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Swiss have rights – and obligations – abroad

The Swiss couple David Och and Danielle Widmer wave upon their arrival at Qasim military base. They were held captive in Pakistan for nearly a year Keystone

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter wants to stop Swiss venturing with impunity into high-risk parts of the world at a time when international crises abound.

In mid-March four Swiss skiers were killed in an avalanche in Norway. A day later, there was an earthquake in Mexico, and a day after that a putsch in Mali.

It was a busy but not an exceptional week for Christian Dussey, head of the Division for Security Policy and Crisis Management within the foreign ministry.

“In every crisis I work on the assumption that there may be Swiss victims,” the 46-year-old ambassador told “Switzerland is among the five European countries with the highest proportion of foreign travellers. Day or night, we have to be ready to react quickly as the first few hours are decisive.”

Earlier in March, two Swiss hostages won their freedom after nine months of captivity in Pakistan. No sooner were they free than a worker with a non-governmental organisation was abducted in Yemen. Another Swiss is being held hostage in the Philippines and one is missing in Mexico.

Denouncing “the abduction industry”, Burkhalter, the new Swiss foreign minister, could only repeat what he had just set as one of his priorities: “the need for reflection on the responsibilities of each person regarding personal safety and the limits of state intervention”.

In other words people should think twice before venturing into al-Qaeda or Taliban-controlled areas, as the government will ask them to foot some of the bill for extricating them.

Officially, “Bern doesn’t pay ransom money,” but consular assistance does not come cheap, and many civil servants are involved in these cases, sometimes over a period of months.

Explosion in mobility

Costs of consular assistance in emergencies have been increasing over the past ten years owing to the huge numbers of Swiss travelling abroad. There are more than 700,000 Swiss living abroad (ten per cent of the population) while Swiss in Switzerland make 16 million foreign trips a year.

Over this time period the world has become more complex. “Terrorism, riots, nuclear disasters, tsunamis, political change, bird flu, earthquakes, the Arab Spring… the news has speeded up since 2008. Add to that the series of abductions,” noted Dussey.

“What has changed is that these crises no longer follow one another but take place at the same time. Everything has speeded up, and the public’s expectations as well as media pressure have increased. All European countries are faced with the same challenges.”

Prevent and anticipate

It was to respond to those needs that the crisis management centre was set up on June 1, 2011. Its aim: to not simply react but to anticipate crises and prevent risks.

At Bundesgasse 32 in Bern, the “crisis room” keeps up its vigil, constantly monitoring the news on channels including CNN, the BBC, France 24 and al-Jazeera. Every month representatives of all the government offices concerned hold a meeting there to discuss the safety of Swiss abroad.

This can lead to changes in the government’s Advice to Travellers – the main prevention tool on the foreign ministry website and on Twitter.

Dussey is determined to change the behaviour of travellers. “The week after the abduction of the two Swiss in Pakistan, visa requests dropped significantly. By the following week they had picked up again. That baffled us.”


When a Swiss national gets into bother abroad Bern intervenes as a last resort, when all else fails. Individual cases are handled by the foreign ministry’s consular protection arm.

“Expatriates know the place they are living in and generally manage by themselves,” said the ambassador. “Often our main problem is isolated tourists who don’t know the country they are in very well, if at all, and yet still venture into dangerous areas.”

Hostage cases are too sensitive for the ambassador to be able to give details, but they are a nightmare for the authorities. Lives are in danger and strong media interest adds to the pressure.

“In these cases, the responsibility for resolving the crisis lies in the first instance with the country where the abduction takes place,” said the head of the crisis division. “We only provide assistance.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an expert involved in certain abduction cases told “Switzerland has to first identify what type of collaboration is possible and how the case is viewed in the country concerned. Possible interview partners have to be identified, there needs to be an assessment of how far they can be trusted, and then the intermediaries can start negotiating.”

“By definition, a country cannot say it has paid a ransom. But in certain cases the hostages have come back alive, meaning something has happened,” said the expert.

“But it is never straightforward, as a country cannot pay a ransom without going through the government concerned. It’s a question of sovereignty. And sometimes the abductors go straight to the families with their demands. That is the style of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, where hostage-taking is an old tradition. In short, a state of law like Switzerland cannot just proceed to extricate its hostages.”

Helping embassies

The crisis group also wants to improve the preparedness of diplomatic staff, which is not always optimal.

“A major crisis is when an embassy has to drop its normal activities and transform itself into an emergency centre,” said Dussey. “It can even be that its security is in jeopardy. There were 15 crises in 2010 and 12 in 2011 which required our intervention.”

A crisis unit has been created with teams on each continent ready to be activated within three to four hours. And courses are held, simulating a 24-hour crisis.

Finally the new media are playing an increasingly important role. “This began with the Haiti earthquake in 2010: families could communicate thanks to facebook. Today we regularly send sms updates to Swiss citizens in difficulty abroad,” said Dussey.

He adds that “every case is an experience which helps us build up our competence and improve our efficiency”.

The political division VI of the foreign ministry was set up in 2009 following the Luxor attack in 1997 in which 62 people, including 36 Swiss tourists, died.

It incorporates the service for Swiss abroad, consular protection and, since June 1, 2011 the Division for Security Policy and Crisis Management as well as travel advice.

The security policy division has created an international monitoring and alert system as well as a crisis intervention unit consisting of 270 volunteers in five continents.

In terms of prevention, the crisis division publishes the foreign ministry’s Advice to Travellers on 157 countries on the internet and Twitter. It employs 12 people and has an annual budget of SFr400,000.

Set up on January 1, 2011, the foreign ministry hotline will be available 24 hours a day from May 1, 2012. It receives an average 2,000 calls and mails every month and is staffed by ten people.

In the event of a major crisis, a hotline staffed by 16 volunteers can be implemented.

(Source: foreign ministry)

The activities of the foreign ministry are defined by a diplomatic regulation attached to the constitution which stipulates that “Switzerland comes to the aid of Swiss living abroad”.

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad has been demanding a specific law for years. A parliamentary initiative by senator Filippo Lombardi has been accepted by committees of both parliamentary chambers.

The initiative has come at an opportune moment for the government, which wants to clarify the rights of Swiss living abroad, but also their obligations and responsibilities.

Some parliamentarians are demanding a financial contribution from tourists or agencies “that put Switzerland in danger”. This already happens – a couple of tourists taken hostage in Mali in 2009 had to pay SFr40,000 ($44,262) – but the conditions are unclear.

Observers say the difficulty is to fix a sum and determine who pays. This could vary depending on whether it is a worker with an NGO, or a Swiss firm, someone who has been living abroad for a long time, or a tourist.

A working group has been created to draw up a bill. The bill could be presented to the committees in the autumn and come before parliament in the winter session, Lombardi says.

(Translated from French by Morven McLean)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR