mw. “Switzerland’s Good Services have a long tradition and play a key role in Swiss peace policy. Switzerland can build bridges where others are blocked because it does not belong to any of the centres of power and has no hidden agenda.” (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA, Good Services)
There is no better way to explain the humanitarian commitment of neutral Switzerland in the world. The Swiss diplomat and vice-president of the Swiss Red Cross, Toni Frisch, testifies in an interview with Radio SRF Switzerland’s wide range of possibilities for participating in good services. He gives an impressive account of his three years in Ukraine as OSCE Representative, which led to the exchange of 380 prisoners between Kiev and Eastern Ukraine at the end of December 2017. Toni Frisch is particularly pleasant for today’s media consumer because he does not tune in to the chorus of those who are blind in the western eye, but rather clearly expresses: The mutual interaction is objectionable on both sides of the contact line, he doesn’t turn his hand on either side.
According to Toni Frisch, further negotiations are now on the agenda for the next time in order to find constructive solutions in Ukraine. In order to be able to cope with the supply of the population and other everyday problems, an early ceasefire would be desirable.
Radio SRF: How did the exchange work? Who had which prisoners?
Toni Frisch: We started at the beginning of May 2015 and in the first 15 months we exchanged about 160 prisoners in small groups. At the same time, however, we worked towards a large exchange so that most of the prisoners could finally be released. This exchange took place on 27 December 2017 and was remarkably lean. Of course, logistical preparations were needed because the prisoners from all over the country were brought together, which actually worked. But before it was a tedious, laborious work. Every 14 days, lists were discussed at the negotiations in Minsk: Who is trapped where? Is he even trapped or missing? Maybe he is dead? Or is he in the presumed prison? A large group was involved in these investigations, a whole network, all very committed.
Do you know the conditions under which the prisoners lived?
I was the first to visit prisoners in the east, in Donetsk and Lugansk, as early as October 2016, and then again in August and October 2017. So, I was able to see how the situation has changed slightly. I have seen the conditions under which they were held in the prisons on both sides. I have also had the opportunity on several occasions to speak to prisoners’ relatives in Donetsk, Lugansk and Ukraine. That’s why I know exactly what the conditions were like for the prisoners. One always had the feeling that the prisoners in the East were probably held much worse than in the West: Ukraine is a constitutional state and those on the other side were separatists or terrorists. You cannot say that. Because you have to be aware that three years ago it was one country, the prisons were under the same laws and the same organisation. One cannot expect to arise two completely different conditions overnight in the prisons. That is why I have always resumed, not even to be provocative: The conditions on both sides are essentially similar. Of course, it is not as we imagine it in Switzerland that people would have to be accommodated. They also have a different past, and it is also necessary to know where people lived before, for example in a dacha, with or without electricity, with or without running water. From this point of view, they have not made the same demands as we here think they must be fulfilled.
Were the prisoners indicted judicially? Did they have a trial?
That was very different. In the East, in Donetsk and Lugansk things were rather simple: people having been captured with the weapon in their hands, as well as soldiers having fought against their separatist regime, came to prison without any court trial. Naturally they also were taken as pawns to negotiate the release of their own people. In Ukraine it is much more complicated. Not everybody has been released yet, but most of them were. There were some in a preliminary investigation or in an investigation, in part they had just been judicially convicted, but had not yet begun to serve their sentence. Others had already started to serve their sentence or, just now, after two or three years, almost finished it. So there were many different legal situations. Some had been convicted or charged as war criminals, but the evidence was not clear enough to challenge the other side. So it is a very complicated legal situation. [...]
Earlier you said that there are more prisoners. What kind of people are they and how many?
These are those where it is controversial to which category they belong, where the cases are not clear and it takes more time for the individual case. The mills grind slowly and need a while, but I expect that we can do another round in the next few months for the remaining, maybe 100 or 150 persons in total, and I really hope everyone else becomes free during the year.
How difficult was it to achieve this breakthrough?
[...] I was in Minsk over 70 times. The sound was often very aggressive and nasty on both sides. It was so emotionally charged that it was difficult to come to a constructive conclusion. I got the impression that people do not want a solution, they are looking for problems. They put the whole load to the other side, they themselves are the victims. This was done by both sides exactly the same way.
You have a lot of experience in negotiation, in diplomatic matters. [...] What do you do in such a situation when it gets loud?
Sometimes I knock on the bottle very loudly when needed. Furthermore I do not have just a squeeky voice, I can usually prevail somewhat reasonably. It also happened that I said to the translator: Stop, I do not want to hear that, stop, do not translate! Sometimes you have to be strict.
How much pressure can a diplomat like you apply?
Depending on how much the others accept as pressure. Theoretically none, but you can try to motivate, convince. [...] That’s how it worked in certain cases, that you came to a solution. But everything, really everything was politicized, even sober technical questions, which could easily be clarified in a casual conversation, everything was politicized.
Do you have any example so that we can imagine something?
For example at the crossings from Ukraine to Lugansk, they repeatedly accused each other of who is to blame, that the crossings are not opened. It was obvious that the will was not there on both sides. If you do not want to seek a solution, if the political will is lacking, then it just will not work.
But that also applies to other situations. [For example, tuberculosis in eastern Ukraine, which was long concealed; after the problem was obvious, Switzerland was able to supply important diagnostic equipment. Or environmental problems such as hazardous waste landfills in abandoned coal mines, possibly also with radioactive material, which both parties deny.]
How should we imagine your work? Did you negotiate especially in Minsk, or were you partly at the front or “contact line” as you call it?
Both, but primarily my job is in Minsk. There the negotiations take place, all problems go there over the common table of the working group “Humanitarian”, which I also coordinate. But at the same time my principle has always been that I personally have a look for problems which were the greatest and most difficult ones – even at the time at DEZA (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC)) or as head of Humanitarian Aid. I was the first of all to be in the East, and six times I have been in Donetsk and Lugansk, but also in Ukraine, on the line of contact on both sides. I had conversations and could visit the prisons. But I also visited hospitals, child and orphan homes to see where the biggest humanitarian problems are.
And where are the biggest humanitarian problems?
Primarily in the east, east of the contact line, actually directly in the contact zone, plus-minus 5 to 10 kilometers inside this zone. There are a few hundred thousand people, who are badly cared for conflict situations, where the access to the aid agencies, the ICRC, the UN, or even to bilateral actions, for example to Switzerland, is not given or only temporary given or very dangerous. You also have to protect yourself, because it happens again and again that also helpers or repair teams, who want to repair the water supply, are attacked. A big danger also is that very large areas are mined by both sides. And during the changing of the contact line there were several mining phases, so that no one exactly knows where the mines are. That’s going to be a year-long problem, even if there’s a truce tomorrow and they say they want to remove the explosive mines – there’s going to be a problem over years to get rid of all that. So the biggest problems – to answer your question – are inside this contact line zone or in the east.
If you read newspaper articles – there are always drop by drop reports, but not as many as at the beginning – I got the impression that the two parties are close to each other, that hardly anyone moves and that nothing works. Is this impression correct?
You speak of the contact line?
That’s so. It’s like 100 years ago on the western front in France, where the Germans were on call distance with the French and the English and fired at their trenches. That’s the same with the line of contact, a completely useless war. You bombard each other with artillery or tanks or with light weapons, but the front line, the contact line, does not change their position effectively.
And yet you accomplished in this difficult environment, along with all the other things you did, that 380 prisoners were released. How did that succeed?
Simply “nid lugg lo, nid lugg lo” (never leave a gap), insist again and again. In addition, all parties have said: we want the exchange, only you do not want. But when it got specific, three new problems were invented or “uncovered”. Sometimes they did not know if they really existed. In dealing with the realities, one is generous. Time and again appeal, appeal – to reason, to humanity, to the humanitarian principles, cite examples from families that have been heard on both sides. The parents, the siblings, who urged insistently to do everything so that the people could be released. But I could not force the dialogue partners to exchange, but only help to find the way, help to solve individual problems of a technical or organisational nature, clarify, explain and finally create conditions, so that both sides said: now we want. Afterwards the political will is necessary, in this case partly also with pressure from outside, from Germany and France as members of the contact group, that finally Poroshenko and Putin on the highest level agreed to make this exchange.
And for the list, which we have painstakingly “zämebrösmeled”(pieced together), over months of discussions, Putin said: Yes, now the exchange should take place before the end of the year 2017. It needed: the political will at the highest level.
Egon Bahr, Willy Brandt’s deceased companion, once said in the daily conversation that the key to success is ultimately the persons sitting opposite to each other in negotiations, the interpersonal, the “chemistry”, the confidence that the other person keeps his word. Do you experience it that way?
Yes, that is certainly true already, but you have to be able to handle it, if not all keep their word or handle the truth not as I would perhaps handle it; if there is no trust among each other, but above all mistrust. I note very little trust: I have said many times, this is not a peace process, but a dispeace process. But you must not keep the reins slack, you have to filter that away, even refrain from reacting when both sides try to instrumentalise me. Some would like to accuse me of not being completely neutral. In this respect, I am pretty steady, because as soon as someone could accuse me of that, I would probably have to end my mandate. But so far that has not been the case.
Toni Frisch, these prisoners are about people, not just soldiers, but also their relatives. If you say you also visited the hospitals and saw what the biggest humanitarian problems are. Did you just have to stay factual and leave everything emotional aside?
Yes, of course one should not forget the emotional aspects, that does not bounce back off me like the water off duck feathers. That touches me a lot and always gives me new energy. When I see problems, it automatically works in me, whether I like it or not, to find a solution. I cannot help it. Still, you have to try not to get too much involved emotionally. It does not need “do-gooders”, you have to try soberly, pragmatically and purposefully to solve a problem, step by step. Sometimes it just takes a hundred steps, three forward and two back, or two forward and three back. “Nid lugg lo” (“Keep at it!”), and finally there is an outcome, as here with the prisoners. Also at the crossings improvements were made, where the number of staff was increased at the controls where I could assert that the weight per person has increased from 50 to 150 kilograms when going to the West, to material or to get food. In that sense, you just have to stay tuned.
Now you have solved a problem – which one do you see next?
It would be nice if all prisoners were released this year. Then there are a large number of missing people, which is a big political burden and a big human burden for the families. You have to try and push that forward. We have been there for two years and made certain small successes. Still also this is heavily politicised.
Missing – are those people in jail or dead?
People who presumably – most likely are dead. Maybe some of them have gone abroad, partly we do not know that, even the families do not, or they do not say it. The fact is, you have to expect about 2,000 dead, whether they are in mass graves or in individual graves, is still to be clarified. We know of many who could be identified, and that is what we are closely with the ICRC and with both sides working at. But we have to do it informally and do not want to hang a lantern on it.
Is there a chance that you could soften the fronts a little, that the process quasi would be continued on the political level?
The whole thing is highly political. Of course we deal with operational and technical issues. Still, the whole thing is highly political. This is reflected in the fact that Putin and Poroshenko had to say yes to this exchange list. But I hope and expect that some progress is now possible in other policy areas, or even in the economic or security sphere, because some confidence has been built up with the negotiations over the past few months. I hope so, and probably both sides and also the four negotiators hope: Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and French.
Is there a specific proof of this?
This is more than “a feeling”. Hope is there (…) One would now take it on with new energy and try to make progress in all areas.
Toni Frisch, because you are under the contract of the OSCE, you possibly are not allowed to make political statements, therefore I will ask you this blanket question: When on the one hand the Russians help the separatists and on the other, the USA helps the Ukraine, how great is the possibility of the war being over, let us say, in two years?
There are naturally different aspects which must be taken into consideration. The first is the large international climate, what happened in Syria, in North Korea, how do things generally look in Iran or in the Mid-East since all of the pianos are being played politically. One or the other development can lead to positive results for the Ukrainian conflict – or to a deadlock. Both results are possible. Then, one must consider how long similar conflicts last […] But one should concretely try to achieve constructive results in the Ukraine, always being conscious of how long it can last. It is not possible that one can make a peace agreement magically appear. Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh are 20 year old conflicts, in which one is partly not any further than we are in the Ukraine. When we look at things in proper relations, we have made progress but I do not expect that there will be a peace agreement in the near future. When one achieves a truce of arms in the Ukraine, it is something wonderful. Then one could already solve most of the problems: the care of the neediest in the line of contact and daily and environmental questions. But a truce of arms needs to happen.
Source: “Toni Frisch und seine Arbeit in der Ostukraine” (Toni Frisch and his work in the East Ukraine) Radio SRF 4 News. Tagesgespräch vom 8.1.2018 (Talk of the day from 08.01.2018). Interview: Ivana Pribakovic
(The interview was slightly abbreviated)
mw. Missions as in the Ukraine, as a mediator between conflicting parties, are much better suited to neutral Switzerland than to smarm over armed military alliances. The Swiss Federal Council’s recent media release on the abandonment of Good Services fits in perfectly: “The chief of the army, Corps commander Philippe Rebord, will be traveling to the meeting of the Chiefs of the General staff of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) from 15 to 16 January 2018 in Brussels, Belgium.” (Berne, 15 January 2018)
It is time for Switzerland to say goodbye to the war alliance “Partnership for Peace” (PfP) and to use the funds released for the broken up national defense. Moreover, there are enough other things to do for Switzerland in the areas of Good Services, disaster relief, Humanitarian Aid and development cooperation around the globe.•
* Toni Frisch was from 1980 on first coordinator for operations of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit. From 2000 on he was Delegate of the Federal Council for Humanitarian Aid and head of this corps. Until April 2011 he was deputy director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) with the rank of an ambassador. Since June 2015, he is Vice President of the Swiss Red Cross SRK. As part of the coordination of the UN Humanitarian Aid, Ambassador Toni Frisch led two international consultative committees. Since May 2015, he is OSCE Representative in Ukraine.
me. The relevant Swiss authorities know that Belarus also pursues good offices in terms of Ukraine and that Kazakhstan is ready to do so. Certainly it is also about the presidents trying to make a name for themselves, but the situation is well known in these countries and so are both conflicting parties. By all accounts, the new Austrian government wants to become more active too, but might get slowed down by the EU, in particular by Germany. If successfully, is not at all sure, because with Italy and Slovakia, two EU countries have already shown interest in motion in the Ukraine conflict. Moldova, too, has recently been trying to build bridges. If all these countries come out of the wood, then things could really be set in motion in the Ukraine conflict. It is good that Toni Frisch, in addition to UN reports, points to the miserable human rights situation on both sides of the contact line and that his reporting is independent from the biased western view. It is clear that the Russian authorities in Russia and the Crimea often do not meet European human rights standards. However, Swiss Ambassador Gérard Stoudmann visited the Crimea on behalf of the Council of Europe and clearly stated in a report that there could be no talk of systematic violations of human rights against certain groups of people in the Crimea. This also applies to the so-called People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. On the other hand, there is reason to suspect that the Ukrainian intelligence service SBU maintains secret prisons, to which the ICRC and Toni Frisch have no access. This probably not without the US tolerating it. It is good that also the UN points to the miserable human rights situation in Ukraine and in the rebel areas. In the Crimea, there are violations of human rights, but so far these are isolated cases. It is unacceptable that the West, for geopolitical reasons, closes its eyes to Ukraine, which systematically violates human rights.
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