Will Switzerland be able to bring its ideals to the UN Security Council?

Freedom for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang: In September 2021, Uyghurs and human rights activists in front of federal parliament in Bern handed in the petition "#NoComplicity: Switzerland must renegotiate the free trade agreement with China!" Keystone / Anthony Anex

Switzerland put human rights front and centre when presenting its candidacy for non-permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council. But will Swiss diplomats be able to hold the high ground when confronting countries as powerful as Russia and China? Experts have mixed views on the matter.

This content was published on February 21, 2022 - 09:00

Opening doors, strengthening networks, finding partners to advance one’s own agenda and gaining a seat or two in a United Nations agency – these are realistic expectations for any country that gains a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

Opportunities to influence the agenda as a temporary participant in the most powerful body of the UN are limited. The real power lies with the club of five – Russia, China, France, the United States and the United Kingdom – who hold permanent seats and the right to veto any decision made by the 15-member council.

What is the United Nations Security Council?

The 15-seat council is the most powerful body of the United Nations. Like the United Nations it was born out of the ashes of the Second World War and held its first session in January 1946.

Its powers include establishing peace-keeping operations, enacting international sanctions, and authorising military action. It is the only body in the UN system with the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states.  Five of its members – the victors of the Second World War – are permanent. The remaining ten serve two-year terms and are elected on a regional basis. The Security Council’s presidency rotates among its members.

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Brave words

Given the power dynamics, making human rights the lynchpin of Switzerland’s candidacy for the 2023/2024 period could be considered a bold move.  

“The firm belief that respect for the rule of law and the realisation of human rights for all are the foundations for peaceful, prosperous and sustainable societies guides our foreign policy,” Switzerland said in its application.

The government is promoting the Swiss candidacy with this video:

External Content

The vote scheduled for June 2022 is considered a mere formality. Switzerland leveraged its foreign policy achievements such as mediation in conflict, peace-building and promoting democratic principles like power-sharing and inclusion on the international stage in its application.

Switzerland is no stranger to high-stakes power politics. It is exercising seven protective power mandates, also known as “good offices”, including representing US interests in Iran since 1980 and Russia in Georgia since 2008.

“Nobody, not even Russia, will be surprised if Switzerland represents and defends the positions for which it has gained international fame in the Security Council,” says Fabien Merz, senior researcher in Swiss foreign and security policy at the Centre for Security Studies at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich.

He is convinced that Switzerland will be able to defend its values and ideals. “Switzerland’s foreign policy is independent, and that’s what it is internationally known for,” he says. “Membership of the UN Security Council should not change this.”

Switzerland had to take positions in the past, some of which did not go down well with the superpowers, for example during its membership of the UN Human Rights Council which is based in Geneva. 

Alarming backlash against civil society

Political scientist Leandra Bias of the foundation swisspeace thinks the non-permanent seat at the table of the superpowers will open opportunities for Switzerland. She expects that civil society will gain a voice in the UN’s highest body and feminist peacebuilding will be strengthened.

Bias has researched authoritarian regimes and found that the current rise in authoritarianism and autocracy is linked to human rights violations. She mentions Russia’s failed attempt to introduce a UN Security Council resolution that would have unravelled the rights of women in conflict.

With the UN Agenda “Women, Peace and Security”, which was launched 21 years ago, Russia intended to water down previously agreed commitments to protect women against gender-based violence. Russia’s proposal threatened to roll back the protection of individual women and provide protection only to families, she says.

“It is worrying that such accomplishments could have been undermined by the highest UN body,” she says, calling it an alarming backslide. Switzerland, she argues, should make use of its seat to address such problems.

Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis (left), who holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, and Economics Minister Guy Parmelin, who held it last year, at the United Nations headquarters in New York in autumn 2021. The UN Security Council, for which Switzerland is a candidate, also meets there. Keystone / Jean-marc Crevoisier

Human security at home

Bias is eager to find out whether and how Switzerland will build on its achievements in feminist peace-building at the Security Council. She also mentions human security, which appears only on Switzerland’s global agenda.

“Human security is also a domestic issue as it not only concerns women and minorities, but also the structurally disadvantaged and persons with disabilities,” she explains. She thinks that Switzerland co-chairing the UN’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda will get things moving.

Women, Peace and Security Agenda

Together with South Africa, Switzerland co-chairs the “Women, Peace and Security Focal Points Network”External link (WPS).

This network assists member states in implementing the UN Agenda for “Women, Peace and Security”.

This co-chair could give fresh impetus to the politics at home, says political scientist Leandra Bias. “South Africa has made more progress in this field than Switzerland because it has a more progressive and ambitious attitude. That’s why the co-presidency could help Switzerland move forwards in this domain,” she says.

The co-presidency is linked to two annual meetings. The first will be held in Geneva in the spring, the second in South Africa in the autumn.

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The Swiss government has already scored some points by indicating that it will not act single-handedly in the New York mission but will consult civil society organisations. “Channels that allow the participation of civil society are extremely valuable,” Bias says.

Switzerland already supports UN decisions

The opportunities of a two-year membership at the Security Council should not be underestimated, according to Simon Hug, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Geneva. He highlights the right to submit resolutions as well as formal and informal ways to exert influence.

“A non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council would allow Switzerland to better link the Council’s decisions with its own interest,” Hug told SWI

But some people are concerned that a Security Council seat could compromise Switzerland’s neutrality. “Even as a non-member, Switzerland must support decisions in which it has not been involved,” Hug explains.

Risk of countermeasures

Swiss diplomat Paul Widmer thinks Swiss membership would be wrong for a country that has built its international reputation on neutrality. Once on the Security Council, Switzerland would have to take a position, as it would weaken the UN body even further by abstaining from voting.

“This would not be in line with its role as mediator in international conflicts, but would weaken this role,” Widmer says.

If on the other hand Switzerland takes sides, Widmer says some members could resent it and take direct or indirect action in, for example, the field of economic exchange or in its mission of good offices. Membership could also compromise Geneva’s role as an international platform for diplomacy.

He also sees some risks for humanitarian missions of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “Taking sides could complicate humanitarian action or make it impossible.”

Deepening the rift

Widmer also worries about possible negative domestic repercussions. “I have no doubt that the foreign ministry will make a huge effort to communicate the decisions of the Security Council within Switzerland. But I am sure a seat would deepen the rift in our society [caused by the Covid-19 pandemic], and we could certainly do without this.”

In his opinion, Switzerland belongs in the UN but not in the Security Council, where the five permanent veto powers have the final say anyway. It belongs in the General Assembly for it is an advisory body.

“Switzerland could raise its voice there and contribute with its experience,” he says. “First and foremost, Switzerland’s duty is to serve as a mediator between nations and to do so with the greatest discretion.”

(Translated from German by Billi Bierling)

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