Though Swiss voters have just approved United Nations membership, many may not realise that a number of Swiss already occupy important positions within the world body.This content was published on March 4, 2002 - 13:43
Swiss foreign policy attaches great importance to the promotion of peace, humanitarian values and the rule of law, and many Swiss lawyers, aid workers and others can be found working for UN agencies which require those qualities.
Now that Swiss voters have agreed to join the UN, it can tap even more deeply into that reservoir of Swiss know-how.
The most prominent Swiss figure working for the UN is Carla Del Ponte, since 1999 the chief prosecutor of the UN War Crimes Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Hunting war criminals
Before becoming the scourge of Balkan and Hutu extremists, Del Ponte was the Swiss federal prosecutor. Her dogged pursuit of Italian and Russian mafia bosses and Colombian drug barons earned her a formidable reputation and plenty of enemies – one of whom tried to assassinate her.
It was that tenacity that made the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, identify the prosecutor from canton Ticino as the person to give the tribunals a shot in the arm.
With the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, now standing trial, largely as a result of Del Ponte’s persistence, that decision has been partially vindicated. It is widely believed that the profile of the nine-year-old Hague tribunal has been raised considerably since del Ponte took the job.
If Del Ponte’s appointment owes everything to her fearsome reputation as Swiss federal prosecutor, Adolf Ogi’s job came about because of the close working relationship he developed with Annan during his time as Swiss defence and sports minister.
“The secretary-general noted that the sporting dimension was lacking in his ‘agenda for peace’,” Ogi says. “So he created this mandate and gave it to me.”
So now Ogi has the title of Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace. The post was made for the former Swiss minister, a man who believes passionately that sport can build bridges between different cultures and promote understanding and peace.
“My role is not to promote sport, but to promote the UN cause through sport,” Ogi says. However, he must do it with limited means. He receives no salary, has a tiny budget, a small office and a small team.
Ogi’s political party, the Swiss People’s Party, is largely opposed to Swiss UN membership, but he belongs to the moderate wing and he is an advocate of a yes vote in the upcoming referendum.
Right to food
Jean Ziegler may be on the opposite side of the political spectrum to Ogi, but he too has been plucked from Swiss politics and given an important role by the UN. Last September, the veteran Geneva socialist was appointed Special Rapporteur on the right to food by the UN Human Rights Commission.
"The world produces enough to feed the entire planet. Everyone has the right to food. This right is violated every day. It is shameful and scandalous and it should be denounced," Ziegler, long a tireless campaigner for the South, told swissinfo.
To Ziegler, the fact that Switzerland is not a member of the UN is irrelevant: "I was elected for my ideas, not for my nationality."
Ziegler and Ogi joined the UN system to pursue their ideals. Giorgio Malinverni is a different kind of Swiss who has found a niche there.
A law professor at Geneva University, Malinverni is a member of the UN's Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Although his name was put forward by the Swiss government, he does not represent Switzerland on the committee.
"We are independent experts. We carry out our work in a neutral, impartial way," he told swissinfo. "The 18 members of the committee do not represent their states. They are chosen for their personal competence."
While Ogi, Ziegler and Malinverni are based in Geneva, a handful of Swiss serve the UN in New York. Rachel Gruaux, a 27-year-old lawyer, represents the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, in New York.
"Working for the UN means a lot to me. I attach a great symbolic importance to my small contribution towards creating a better world," Gruaux told swissinfo.
"If the Swiss people could see what we do here, I'm sure they would be less suspicious," she added.
"The United Nations seems to be more open to Switzerland than some Swiss have been towards the UN," says political scientist Curt Gasteyger.
"It's good to have a real Swiss presence within the United Nations system," he told swissinfo, adding, though, that nationality is a minor consideration.
"We seldom think of other UN officials as Indians or Algerians. We think of them as people who do an excellent job," he says.
by Roy Probert
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