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Switzerland’s new man in Geneva talks politics

Dante Martinelli says the Swiss mission will aim to to stimulate reflection and innovation by UN member states

The new US administration should take greater account of other nations and help bolster the United Nations' credibility, Ambassador Dante Martinelli tells swissinfo.

Martinelli, who recently took over from Blaise Godet as head of the Swiss mission in Geneva, returns to Switzerland after four years in Beijing as ambassador to China.

The Swiss-Italian diplomat also has extensive experience of the European Union, notably as ambassador and head of the Swiss mission to the European Union in Brussels from 1999 to 2004.

swissinfo: How is your new Geneva post likely to differ from your previous ambassador positions?

Dante Martinelli: It’s a key post, which is important for Switzerland’s foreign policy and for the influence of International Geneva and for Switzerland in general.

The way of working here is slightly different, focusing on UN multilateral work rather than bilateral contacts like in Beijing or the work in Brussels at the EU, which is a mix of multilateral and direct work with member states.

The subjects dealt with here are central for international diplomacy and for people in all countries: international humanitarian law, human rights, environment, climate, health, telecommunications and intellectual property.

But saying that, the topics dealt with are generally the same in each ambassadorial post, as are the political actors.

swissinfo: What did you learn about China and its people during your last posting which will be useful in your new job?

D.M.: When you live for a long time in China you discover variety in all areas: its rich history, culture, people, and the extraordinary development of recent years. Over the past 30 years since the economic reforms the country has totally changed.

China is developing immensely and at high speed, but not just in the main cities on the east coast but also in those in the interior with populations of six to eight million people, which are modernising fast thanks to huge infrastructure investment.

The lesson from all this is that China is a very diverse and very rich country. And the main consequence is that China has once again become an important actor on the international scene – as it was one-and-a-half centuries ago.

swissinfo: US President-elect Barack Obama this week announced his foreign affairs team with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Susan Rice as US ambassador to the UN. What changes can we expect concerning US foreign policy towards the UN?

D.M.: We’ll see more clearly once the new administration is in place from January 20. But from the formation of the team and elements from the presidential campaign we can expect a policy that takes greater account of other countries and develops more in a multilateral framework, taking account of existing international institutions, such as the UN or Bretton Woods organisations.

Lots of promises were made throughout the entire presidential campaign, so there is expectation of some movement.

swissinfo: What are your thoughts on this week’s UN Human Rights Council special session on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo? The session received a lukewarm reception from human rights activists…

D.M.: The council is still a relatively new organisation. But the special session on Congo underlined the fact that there is a serious, dramatic humanitarian and human rights crisis in this region and the council was able to fulfil its function. Namely, it was able to quickly hold a special session on the region. That was a first positive element.

You can always have better texts but you have to take account of the different forces at work in a council special session.

But I feel the final text highlighted the main concerns of the member states: the dramatic situation, the rejection of impunity for human rights crimes, condemnation of sexual violence and acts against children, and calls to end these abuses. The essential elements are all there.

swissinfo: What are the Swiss mission’s priorities over the next five to ten years?

D.M.: We have to do our utmost to make International Geneva as attractive as possible with the support of the Geneva authorities, making the location and infrastructure attractive and appropriate for the UN institutions and their staff.

After the hardware we have to develop the software, making Geneva a place which is bursting with new ideas on the environment, health and human rights. We need to stimulate the capacity of reflection and innovation of member states.

Also, an important date for next year is the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, which will be an occasion to remind people what Geneva actually stands for.

swissinfo: Certain experts say the UN is going through a particularly difficult patch. What needs to be done to strengthen the global body’s credibility and efficiency?

D.M.: It’s true that existing divisions between member states make their collective work in the UN institutions more difficult, and multilateral work suffers.

Any improvement in the UN’s multilateral work is closely linked to the commitment and availability of member states. A new approach and closer attention to multilateral work by the US administration will certainly help.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Bradley

The debate over joining the UN began to gain some momentum in Switzerland towards the end of the 1960s. The government presented its first UN report in 1969, which concluded that it was too early to join.

It was not until 1977 that the government adopted membership as a goal. But the public and the cantons were not ready to follow suit: in March 1986 they overwhelmingly rejected the idea at the ballot box.

It was not until the mid-1990s that politicians tried again. In 1998 the government presented its fourth UN report, declaring membership as a “strategic goal”.

Switzerland became the 190th member of the UN in 2002. A nationwide referendum was needed to join the world body and some 55 per cent voted in favour.

Opponents of UN membership argued that it would endanger traditional Swiss neutrality.

Prior to joining the UN, Switzerland fully participated in the activities of the specialised agencies and organisations for decades.

The European UN headquarters is based in Geneva.

Switzerland contributes about $94 million (SFr105 million) to the UN’s core budget, according to the foreign ministry. That amount does not include payments to specialist organisations like Unesco and the WHO, and to programmes including UNCHR and Unicef.

Switzerland supports human rights and improving the workings of the Security Council, which also includes the committees charged with administering sanctions.

It backs better UN internal management and control, sustainable development and conflict resolution. The country also wants to help implement a more coherent UN operational system.

“…Switzerland, which is geopolitically isolated and does not belong to any major alliance, needs to work together with like-minded states in a variety of regions (generally with member states of the European Union or in groups formed by Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but also with moderate countries of South America, Asia and Africa) to initiate processes and develop ideas. It is only by gathering such a ‘critical mass’ for an initiative that Switzerland is able to influence important processes…” (From the 2007 Switzerland and the UN report.)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR