The Swiss president, Adolf Ogi, has officially opened a new Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces in Geneva. The new institution is a continuation of Swiss efforts to promote peace and democracy in the world.
"Switzerland wants to make a concrete gesture towards promoting stability and peace in countries in transition and countries in development," Ogi said at the inauguration.
The centre is part of Switzerland's contribution to NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, the strengthening of democratic controls over armies being one of the country's stated objectives within the PfP.
"The democratic control of armed forces remains a crucial challenge for many states," Ogi said, warning that without such controls there was a real risk that the security forces become a kind of state within a state.
"This is an obstacle to democracy, an obstacle to economic prosperity, an obstacle on the road towards freedom," the president said.
He pointed out that the new centre was the third such institution created by the Swiss government, the others being the Centre for Security Policy, created in 1996, and the Centre for Humanitarian Demining, set up two years ago.
"It is important that Switzerland shows to the world its capacity to contribute actively to peace, that Switzerland is present in the big international debates, and that it is present on the ground," Ogi said.
He said it was also important that Geneva reinforce its role as an international platform for dialogue, peace and democracy. It is also hoped that its neutral image will help to attract more countries to take part in the centre's activities.
The new set-up comprises the centre, where in effect, most of the work is done, a foundation, made up of representatives of the member governments, and a board of international advisors.
The mission of the new centre is to analyse the lessons learned from earlier transitions to democracy so that internationally accepted norms, standards and procedures can be drawn up.
Despite a number of initiatives in this field, international efforts towards promoting democracy in the armed forces have been piecemeal, and it is hoped that the Geneva centre can act as a kind of clearing house by creating a network between all of Europe's security institutions - NATO, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE.
It was intended for the centre to begin operations on the ground in 2002. But it has already been asked to undertake projects by the Stability Pact for the Balkans, and will be active in the field within a fortnight.
The four projects it has been asked to undertake are to encourage transparency in defence budgets; a kind of stocktaking of civil-military relations to assess the likelihood of renewed conflict; to set up a regional documentation centre: and to devise a curriculum for defence ministries.
"With democratic control of the armed forces, peace has a better chance of thriving," says the head of the centre, Theodor Winkler.
The countries which have agreed to join the foundation include major powers like the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain and France, as well many states from Central and Eastern Europe.
Just one African country has joined, but it's a significant one: Nigeria. South Africa and Egypt have also been invited to join and are expected to do so.
"Europe will be our first priority, but we already have a window into Africa," Winkler told swissinfo.
"The centre will eventually have a broader appeal. We want to invite countries from Asia and Latin America to join. Both of these regions are already represented on the advisory board," he said.
The Swiss Defence Ministry, which is providing the bulk of the funding, says the centre will have reached "cruising altitude" by 2003, when it will have a budget of SFr 10 million.
by Roy Probert