Swiss help countries move beyond conflict

Work takes place not only in forensics, but also in archives. Luca Zanetti

Colombia is on the path to peace after 50 years of civil war and Tunisia is trying its hand at democracy after two decades of dictatorship; two countries Switzerland is supporting as they attempt to leave state-sponsored violence behind.

This content was published on November 6, 2012 - 11:00

"Chief, we have 48. Should we continue or stop?’ The chief answers on the radio. ‘Stop now. You’ve already killed a bunch of innocent people."

These are the words of an eyewitness who survived a massacre carried out by paramilitary forces that left hundreds dead in the Colombian village of El Salado in 2000. Today, it’s a ghost town.

This testimony is found in a report published by the Colombian Group for Historical Remembrance in 2009, “This war is not our war”. The organisation has released 18 reports so far about the conflict, which was officially recognised by the government in May 2011.

This recognition was accompanied by new legislation in January. The so-called victims and land return law is one the cornerstones of the dialogue between the authorities and the Farc guerilla movement.

It also led to the human rights association being promoted to the rank of the official Centre for Historical Remembrance (CMR), directly affiliated to the country’s presidency.

“With this development, our work has gained in meaningfulness,” said CMR director Gonzalo Sanchez. “It is very possible that the information we have collected to preserve the truth … will contribute to lasting peace.”

He noted that given the initial government mistrust, Switzerland’s help and political support was “vital” for their work.

“Switzerland has a long historical and political tradition of conflict management. Its experience helps Colombia understand that we are part of a global context with international criminal courts and a legal framework for human rights, something we are not used to,” he told


The right to know, along with justice, reparation for victims and guaranteeing non-reoccurrence are four principles the Swiss foreign ministry has set out for dealing with the past.

Switzerland has been active in this field of peace promotion since 2003 and provided its support in Latin America, Africa, the Caucasus region and the Balkans.

How special courts should be set up, reparations for victims and institutional reforms are just a few of the urgent issues Switzerland tries to help nations deal with. The aim is to provide long-term resolution of conflicts and to end impunity.

“We don’t turn up with solutions, but with our experience of past processes,” said Mô Bleeker, head of the Swiss foreign ministry’s task force dealing with the past and prevention of atrocities. “We can describe the challenges and the successes as well as the lessons learned each time.”

According to Pablo de Greiff, the United Nations first special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantee of non-reoccurrence, Switzerland is the first and only country to have a special unit looking at the past that operates beyond the nation’s borders.

“Switzerland is very active,” he told “It organises high-level training courses with its network of international experts.”

“The Swiss have a very important role within the UN in promoting the end of impunity and putting items on the international agenda. They have launched different resolutions at the Human Rights Council and it was Switzerland that asked Argentina to jointly propose the creation of the special rapporteur’s position to which I was nominated in March,” he added.


In June, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, asked Switzerland for its help in coming up with a rehabilitation strategy, looking ahead to a consultation process and the creation of a truth commission.

Three weeks later, Bleeker was taking part in a workshop with representatives of the country’s human rights and transitional justice ministry. Other experts attending came from South Africa, Sierra Leone and Ireland.

“Switzerland helped us understand the challenges in dealing with the past,” said Samia Kamoun, director of cooperation and international relations at the Tunisian ministry. “The process must meet all of society’s expectations to ensure the transition will be successful.”

The Swiss foreign ministry has helped finance a joint initiative between the swisspeace foundation and non-governmental organisation Avocats Sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders).

The project aims to train employees of human rights organisations so they can review documents related to over two decades of abuses carried out by the former Ben Ali regime against its political opponents.

“The public consultation process that ended in October highlighted the importance of our archives,” explained Khaled Kchir, member of a national justice commission for the transition period.

“During civil society’s different discussions, it became clear the preservation and the administration of the national police archives was a major concern,” he added.

Tunisia is not the only country that fears documents or whole archives could disappear during a transition phase. A loss that could hinder how nations deal with the burden of past atrocities.   

Past issues

Just under a decade ago, Switzerland became the first country whose diplomats became specialised in dealing with the past.

The foreign ministry’s special task force includes staff from its human security, international law, humanitarian aid, cooperation and development divisions.

The concept of dealing with the past stems from the "Principles against impunity", developed by French human rights expert Louis Joinet.

These were approved in 1997 by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in recognition of the rights of victims and the obligations of states in the fight against impunity, when massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have taken place.

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Guatemala archive

In 2005, around 80 million pages of documents related to Guatemala’s disbanded national police from 1881 to 1997 were found in the capital Guatemala City. This police force held joint responsibility for atrocities committed over 36 years. 

Given the volatile nature of the documents, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States and Switzerland agreed to ensure their preservation. Since then, the UN has supported the classification and digitalisation of the documents, of which 17 per cent have been scanned so far.

The project has been deemed necessary as there are fears the documents could be destroyed if members of the armed forces, who ordered most of the atrocities, or their political allies, got their hands on them.

Thanks to an agreement with Guatemala’s culture ministry and the support of swisspeace and the Swiss Federal Archives, copies of the scanned data are kept in Bern. Guatemalan specialists were also trained in Switzerland this year to administer the digital archive.

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