Swiss focus on "democratic transition" policy

The revolt in Tunis inspired others in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere Keystone

The Swiss foreign ministry is organising a conference in Tunisia for all its ambassadors in the Arab world, with a view to adapting its foreign policy.

This content was published on April 29, 2011 minutes
Frédéric Burnand in Geneva,

From May 1-3, in a hotel in a chic area of the capital, Tunis, the foreign ministry will work out a “global support strategy for democratic transition”, an aim adopted by the government last month.

This is essential and not before time, according to Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World.

“Western democracies must urgently review their strategies for countries south of the Mediterranean,” Abidi told

“Like its neighbours, Switzerland supported the majority of authoritarian regimes in the region in the name of the fight against terrorism and stemming streams of migrants. This line has been shown to be weak, not to say counterproductive.”

The foreign ministry replied to’s questions in a written statement. “Since the beginning of demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East, Switzerland has been involved at various levels,” it said.

“At the conference of regional ambassadors in Tunis, Swiss ambassadors and heads of local cooperation offices will discuss with the relevant ministries in Bern how to implement this global support strategy in the region. This should involve humanitarian aid, migration, structural reforms, economic development and the fight against poverty.”

Global strategy

But what about governments which remain deaf to the call for the liberty and dignity of their people – starting with Syria, whose army is repressing with a growing brutality demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad?

On Tuesday the foreign ministry said it was “very concerned” about the recent events in Syria and urged the authorities to put an end to repression and to respect the basic rights of Syrian citizens.

The Swiss also supported the United Nations Human Rights Council’s decision to hold a special session on Syria on Friday in Geneva.

“Switzerland’s contribution to alleviating the consequences of the conflicts on the population and the creation of social and economic opportunities is being integrated into a global promotion of stability in the entire region,” according to the foreign ministry.

Human rights

Over the past decade Switzerland has stood out when it comes to human rights and the denunciation of abuses committed around the world.

In 2005 – in Tunisia, in fact, at the inauguration of the World Summit on the Information Society – the then Swiss president, Samuel Schmid, was censored by Tunisian television for harshly criticising in the presence of then Tunisian President Ben Ali states that muzzle civil liberties.

“From 2003 to 2006 – when the new Human Rights Council came into existence – the priority given to human rights as part of foreign policy could appear to be an aim in itself. Today, it’s no longer the main part of foreign policy,” said former Swiss ambassador François Nordmann, now an international political analyst.

Hasni Abidi of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center acknowledged that Switzerland was quick to freeze assets belonging to the clans of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, but he added that those actions are struggling to have their full effect.

“The Egyptians believe there’s an insurmountable bureaucratic wall – Switzerland is demanding documents that are impossible to gather in order to start talks about the restitution of funds. Tunisians have similar problems,” he said.

“Idealist policies collide with realist policies wanted by those in financial circles. If things start happening in Algeria, what would the Swiss attitude be? Would it block the funds of those in power, knowing that its dependence on Algerian petrol has become considerable?”

Marshall plan

In any case, Abidi hopes Switzerland would back in one way or another the idea of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero for a Marshall Plan for the Arab countries in transition. This idea was supported this week by France and Italy.

The Marshall Plan was the large-scale economic programme of the United States for rebuilding and creating a stronger economic foundation for Europe after the Second World War.

“For a transition to succeed, three conditions need to be fulfilled: the installation of democratic institutions, political pluralism, and what one calls the treatment of economic difficulties. If the economic situation doesn’t get better, the population risks reversing the revolution,” Abidi said.

“It’s Egypt and Tunisia which are seeing the majority of migrants and refugees and which are feeling the significant loss of revenue from their nationals who work in Libya.”

For François Nordmann, Swiss participation in such as plan would fit in to the logic of its foreign policy – and Switzerland would have specific cards to play.

“A Marshall Plan is contributing funds to help reconstruct economies. But it’s also cooperation at an institutional level to manage these funds and the countries themselves.”

Cooperation with NGOs

For several years the Swiss government has been working with various partners, including local NGOs in Arab countries.

The choice of partners is made according to strict and transparent criteria, and in line with the goals and priorities of the Swiss foreign ministry in the different countries.

Switzerland also cooperates with NGOs specialising on humanitarian issues and in development aid covering protection of migrants, economic development, vocational training, human rights, rule of law and risk prevention in the event of natural disaster.

Source: Swiss foreign ministry

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Swiss funding

The foreign ministry has earmarked SFr12 million ($13.8 million) in its budget for projects in the field of humanitarian aid, migration, structural reforms, economic development and the fight against poverty.

The SDC’s budget for the southern Mediterranean region is set at SFr20 million to SFr30 million a year for 2011 and 2012.

Source: Swiss Foreign Ministry

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