print close

“Switzerland can still build bridges where no one else can beat the odds”

Interview with Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter in radio SRF, “Samstagsrundschau” (Saturday Review), 20. February 2016, moderation: Géraldine Eicher (excerpts)

mw. What qualifies Switzerland to provide its Good Offices around the world, once they are required – and they are ever more urgently needed today – is its neutrality, impartiality, credibility. On this basis, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter, head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), impressively explains the humanitarian and diplomatic duties of Switzerland in the world in the “Samstagsrundschau” of 20 February 2016.
    The listener feels great consternation in being reminded of the NATO Conference in Zurich, hosted by Switzerland just a few days earlier from 16 to 17 February. Officers from more than 40 States gathered here to discuss their “future cooperation within the context of a changing security environment” and to “potentially adapt”. – “At the same time the meeting serves as a celebration of the 20-year anniversary of the Swiss participation in the Partnership for Peace.” (Press release of the Federal Government, 16 February 2016)
    How does that fit together? How can Switzerland credibly carry out its time-honoured role in the world as a neutral and impartial mediator and later as the seat of the ICRC and as a depositary State of the Geneva Conventions, and at the same time effectively bind itself to the NATO, the military alliance that has since 1999 mutated to an aggressive war alliance?
    As Swiss citizens we commit the Federal Council to the tradition of Good Offices, which Didier Burkhalter presented in such touching words, and we do this especially for all the people of the war- and crisis-torn countries of the world. We commit him to the everlasting armed neutrality, which is essentially coupled with a credible independent defence of our country. To fulfil this historical commitment, which is also stated in our Federal Constitution, befits us much better than to join a war alliance merely to join in with the “Great Powers”.

Radio SRF (after welcoming and some general introductory remarks): So you mediate in Saudi Arabia?

Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter: We don’t mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We took over a representation of interests between two countries, two major powers in their region, which had dropped their diplomatic relations. This is dangerous. The situation in the Middle East is already quite ugly in many aspects. If there is no dialogue between the different players any more, it will become really dangerous. That’s why Switzerland contributes something which can have an impact. Actually we can be proud of this.

Does this really have an effect? Does Switzerland actually play an active role, or is it rather acting as a postman between Saudi Arabia and Iran? […]

But a good postman is a player! […] If the message is very important, because things are on fire, the messenger is appreciated. He is needed to secure a channel of communication. It is of great importance to defend the values of a strong diplomacy and concretely apply them. This is what we Swiss can do. We can’t do everything, one always has to be modest, but we also have reason to be proud.

It takes both: Development assistance and humanitarian aid

The development assistance provided by Switzerland is inceasing more slowly than originally intended. On the other hand, Switzerland increased emergency relief and humanitarian aid, for example in Syria. Does this mean that we are rather reactive than proactive?

We are both. In our budget frame for the next four years we provide humanitarian and development aid. About 60 percent of the funds are used for development aid, ie the permanent aid by which we try to eliminate the causes of possible crises. But unfortunately we also have to do a lot in the area of humanitarian aid in the next few years. […] If you were in a refugee camp in Jordan or Lebanon, during the Syria crisis – I visited a camp in Jordan. For example there was a young woman with two young children, the first born in Syria during the war, and the second in the camp. They will be living there for years.
In these cases it takes not only basic humanitarian aid, but also development assistance, for example schools for the children. So it is too simple to say that we provide is too much or too little humanitarian assistance or development aid. It takes both. Efforts for peace are very important, too, they form an integral part of the whole. Switzerland is actually doing a lot for more peace and for less poverty.

The current problem that is keeping Europe busy right now is the influx of refugees. Is development aid really helping to reduce these refugee flows?

We have a yearly budget of about 2.5 to 2.7 billion Swiss francs – if the parliament agrees. And every year we will directly or indirectly invest one out of six Swiss francs in migration projects. Directly: that means to protect migrants locally. If we protected refugees from Syria in the field they would not want to migrate to Europe. And indirectly: we need to invest before there are reasons for unwished migration, so that the people have prospects where they live.

That means we would actually need to provide development aid based as well on selfishness as on the feeling of human duty? […]

I do not feel that way. When I was in the region around Syria I talked to people in the refugee camps and asked them about their wishes for the future. Almost everyone said: we would like to go back to where we lived before. And I think this is also normal. If you yourself had experienced this: would you really want to emigrate? Most of the people just want to go back home. It is very difficult for them because for years they thought it would be possible to return. That is why they have stayed in the region. And then all of a sudden this hope died. Now many young people, but also families, say, our future is no longer where we have come from. Now, we must leave and go to Europe, where there is a perspective. Therefore I think, it is not selfish to give more opportunities to the people so that they can stay where they are and return home.

The streams of refugees have been keeping us busy for months now. Let us take a brief survey of this week. Europe is about to close its borders. […] What will be the impact for Switzerland?

We are already prepared for what is in store for Switzerland. We have known for a long time that the situation may get worse. There is the crisis in Syria, the crisis in Yemen, the Libyan crisis – which could be very dangerous – and if these crises are not resolved, if they are not resolved by political means, then there will be further migration problems. A political solution is needed. This includes a dialogue between all parties, so that it will again be possible to build a country in this region, to build a state, a permanent state under the rule of law. In Switzerland itself we have national solutions [for an increasing number of migrants]. In our laws we have already provided solutions concerning legislative regulations that are now being discussed in Germany and Sweden. I hope the new asylum law will be accepted by the population – in the referendum vote. [The amendment of the asylum law of 25. September 2015 is to subject to a people’s referendum on 5. June 2016) We are even prepared for the risk that there may be routes through Switzerland.
In the Federal Council we deal with the latest information every day, every week, and we prepare our point of view on this matter. At the moment we have everything under control, but we know that it could be dangerous and difficult. […The Federal Council and the cantons are jointly responsible for these problems and work well together. If it becomes more difficult, we will take the decisions that are needed then.

Foreign policy: “Switzerland is very important on this continent …”

Foreign policy is generally characterised by instability, even the EU could disintegrate. Are you afraid of this, or do you firmly believe in Angela Merkel’s statement, “We can do this”?

First and foremost I believe deeply in Switzerland. I have great respect for Mrs Merkel. But the question for the Federal Council is not whether we fear something for the EU or whether we like someone or not. For us, the interests and values of Switzerland are important. We live on a continent, Europe, and we are very important for this continent, although we are not such a large country. This year, for example, we will open the Gotthard tunnel [referring to the Gotthard Base Tunnel, a 57-km long railway tunnel], and then you see exactly how important Switzerland is for this continent. We want to proceed in this direction. Concerning the various problems of security and migration, our work is very practical and constructive.

Recently the Russian Prime Minister Medvedev stated that the world is in a new Cold War. Was he playing a little with the feeling of insecurity, or is there perhaps already a threat?

I think there is a tension that has already been increasing during the last decade between Russia and Europe, or the “West”, between Russia and the NATO countries and NATO projects – perhaps it was not noticed, or we did not want to take notice. Let’s put it like that. This is dangerous. Switzerland has always said that it is very important to maintain a dialogue between Russia and the Western countries, without making judgments about who is right or wrong. We will continue this dialogue in the coming years; in the same way as when we started it when we had the chair in the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe). For we believe that the future of security in Europe, is also our future security, depends on the following question: Can we still see Europe as a joint project for security? If so, we need to tackle it together.

“Together with Switzerland something can be done for peace”

What is the future role of Switzerland in this context? Switzerland used to be a mediator in several conflicts, but at the latest from the thaw between Cuba and the United the impression arose that this role is no longer needed. Was this a fallacy?

With regard to mediation, we receive requests from all over the world. We are also getting more requests again for facilitations1 and interest representation. In addition to requests from Saudi Arabia and Iran, we have a few others more. Switzerland’s good services, also in the form of facilitation and mediation, are even more likely to be called for in the near future due to the increasing tensions between many actors.

[…] Do you perhaps even feel that the international community has certain expectations? That they expect Switzerland to play a more active part?

Yes, I have felt this. I have felt it daily, notably since we have had the OSCE chair [Switzerland chaired the OSCE in 2014]. My text messages now come from almost around the world, and they are often very important. They show that there is an interest for a partner, for Switzerland, which is almost … well, unique.
Switzerland’s specific characteristic is its neutrality and also notably its impartiality, which is very credible because we have been demonstrating clearly for a very long time that Switzerland can still build bridges where no one else can beat the odds. It is very important that we continue doing this. I think it is Switzerland’s tradition.
You know, when people talk to me in the street, many – and they reflect all sorts of political opinions and come from all social classes – say they just think, Switzerland: that means peace. You can work towards peace using Switzerland. And that characteristic belongs to all Swiss, it is not only the task of the official Switzerland, but somehow a “genetic” task of all Swiss citizens.     •

Source: Radio SRF, Samstagsrundschau on February 20, 2016; moderation: Géraldine Eicher

1    ”Facilitation is also an instrument of good services and means that in a negotiation logistic or host tasks are performed. As facilitator, Switzerland provides the ideal venue and guarantees a safe environment, but is not involved in the process design or negotiations.” www.eda.admin.ch

(Translation Current Concerns)

[Translate to en:] Schweiz verhandelt in humanitären Fragen direkt mit Assad-Regierung

[] Die Schweiz verhandelt seit drei Jahren direkt mit der Regierung von Syriens Präsident Baschar al-Assad über humanitäre Belange. Dieser Zugang zum Regime sei einzigartig, sagte Yves Rossier, Staatssekretär im Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten (EDA).
«Wir sind die einzigen», sagte Rossier gegenüber der Sendung «HeuteMorgen» auf Radio SRF. Gleichzeitig werde das Engagement der Schweiz «von den anderen Seiten sehr geschätzt». Vor jedem dieser diplomatischen Treffen mache man zusammen mit den grossen internationalen Hilfsorganisationen «sozusagen eine Shopping-Liste».
Die syrische Regierung sei sehr miss­trauisch gewesen gegenüber diesen Diskussionen, sagte der Schweizer Chef­diplomat. «Es brauchte Zeit. Während des ersten Jahres war es sehr, sehr schwierig.»
In den humanitären Bemühungen gehe es um «lauter konkrete Arbeitsverbesserungen». So habe man etwa deutlich mehr Visa für humanitäres Personal in Syrien und leichtere Abfertigung über die Checkpoints erreichen können.
Die Schweiz wolle diese Verbindung «möglichst nicht politisch halten», betonte Rossier. «Die Vertrauensbeziehung mit dem humanitären Arm der syrischen Regierung ist wichtig.»

Quelle: sda vom 9.2.2016