

Libya is seeking to expand its export markets. It is estimated that Libya still has large reserves of oil and gas. Libyan oil is light and low in sulphur. Refining this gives excellent yields.

If Libya were to stop delivering oil to Switzerland, alternatives exist.

The international oil market is characterised by excess supply.

Over the past 30 years, the oil-producing countries have declared no oil embargoes.

However, consumer countries have imposed embargoes on imports from Libya, Iran, Iraq and Sudan.

Source: Nicolas Sarkis, director of the Arab Center for Petroleum Studies

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