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Swiss deny Israeli barrier talks were failure

The Israeli security barrier has been the subject of controversy

(Keystone)

Switzerland’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York has rejected reports that Swiss-led talks on Israel’s security barrier have achieved nothing.

Peter Maurer told swissinfo that Switzerland had done what it was mandated to do and had put forward specific proposals for discussion.

Maurer also addressed the subject of reform of the UN Security Council, saying Switzerland was trying to bridge the gap between groups of countries with very different views on the issue.

In July 2004 the UN General Assembly backed a ruling by the International Court of Justice which had declared the West Bank barrier to be illegal. Israel argues that it is a temporary structure which is justified on security grounds.

As the depositary state of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland was commissioned by the General Assembly last year to hold consultations and compile a report on compliance with humanitarian law in the region.

The report, concluded at the end of June, was published by the UN last week.

swissinfo: Is it fair to say that the consultations led by Switzerland have achieved very little?

Peter Maurer: I don’t think it’s a fair assessment, no. We responded quite comprehensively to the limited mandate the General Assembly gave us. We put a lot of energy into trying to find responses to the mandate we were given, and that is what is in the report.

swissinfo: But Israel and the Palestinians have not agreed to direct talks on the issue of the wall?

P.M: That’s correct. They do not agree at present on a formula for dealing with their disagreement over the barrier and the international reaction to that, but this is not a big surprise. You could not expect that they would suddenly agree to any magic formula.

We made proposals and floated these and we have put together what replies we got from the high contracting [states] parties [to the Geneva Conventions] as well as from the parties concerned.

swissinfo: Switzerland is proposing that two discussion groups be set up, one involving the Israelis and the other the Palestinians. What is the ultimate aim?

P.M.: The idea is that countries with a particular interest and influence with either the Israelis or the Palestinians take it upon themselves to see what concrete steps can be taken to respect the Geneva Conventions.

The idea is not to bring the parties together at one table to talk but that the high contracting parties engage with Israel and the Palestinians to see how they can change their way of looking at certain humanitarian issues.

swissinfo: You decided the time wasn’t right to convene a meeting of the states party to the Geneva Conventions. Why was that?

P.M.: It wasn’t Switzerland’s interpretation, but an overall reflection of comments from all quarters. I think there is a strong feeling amongst those states who have responded to our questions that the priority is withdrawal from Gaza and that probably a conference couldn’t do much good at present.

swissinfo: The report calls for a formal commitment from Israel that it will dismantle the barrier once the security situation has improved. How likely is it that Israel will give such an assurance?

P.M.: It has always been official Israeli policy that the barrier was there because of security threats. So it seems to me logical and consistent with their own policy that if there is proof of a diminishing threat there would also be a push to remove the barrier. This also came out very clearly from our consultations.

swissinfo: Turning to the issue of reform of the UN Security Council, Switzerland has been trying to mediate among the groups offering different proposals. What is Switzerland’s position?

P.M.: Being a small country we are particularly interested in reform of the working methods of the Security Council rather than in enlargement and we want more transparency and accountability.

We disagree with any moves to extend vetoes and we have suggested to the group of countries who want to enlarge the Security Council with permanent members that there should be a review clause which would allow every ten years or so for the removal of permanent members of the Security Council if they do not show the responsibility required of them.

These were ideas we threw into the debate, in order to help bridge the gap between the camp wanting enlargement of the permanent members and those who see enlargement only in the context of non-permanent members.

swissinfo-interview: Morven McLean

In brief

The UN General Assembly called for the dismantlement of Israel’s West Bank security barrier in July 2004, following an International Court of Justice ruling that the wall was illegal.

Switzerland, as depositary of the Geneva Conventions, was then mandated to conduct consultations on the respect for human rights in the region.

This involved consultations with Israel and the Palestinians and the contracting parties to the Geneva Conventions.

The results formed the basis of the report submitted to the General Assembly.

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