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Switzerland launches Middle East rights initiative

As the Middle East conflict continues, the Swiss have intensified their diplomatic efforts


The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, has formally launched a diplomatic initiative aimed at restoring respect for human rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Deiss made the announcement following a meeting of the Swiss cabinet, at which the plan was approved. Now Swiss diplomats will draw up a system for integrating respect for human rights and international law into any ceasefire or peace initiative that may be agreed between Israel and the Palestinians.

Announcing the plan, Deiss repeated Switzerland's demand that Israel withdraw immediately from the occupied territories. He also called on the Palestinian authorities to make every effort to halt the terrorist attacks.

Working behind the scenes

The cornerstone of the Swiss initiative is the belief that no lasting peace can be achieved in the Middle East unless respect for humanitarian law is fully integrated into any peace plan.

Behind the scenes, staff at the Foreign Ministry have been working for some time on the initiative. Joseph Deiss has made it clear many times that the Swiss government is deeply concerned about the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories, and about the way in which humanitarian organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross have been increasingly unable to carry out their duties.

"We feel committed to these principles (of respect for human rights)," Deiss told swissinfo. "Especially as we are the depository country of the Geneva Conventions. We have a mission to fulfill here."

As a first step, Deiss said he had asked the Spanish foreign minister to ensure that the issue of humanitarian law be included on the agenda of Wednesday's meeting in Madrid between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and senior diplomats from the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.

Incompatible with neutrality

But there has been criticism from some quarters; comments by Deiss that the activities of the Israeli military in the occupied territories are an infringement of international law have angered both Israel and Switzerland's Jewish community.

Deiss however rejected charges that his outspoken remarks were unsuitable for a representative of a neutral country.

"Engagement for humanitarian law has nothing to do with neutrality," he maintained. "We are acting in favour of those people who are victims, civilians for example who are victims of violence."

In the long term, Switzerland hopes that integrating respect for humanitarian law will become normal in all forms of conflict resolution, whether it be just a ceasefire, or a full blown peace plan.

Military ties with Israel examined

The Swiss government also announced that the department of defence has been instructed to examine military ties with Israel, with a view to reducing military cooperation.

At the moment, Switzerland buys artillery guidance systems and pilotless planes from Israel, worth in total around 180 million Swiss francs.

Meanwhile the Department of Economic Affairs is to examine Switzerland's trade agreement with Israel, with a view to stopping any imports of Israeli goods that have been manufactured outside Israel's internationally recognised borders.

by Imogen Foulkes

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