The 2020 Foreign Policy Report of the Federal Council

Much worth reading and some inconsistencies

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

On 3 February 2021, the Federal Council submitted its 2020 Foreign Policy Report1 to Parliament. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council (FAC-N) succinctly asks its Council to “take note of the report”, which the National Council did on 9 March (after a short debate). The Council of States will deal with it in the summer session.
  It is worth taking a look at the report to find out about the Confederation’s foreign policy activities in a bundled form, so to speak. Some of the most important areas will be taken up and commented on here. We will leave the topic of relations with the EU to one side for the moment. It contains nothing that would be new to the reader of Current Concerns; the issue will occupy us again on another occasion.
  There are so many opportunities for the neutral and economically strong small state to contribute to a more peaceful world and to alleviate the plight of people in other countries, but also to cultivate and use exchange and cooperation with neighbouring states and the community of states. The Federal Council’s report shows that the federal administration and diplomats are indeed doing a lot.  On the other hand, they should not want too much, but rather reflect on the strengths of the sovereign small state and sometimes be a little more modest. “Don’t make the fence too wide!”, Brother Klaus admonished the old Confederates – it seems to me that foreign policy makers in Bern should remember this wise advice from time to time.

According to Article 148 paragraph 3 of the Parliament Act, the Federal Council reports to Parliament on Switzerland’s foreign policy activities. The National Council and the Council of States only take note of this, so it is a mere formality. Of course, this does not mean that the Federal Council can do whatever it wants in foreign policy. To a large extent, the executive has to implement the decisions of parliament, but it can also take action itself or suggest future decisions. The sovereign has the final say on important international treaties.

Corona crisis: Only nation states can guarantee security of supply

“The year 2020 was under the spell of the pandemic.” This is the opening sentence of the report. Corona has, of course, shaped Switzerland’s foreign policy activities in many ways. The Federal Council cannot avoid admitting that the glaring weaknesses of globalisation were already apparent at the beginning of the pandemic: “The risks of global added value and supply chains that the COVID-19 crisis brought to light reinforce the trend towards more regionalisation and localisation.” (Report, p. 6) And further: “The pandemic brought security of supply to the highest attention. Already in February, the temporary shutdown of plants in China affected the added value chains of industry and trade, as many companies could neither fall back on stocks nor on alternative suppliers” (Report, p. 25, my emphasis, mw). The rest is well known and does not need to be reproduced here in detail: Due to the shortage of medical supplies and the health risks to the population, Switzerland, like many other states, took the necessary measures in its traffic with other states and at home (Report, p. 25f.).
  The Federal Council’s claim that “the importance of the well-functioning internal market, in particular for ensuring Europe’s security of supply, has become clearly visible” at the EU level is rather daring. Every newspaper reader has noticed that the EU bureaucracy colossus, as in most crisis situations, also functioned extremely poorly in this one. In any case, the health and economic policy challenges could only be tackled effectively by the individual member states – in cooperation with other states, of course – and most EU member states had to introduce massive restrictions on the free movement of persons to protect their populations. Contradicting itself, the Federal Council then also states: “There were predominantly national responses to the global economic crisis.” (Report, p. 26) National Councillor Gerhard Pfister, president Die Mitte, has come to the same conclusion in a recent interview: “Corona will lead to a reassessment of globalisation. The trend towards renationalisation is unmistakable. The value of social security and supply sovereignty has become evident again.”2

Humanitarian aid in times of pandemic

The Foreign Policy Report 2020 describes the extraordinary challenges for humanitarian aid in countries whose populations were already weakened by wars and hardship before Corona: “Humanitarian engagement in 2020 was also dominated by COVID-19: according to the UN, 10.3 billion US dollars are needed to meet the humanitarian needs caused by the pandemic in the poorest countries. This is the largest appeal for donations in the history of the UN. Switzerland has provided additional funding for the international fight against COVID-19 and the humanitarian consequences.” (Report, p. 23) Specifically, Switzerland has reorganised several hundred ongoing humanitarian projects. For example, in Burkina Faso and Chad, various health facilities were equipped with materials to produce disinfection solutions. In 2020, Parliament approved around CHF 600 million in additional aid for these and similar SDC (Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) projects. A number of countries (including Syria, Sudan and Kyrgyzstan, but also Italy and Greece) were supported with COVID-19 protection materials. In Geneva, Switzerland is involved in providing vaccines and tests for developing countries (Report, p. 16).
  Switzerland has long been committed to improving access to clean water and basic sanitation, and is stepping up its efforts in the 2020 pandemic year, including in 200 schools in Bangladesh, Benin, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Nepal. In the words of the Federal Council: “The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has shown how important reliable access to water is: handwashing is the most effective and cheapest public health tool to prevent the transmission of diseases, be it corona, diarrhoeal diseases, cholera or typhoid. Yet 40 per cent of the world’s population, or about 3 billion people, still have no way to wash their hands at home.” (Report, p. 32/33) It is our responsibility to do our utmost to remedy this situation.

Disaster and development aid

The explosion in the port of Beirut with its terrible consequences occurred in the reporting year 2020. Swiss Disaster Relief specialises in providing rapid assistance in such situations. Within 40 hours, 38 experts from the Swiss Disaster Relief Corps were on the scene. Among other things, they made two hospitals functional again, where numerous children, mothers and newborns could be provided with care, and repaired 19 school buildings (Report, p. 23).
  International Cooperation (IC) 2017-2020: In these four years, numerous other aid projects were carried out for people in emergency situations and for reconstruction after disasters in developing countries, which are part of “normal” development aid and are not listed individually here (Report, p. 28f.). For neutral and economically well-off countries like Switzerland, there will continue to be plenty to do. With this in mind, in autumn 2020 Parliament approved the IC strategy for the next four years and the associated framework credits of CHF 11.25 billion (Report, p. 30).

Neutrality I: “Switzerland’s foreign policy remains independent and committed to dialogue with all states”. Really?

In view of the tense situation in the world, especially among the major powers, the Federal Council states that it is closely following the changes in world politics and is sticking to its course: “Through independent positions, good offices and skilful diplomacy, Switzerland contributes to stabilising the international order”. (Report, p. 9/10) Yes, that is how neutral Switzerland should position itself in the world of states.
  However, the Federal Council and its administrative team do not always stick to their own words, but often explicitly hang their flag to the wind from Brussels or from even further west. In the 2020 reporting year, for example, Switzerland joined the EU sanctions against Belarus “after the disputed presidential elections in August and the subsequent massive use of force by the security forces against demonstrators” (Report, p. 46). It also condemned, one-to-one with NATO’s narrative, “the poisoning of Alexei Nawalny with a chemical agent of the Novichok group” and called on Russia to “clarify the facts” (Report, p. 10). Switzerland has also taken over the sanctions against Venezuela and Nicaragua from the EU, on the grounds of the “continuing impairment of human rights, democracy and the rule of law”. (Report, p. 51)
  Actually, Swiss diplomats should draw the Federal Council’s attention to the fact that a number of governments in EU/NATO states also blatantly violate human rights, democracy and the rule of law (often also international law), most of all through their wars, but also through sanctions that are contrary to international and human rights law and often primarily affect the helpless civilian population. In the last issue of Current Concerns, Professor Alena Douhan, UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral sanctions, reported on this in an impressive and depressing manner.3 Consequently, at least half the world of states should be subject to sanctions – it would be better for neutral Switzerland not to do so at all.

Neutrality II: participating in the community of states – without a seat on the UN Security Council

Switzerland has always been very active in UN organisations and contributed much more financially than a membership fee long before it became a full member. For the UN city of Geneva, for example, taxpayers dig deep into their pockets, something most Swiss people take for granted. In 2020 alone, Switzerland was elected to the UNESCO Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage for the next four years. Daniel Fink was re-elected as Swiss expert of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, and Stéphane Rey was appointed by the UN Secretary General as a member of the advisory committee of the Peacebuilding Fund (Report, p. 53). At the UN General Assembly, Switzerland, together with five other states, initiated the first UN resolution to address the COVID-19 crisis, which was adopted unanimously (Report, p. 52).
  After a clear rejection in 1986, the Swiss sovereign agreed to join the UN as a full member just in 2002. The main argument of the opponents of accession (the author was one of them) was the incompatibility with neutrality, especially after the Federal Councillor at that time and head of the FDFA, Joseph Deiss, had untruthfully claimed that a seat on the Security Council would not violate neutrality.
  Now, unfortunately, the time has come. The Federal Council has announced (with the approval of the parliamentary majority) Switzerland’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council for the years 2023/24 (Current Concerns has reported on this4). According to the Federal Council, Switzerland wants to “share responsibility for peace and security” (Report, p. 10). Not like this! Neutral Switzerland has enough constructive possibilities to work for a more peaceful world. It has no place in the circle of power of the great powers.

Good services and peacebuilding

“The demand for Switzerland’s contributions to peace and security remains high. This applies in particular to the good services”. This is surprisingly and happily recorded in the 2020 Foreign Policy Report (Report, p. 18).
  As part of its protecting power mandates for mutual relations between the United States and the Republic of Iran, Switzerland contributed, for example, to the release from prison of a US citizen in Iran and an Iranian in the United States in December 2019 and June 2020 (during Donald Trump’s presidency). “In the field of mediation, Switzerland prepared and accompanied seventeen peace processes in the reporting year, for example in Libya, in Cameroon and in Ukraine”. In Libya, Switzerland, together with the Netherlands and under the aegis of the UN, leads the working group on the promotion of international humanitarian law; in Cameroon, at the request of the conflicting parties, Switzerland held talks as a facilitator between these parties in order to find solutions for sustainable peace (Report, p. 18).
  The fact that these attempts do not always succeed is unfortunately part of everyday life in countries bothered by war, bloody power struggles and the economic interests of third parties. This is confirmed by the long-standing Swiss ambassador Dr. Paul Widmer in his recommendable book “Swiss Foreign Policy”. “The good services of a small state fail more often in international conflicts than they succeed – even if in memory the few successes make the proportions appear different”.5 Nevertheless, their offer always opens up new paths and hopes. A seat for Switzerland on the UN Security Council would largely undermine this trust-based assistance.
  Other important areas of Switzerland’s peacebuilding activities include the search for missing persons – in cooperation with the ICRC – or assistance in mine clearance, as well as participation in election monitoring (Report, p. 20).
  On the other hand, the so-called “military peacebuilding” by members of the Swiss Army under the command of the EU and NATO (for example in the Balkans) and even more the integration into NATO via the so-called “Partnership for Peace” (Report, p. 20f.) belong in a category in which neutral Switzerland has no place. Leading it out of such entanglements must remain the long-term goal of every peace-loving Swiss elector.

Promotion of the international humanitarian law by the ICRC

The ICRC is the most important partner of the Confederation in the humanitarian area. Around one third of the humanitarian aid budget is deployed for the ICRC. The main task of the ICRC is to monitor and promote compliance with international humanitarian law. The focus of its operations – especially during the pandemic – is the support of health facilities and hygiene measures, mental health and the protection of arrested persons. In April 2020, the Federal Council granted the ICRC an additional loan of CHF 200 million to alleviate the intensified effects of the pandemic in war zones (Report, p.  ).  •



1 21.009 The 2020 Foreign Policy Report of the Federal Council from 3 February 2021. Bundesblatt BBl 2021 230 (cited as “Report”)
2 Neuhaus, Christa and Tribelhorn, Marc. «Die Wirtschaftsordnung dieses Landes muss sich verändern» (“The economic order of this country must change”). Interview with National Councillor Gerhard Pfister, President Die Mitte. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 3 March 2021
3 An appalling majority of unilateral sanctions violate international law. Interview with Professor Dr. Alena Douhan. Current Concerns of 2 March 2021
4 Wüthrich, Marianne.“Big question mark on Federal Council foreign policy programme. What has neutral Switzerland got to do on the UN Security Council?” in Current Concerns of 22 July 2020.
5 Widmer, Paul. Schweizer Aussenpolitik. Von Charles Pictet de Rochemont bis Edouard Brunner (Swiss Foreign policy. From Charles Pictet de Rochemont to Edouard Brunner). Second updated edition 2014.

National Council debate on the Foreign Policy Report 2020

mw. On 9 March, the National Council adopted the motion of its Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC-N) and took note of the report of the Federal Council.1 The spokespersons of the parliamentary groups had the opportunity to address their criticisms – from the most diverse political “corners” – for example on EU policy or on migration policy. Claudia Friedl (social democrats, St. Gallen) as spokeswoman for the Commission welcomed the statement of the Federal Council for “the unbroken support of Switzerland for the multilateral organisations. Common rules of the game allow even small states to participate on eye level and forge alliances.”

Candidacy for the UN Security Council: Lack of criticism in the National Council

Unfortunately, the majority of the Commission and most of the spokespersons of the parliamentary groups understand “participation on eye level” first and foremost as Switzerland’s candidacy for the UN Security Council 2023/24: “Switzerland’s candidacy for the Security Council 2023 is also part of Switzerland’s international visibility. Participation will be a great challenge for Switzerland, but also an unique platform.”(Claudia Friedl). Admittedly, Switzerland’s good offices and in particular its involvement in 17 peace processes were positively acknowledged in several votes, for example by the Green Group (Christine Badertscher, Bern): “We are impressed by the manifold achievements of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and thank it for this important work, whether in development cooperation, peacebuilding or in the provision of good offices. Switzerland’s good reputation has a lot to do with the commitment of the FDFA”. But no one raised their voice to point out the indispensable linkage of the urgently needed activities with Switzerland’s neutrality status.

Increasing humanitarian aid during the Covid crisis

The COVID-19 crisis was discussed by the Commission and by all parliamentary group spokespersons as having a formative influence on Swiss foreign and development policy of the year 2020. It was positively noted that Switzerland “reprioritised ongoing cooperation programmes, responded to humanitarian aid appeals from international organisations and contributed to multilateral initiatives such as the development of and access to diagnostic tests and vaccines.” (Brigitte Crottaz, Social Democrats, Vaud). (What is puzzling, however, is the extent to which Switzerland could help other countries to get vaccines when it is not able to collect enough for its own population). In any case, the Commission called on the Federal Council to intensify its commitment to cope with the COVID-19 crisis and for the equitable distribution of vaccines in the poorer regions of the world.

Federal Councillor Cassis for the first time eyes a failure of the framework agreement with Brussels

The final point was made by FDFA head Ignazio Cassis, among other things with a remarkable statement on the controversial framework agreement with Brussels: “The consolidation of the bilateral path with the EU remains difficult [...]. Whether we can go the last mile with the institutional framework agreement remains to be seen. If this is not the case, the European question will remain central. An independent foreign policy does not mean that we could turn away from Europe”. We can live very well without a framework agreement, but Switzerland remains in the middle of Europe – surrounded by friends (most of the time). No one wants to “turn away” from the EU, Mr. Federal Councillor, we want to work together, but on an equal footing.



1 21.009 Foreign Policy 2020. Report of the Federal Council. National Council debate of 9 March 2021

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