Ambitious Switzerland plays to its strengths

Keystone/Luca Zanier

Can a small, neutral country have a significant impact on global politics? In its ten years as a United Nations member, Switzerland has focused on its traditional strengths in development and humanitarian issues as it has tried to wield influence.

This content was published on September 10, 2012 minutes
Sophie Douez,

Experts on both sides of the Atlantic agree that, despite some setbacks, the balance sheet of Switzerland’s first decade has been overwhelmingly positive. Switzerland has played key roles in structural and budgetary reform of the UN, as well as in the areas of human rights and international justice.

“When it comes to fundamental rights, rule of law and accountability, Switzerland’s impact is way above its weight,” Richard Dicker, director of the international justice programme with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told

“Over the ten years of its membership, Switzerland has established a track record with regards to those issues. Switzerland is not just showing up, but showing real commitment to these justice issues, they have credibility and legitimacy.”

Italian professor of international law at the Graduate Institute Geneva, Andrea Bianchi, said: “These ten years have proved that Switzerland can play an active role in the international scene and that it has both the credibility and the skills that are necessary to play a major role in international politics”.

Transformation of the discredited Human Rights Commission into the Human Rights Council, reform of the sanctions system and of the Security Council – including a bold proposal to limit the veto power of the permanent five (P5)  members in cases of genocide – are cited by experts as areas where Switzerland has excelled.

But the withdrawal in May of a draft resolution on reform of the Security Council’s working methods was one of Switzerland’s “big disappointments”, says Daniel Trachsler from the Centre for Security Studies at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. “I think it showed that if the overall context is not right, a small or middle state cannot really push something through against considerable opposition.”

Taking on the big boys

Bianchi contends that despite the withdrawal of the draft resolution, the Swiss pulled a “very clever diplomatic move” in offering proposals for Security Council reform that did not require amendments to the UN charter, “rather than waste time and energy in this talk about sweeping reforms that are unlikely to materialise.

“This initiative clearly showed that a lot can be done short of any formal reform of the charter to put pressure on the P5 and have them explain why they are acting in a certain way in a certain context.”

But opinions differ; writing in Le Temps newspaper in May, former Swiss diplomat François Nordmann said Switzerland had “gone too far” in defying the P5 and attacking its veto rights over a matter which did not hold “the least importance for its [Switzerland’s] direct interests”.

For Trachsler, Switzerland’s initial decision to focus on reform of the Council’s working methods was right given that broader reform was “blocked”. This led to concessions from the Council on improved transparency of decision-making processes for non-members as a result of Switzerland’s efforts.

Switzerland has also taken the lead within the UN this year on the deteriorating situation in Syria by pressuring the Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC), says justice expert Dicker.

“The Swiss mission, much to its credit, initiated efforts to reach out to ICC states’ parties on the basic principles of their commitments to act according to the rules of law that demand action against the most atrocious crimes committed,” he says.

Smooth operators

As an indication of Switzerland’s success within the UN, observers point to the number of Swiss who hold senior positions within the organisation – currently at around 70 according to the foreign ministry.

“This is pretty impressive because it is not normal that such a small country, in only ten years, could play such an important role in the structure of the organisation,” says Fanny Charmey, head of the international organisations working group at Swiss think-tank Foraus.

Both Trachsler and Bianchi agree the high number demonstrated Switzerland’s very good reputation with Bianchi describing Swiss diplomats as “very good professionals who know damn well what they do and what they are talking about”.

Switzerland has “proved to be a fairly smooth diplomatic operator overall I think, because it was fairly new to the club and yet it was able to take the lead on very important issues”, Bianchi adds.

But the strong contribution of the Swiss to the UN’s structure and budget is not repeated in its contribution to peacekeeping missions – it ranks 16th for budget contributions but 99th for  peacekeeping and is often criticised from abroad for letting others do its dirty work in military conflicts.

While Trachsler suggests there is “room for improvement” in this area, Charmey says the level of commitment to date has been consistent with Swiss neutrality. The government plans to double the number of soldiers available for peacekeeping missions by 2014.

According to the UN as of July 31, 2012, Switzerland had a total of 24 police, UN military experts on mission, and troops deployed in peacekeeping operations. In comparison, neighbouring Austria had 539 and Sweden, with a similar population size, had 63.

According to Charmey, “it’s a challenge for Switzerland because we cannot really go into coercive actions due to our neutrality”.

Security Council seat

An indicator of Switzerland’s ambitions within the UN is its bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for 2023-24, which observers praise as a legitimate and worthwhile goal.

Charmey believes such a position would help deflect the criticism of Switzerland’s commitment to peacekeeping missions.

“It’s a very challenging task, not especially because of the questions of neutrality, but because of the question of political exposure,” Trachsler adds. “Here, we’ll have to see whether Switzerland is willing to take such a position in the limelight of the world’s public.”

“I think it makes a lot of sense for Switzerland to apply to be elected to the Security Council,” Bianchi says. “That would be the culmination of ten years of a good record, of a good standing within the UN.”

Ban Ki-moon on Switzerland

In a comment to, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had this to say about Switzerland’s contributions to the UN:

"We are very grateful that Switzerland has joined our organization. During the decade of its membership, Switzerland has been a generous and consistent supporter of the goals of the United Nations, and we appreciate Switzerland’s contributions highly.

For example, we have gained tremendously from Switzerland’s strong commitment to peacebuilding efforts: Switzerland has chaired the Peacebuilding Commission’s Burundi Configuration.

Switzerland made a substantial contribution to the creation of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and the Office of the Ombudsperson on UN sanctions policy.

I sincerely hope that we can continue to rely on Switzerland’s valuable support in the years to come."

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UN member Switzerland: statistics

The United Nations comprises 193 member states. Switzerland became the 190th country to join in 2002.

Switzerland is the 16th largest contributor to the UN budget, with a share of 1.13% of the total.

In 2010, Switzerland’s contribution to UN activities amounted to SFr147.4 million ($154.3 million) (2011: SFr130.4 million), including peace missions and war crimes tribunals. Prior to becoming a member in 2002, Switzerland contributed about SFr500 million to the UN system.

In the framework of peacekeeping missions, Switzerland deployed 25 (February 2012) military personnel and police in Lebanon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and South Sudan, making it the 99th ranked donor country.

More than 1,500 Swiss citizens are employed at the UN, about 70 in high-ranking positions.

Geneva is the UN’s most important headquarters after New York. It is host to 242 permanent missions, representations and delegations, 33 international organisations including seven UN specialised agencies and about 250 non-government organisations. 

(Source: Foreign Ministry)

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