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Adjusting to the changing face of conflicts

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva in 2012 Keystone

Good offices continue to play a significant role in Swiss peace policy, according to the foreign ministry. However, the number of protecting power mandates is dwindling.

Whether it’s acting as a messenger between two non-speaking states or trying to actively mediate and broker a resolution, Switzerland’s good offices have a long tradition.

The alpine nation first acted as a protecting power in the 19th century when it looked after the interests of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Dukedom of Baden in France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71.

The “golden period” for so-called protecting power mandates – looking after another country’s interests in a third state – was during the Second World War: by 1943/44, Switzerland was juggling 219 mandates for 35 states.

“Switzerland used good offices to compensate for its neutrality, which had a bit of a bad reputation after the Second World War,” Daniel Trachsler, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), told

The Cold War also resulted in demand for Swiss services, with 24 mandates held in 1973. Since then, however, the number of mandates has dropped to six (see graphic).


Cold War thaw

There are three reasons for this decline, according to Trachsler, author of a report published in February 2012 called Representing Foreign Interests: Rebirth of a Swiss Tradition?.

“First, decreasing demand. Many countries re-established diplomatic relations after the end of the Cold War,” he said.

“Second, the representation of foreign interests is a traditional instrument aimed at easing tensions between states, but nowadays more and more conflicts are intrastate in nature.”

Opposing actors, he added, are not only states but armed non-state actors and the instrument of the protecting power is not geared towards this type of conflict.

“And finally – especially at the end of the 1990s – the Swiss government was somewhat reluctant to accept new mandates. But this has changed in recent years, as shown by the representation of Russian interests in Georgia and vice versa.”

For these reasons, the CSS report said a renaissance of “this traditional element of Swiss foreign policy” was not to be expected, despite recent positive headlines.

Good office, better press

In 2011, for example, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, where Switzerland has looked after United States interests since 1980, played a significant role in the release of two US citizens being held in Tehran.

The same year, Swiss mediation during the stand-off between Russia and Georgia helped to remove the remaining stumbling blocks to Russia joining the World trade Organization (WTO).

2011 also marked half a century of the longest protecting power mandate in history: since January 6, 1961, Switzerland has represented US interests in Cuba.

“I think that as long as there are conflicts there will be a need for mediators and facilitators, so I don’t see a general decrease on the demand side in the foreseeable future,” Trachsler said.

“As for the scale of Swiss activities, this is influenced by two additional factors. First, it depends whether the conflict parties turn to a small state like Switzerland for support or whether they prefer an international organisation such as the United Nations or a powerful country like the United States or even an NGO (non-governmental organisation).”

“It also depends on the will of the Swiss government and whether it continues to consider its policy of peace promotion as a cornerstone of its foreign policy. At the moment, that seems to be the case under Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.”

“Discreet and confidential”

One NGO which has collaborated with Switzerland’s good offices, mostly providing support and mediation to parties in conflict in order to facilitate negotiations between them, is Conciliation Resources, a London-based organisation that works to build peace in conflict regions.


“In some instances the Swiss good offices will be playing a role in a peace process where we’re working at a civil society level and we might feed in any expertise we have and they might come to us for discussions or shared analysis,” Jonathan Cohen, director of programmes, told

“But they operate in a discreet and confidential way and wouldn’t necessarily tell us where they’re working – they retain that degree of confidentiality which is crucially important. They keep their cards close to their chest.”

Philippe Welti, Swiss ambassador to Iran from 2004 to 2008 (see related interview), confirms this. “The Swiss have always had a very strict policy of saying nothing about protecting power mandates when it comes to content,” he told

“I used to say that we have a policy of confirming that we do have the mandate – nothing else,” he laughed.

Political risk

But is it all worth it? “Certainly there is always some kind of political risk involved in a peace process,” Trachsler admitted, pointing out that not all countries or actors approve of what Switzerland is doing in certain conflicts.

“Sometimes it’s also difficult to justify an engagement domestically. But Switzerland has had some successes and has gained a good reputation internationally in this area.”

What’s more, the Swiss parliament seems to think it’s worth the effort. In 2012, it approved framework credit which increased the financial means for the promotion of peace and human rights from about SFr60 million ($64.3 million) to SFr77 million a year. According to Trachsler, the credit line for good offices, mediation and civilian peace-building makes up about 40 per cent of this amount.

Another advantage cited in the CSS report is the access gained to the corridors of power, notably in Washington and the Kremlin.

“You probably gain access to decision makers, but whether they act on your recommendation is a different question entirely,” he said.

Switzerland’s protective power mandates

A protecting power mandate is required if two states break off diplomatic and/or consular relations in a conflict situation. It covers some of the duties carried out by the previous official diplomatic representation.

Provided all parties involved agree, the protecting power represents the interests of one state (the sending state) in a third state (the receiving state) and provides protection for the citizens of the sending state who are living in the receiving state. Through these services a channel of communication is also kept open between the conflicting states. 

Currently, Switzerland is exercising the following six diplomatic mandates in representing the interests of:

The US in Cuba (since January 6, 1961)

Cuba in the US (April 1, 1991)

Iran in Egypt (May 9, 1979)

The US in Iran (April 24, 1980)

Russia in Georgia(December 13, 2008)

Georgia in Russia (January 12, 2009)

 (Source: foreign ministry)

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