Switzerland and ICRC update HQ accord to boost ‘capacity for action’

Peter Maurer, ICRC president (left) and Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, sign the protocol in the Swiss capital, Bern, on Friday Keystone / Marcel Bieri

The Swiss government has signed a protocol with the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), amending the humanitarian organisation’s headquarters agreement and status in Switzerland.

This content was published on November 27, 2020 - 17:42

The new provisions are designed to “increase the ICRC's independence and capacity for action”, according to a government press statementExternal link published on Friday. The protocol was signed by Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis and ICRC President Peter Maurer at an official ceremony in the federal capital Bern.

The Swiss-run ICRC is the “federal government's main partner in the field of humanitarian aid and plays a key role in the protection of victims of armed conflict and implementation of the Geneva Conventions”, said the government statement.

Established in 1863, the ICRC is at the origin of the Geneva Conventions and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It directs and coordinates the international activities conducted by the Movement in armed conflicts and other situations of violence.

This latest protocol amends a 1993 agreement establishing the organisation's legal status in Switzerland. The amendments relate mainly to social security provisions for its staff, and data protection.  

“As part of its international mandate, the ICRC processes highly sensitive data on the situation in regions of armed conflict and concerning the victims of such conflicts,” the statement added. “In the interests of victims and their families, under the new provisions the ICRC's documents, archives and communications are better protected in an increasingly digital world.”

Foreign minister Cassis “welcomed the amendments and reaffirmed the close cooperation between Switzerland and the Geneva-based ICRC”, it said.

Preserving neutrality

The 1993 headquarters agreementExternal link serves notably to protect the ICRC’s independence. The organisation guards its neutrality so as to be able to carry out its humanitarian work on both sides of a conflict.

Under the 1993 agreement, the federal government “recognises the ICRC's international juridical personality and legal capacity in Switzerland, and guarantees its independence and freedom of action”. It confers on the ICRC the immunities granted to international organizations based in Switzerland, but does not confer any fiscal immunities on ICRC members and staff.

The ICRC has 1,000 employees in Geneva, and 18,800 worldwide. According to a media report in September, the organisation is planning to cut dozens of posts owing to financial pressures linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The international organisation is reportedly struggling to meet its annual budget estimated at CHF2.2 billion ($2.4 billion), while the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the need for humanitarian aid, Swiss public radio, RTS said.

In 2019, Switzerland was the fourth largest donor. It provided CHF80 million to cover the ICRC headquarters budget and CHF74 million for its humanitarian operations around the world.

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