Switzerland’s ‘Good Offices’

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Ivo Sieber (The Philippine Star) - August 12, 2015 - 10:00am

Halfway across the world, in distant Havana, US Secretary of State John Kerry will be formally re-opening the US Embassy in Cuba tomorrow.

Why is it, you may wonder, that the Swiss Ambassador to the Philippines is writing about this seemingly unrelated event? The answer has to do with Switzerland’s tradition to offer its “Good Offices” in crises and conflict setting, or when states suspend their diplomatic relations. From the end of the 19th century but particularly during the Second World War, Switzerland accepted a large number of mandates to represent the diplomatic interests of foreign states, as an implementation of its policy of neutrality. It assumed 36 mandates during the First World War and 200 during the Second World War, when it represented the interests of 35 states, including that of the US and most of the other warring nations. Numerous mandates followed during the Cold War period and especially in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis.

Its mandate to represent the United States in Cuba is the longest in Swiss history. It started in 1961 shortly after the breaking of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Especially during the first two decades of the mandate amid global tensions resulting from the Cold War, the Swiss delegation in Havana faced many challenges. It played an important role as an intermediary during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Or again in 1965 when thousands of Cubans set sail for Florida after Fidel Castro announced that they could leave the country by their own means. The Swiss diplomats in Havana helped to organize an airlift operation that lasted until April 1973 and allowed the safe departure of more than 260,000 Cuban refugees for the US. Throughout its mandate, the Swiss delegation was engaged in finding solutions benefiting US citizens and interests in Cuba. In 1977 a partial rapprochement of the two countries resulted in the opening of a US Interest Section in the Swiss Embassy in Havana. And in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Switzerland was asked also to represent the Cuban interests in Washington. With the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba last month, the Swiss interest mandates in Havana and Washington came to an end after more than 54 years. Welcoming this positive development, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter will travel to Havana to attend the re-opening of the US Embassy in the Cuban capital.

While the number of mandates entrusted to Switzerland to represent foreign interests has declined over recent years – it currently represents the US in Iran, Iran in Egypt, Russia in Georgia and Georgia in Russia – Swiss diplomacy continues to provide its Good Offices in many other forms to promote dialogue between conflict parties. Being a neutral country and pursuing an active peace policy, Switzerland’s Good Offices range from offering its territory as a venue for negotiation, to direct mediation in peace processes and the participation in peacekeeping operations. Colombia, Armenia-Turkey, Indonesia (Aceh) South Sudan, Kosovo or Nepal are just a few examples where such support has been deployed.

Closer to home here in the Philippines, Switzerland has also been invited to play an active role in the Mindanao peace process. Chairing the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission is another instance where Swiss diplomacy contributes to consolidate the longstanding peace effort by both parties through the creation of constructive conditions for understanding, reconciliation and national healing.

As my compatriot Albert Einstein once said “peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” Enshrined deeply in Swiss values, offering its Good Offices to conflict parties is a core commitment and endeavor of Swiss diplomacy — in the past, present and the future.

PS: As I will be leaving the Philippines shortly to take on a new assignment, this will be my last contribution to the “Diplomatic Pouch” column. Many thanks to all the readers for their interest, and to the Philippine STAR for offering me the opportunity to share some insights from a Swiss perspective.

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(Ivo  Sieber  is  the  Ambassador  of Switzerland.)


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