swiss diplomacy awakens from its slumber

In 1985, Switzerland hosted the Reagan-Gorbachev talks in Geneva Keystone

Over the past ten years, Swiss foreign policy has changed, leaving neutrality and "good offices" on the backburner and moving towards a heightened international profile.

This content was published on July 11, 2006 - 16:35

After finally joining the United Nations in 2002, the country has successfully turned the focus of its diplomatic efforts to multilateralism.

For over a century, Swiss diplomacy was defined by good offices - managing diplomatic relations between countries.

Since 1864, and the founding of the Red Cross, Geneva has hosted many international conferences.

Negotiations over French Indochina and Algeria also took place in and around the city, and Geneva was often the centre for nuclear disarmament talks, culminating in the 1985 summit between former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former United States president Ronald Reagan.

Switzerland has also provided good offices abroad, such in 1945 when Swiss diplomats transmitted Japan's surrender to the Allies.

"For a long time, the list of countries Switzerland represented made up the bulk of the foreign ministry's annual report," explains Yves Besson, an expert on international relations.

"Sometimes there were some politics involved, as in the cases of Cuba or Iran during the American hostage crisis in Teheran, but most of the time, it rarely went beyond consular duties."

Changing times

By the 1990s the situation was changing. Although voters had rejected joining the UN in 1986, the government still wanted to join the organisation.

The 1993 foreign policy report,

besides focusing on the defence of national interests, also insisted on peace, human rights, common prosperity and the environment.

But perhaps more importantly, neutrality was no longer considered the cornerstone of foreign policy, giving way to international "cooperation and shared decisions".

"Swiss diplomats had to get used to multilateral negotiations," said Besson.

"They were always first-rate when dealing with economics and trade, but they were political novices and had to learn very quickly."

These diplomats saw their profile rise with special missions to the Middle East, Georgia and Chechnya.

The change led to some difficult choices for Switzerland too.

In 1998, shortly before Nato bombed Belgrade, the Swiss refused to represent German and British interests in the Serbian capital. Switzerland had previously condemned persecution by Serbs in Kosovo, which had led Western nations to take action in the province.

Ethical considerations

The 2000 report on foreign policy highlighted once again the defence of national interests, but called for ethical considerations to be taken into account.

It also reaffirmed - reinforcing the message from 1993 - the need to

fight against poverty, promote peace, defend human rights and protect natural resources.

Just two years later Switzerland jointed the UN and in 2003 the new foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, launched her so-called "public diplomacy".

Shortly after taking over the job, she demanded a meeting with the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, to discuss Iraq.

After Powell refused to open last-minute negotiations with the Iraqis, Switzerland held a humanitarian conference dealing with some of the possible effects of the conflict.

Today, the Swiss are no longer the champions of good offices. Others, like Norway, have claimed that mantle. The Scandinavian country, despite not being neutral and a member of Nato, can claim to have achieved more that Switzerland in recent years.

For Besson, this is of little consequence. "Often, good offices meant little more than being a hotel manager," he said.

The former diplomat says the role Switzerland has taken in the past few years has been more active, more difficult, but also more profitable.

He cites the new UN Human Rights Council, which is to be based in Geneva, as an example of

successful negotiations by the Swiss.

"Switzerland has gone to the next level," said Besson. "It's real multilateral diplomacy."

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez

In brief

Until the early 1990s, Swiss diplomacy was essentially focused on providing good offices and getting conflicting parties together to talk, while remaining outside negotiations.

International organisations can also offer good offices.

Geneva's Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue is specialised in offering good offices, with its experts helping obtain a ceasefire between the Indonesian government and Aceh rebels in 2002, and an accord on Sudan's Darfur region in 2004.

Geneva is also home to War-torn Societies Project International, which runs reconciliation programmes in former conflict zones such as Rwanda, Somalia, Mozambique and Latin America.

Both organisations receive financial support from the Swiss government.

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Key facts

The Swiss foreign ministry's budget is around SFr2 billion ($1.62 billion) annually, with SFr1.3 billion going to cooperation and development.
It employs 3,150 people, including approximately 2,000 in diplomatic representations in 193 countries.
171 countries have an embassy or consulate in Switzerland.

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