Switzerland’s Humanitarian Tradition

© By Henry M�hlpfordt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


As a neutral country, Switzerland has not fought a military battle in 500 years. But this neutrality is not to be confused with indifference or isolation. Switzerland has long played an active role in international organizations around the globe—many of which, though not all, are part of the United Nations.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation offers direct, on-the-ground humanitarian support through the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA). The SHA is a corps of roughly 700 specialists who implement Swiss humanitarian projects and those of its United Nations partners, whether preventative action or immediate support to victims of war or natural disasters.

Switzerland provides food aid in 38 countries through more than 20 Swiss relief agencies and the UN’s World Food Program.

Switzerland is a regular donor of humanitarian-relief funds for crisis regions, whether in Iraq, Syria, or South Sudan. In 2016 alone, Switzerland gave at least $10 million in aid money to Iraq. Switzerland also provides long-term support for Middle Eastern countries that take in refugees. (For Switzerland’s aid efforts in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, click here.)

Switzerland has also been part of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo since 1999, and has taken part in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Every year, the Swiss government hosts a conference on humanitarian aid. The 2017 conference, which took place in March, focused on children and young people in humanitarian crises.

The most important private humanitarian organization based in Switzerland is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva.

Switzerland’s “Good Offices”
(Gute Dienste, literally: good services)

As a neutral country, Switzerland has long offered its services—“good offices”—to nations in conflict. Such services range from providing a negotiating venue in Switzerland to initiating contact between the opposing sides and acting as disinterested mediator.

Switzerland’s good offices include carrying out so-called protecting power mandates:  In cases where a state has broken ties with another state, whether partly or completely, Switzerland may take on some of a state’s consular or diplomatic responsibilities. (How it works.) Switzerland can also act as a go-between for two countries. A protecting-power mandate allows hostile states to maintain minimal relations.

Switzerland’s current protecting-power mandates:

Saudi Arabia had broken off relations with Iran in January 2016, and Switzerland began negotiations for a protecting-power mandate with the two countries the following month.

The United Nations states in its charter that any dispute among parties that is likely to endanger international peace and security should be first addressed through negotiation, mediation, or other peaceful means.

Switzerland has been on the forefront of peaceful conflict resolution, and is internationally respected and trusted as a competent, reliable, and neutral facilitator and mediator.

Some Swiss mediation successes:

  • Swiss participation in crisis management in Ukraine as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) (2014)
  • Mediation between Georgia and Russia on WTO compromise (2010–2011)
  • Mediation between Turkey and Armenia to improve general relations (2009)
  • Swiss mediators were involved in the Arusha and post-Arusha peace talks in Burundi from 1997 to 2008, to end a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war.
  • Switzerland helped mediate the Aceh peace process between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement(an armed separatist group). After a peace treaty was signed, the armed wing of Free Aceh Movement dissolved. Swiss mediators were also involved with the implementation of the peace agreement (2005–2007).
  • Swiss mediators were involved in Nepal’s peace process, which culminated in the 2006 peace agreement signed by the Maoist insurgents and the Nepalese government, which ended the country’s civil war.
  • The Nuba Mountains ceasefire negotiations between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (2002)
  • The Evian Accords, which marked the end of Algeria’s civil war and ensured Algerian independence (1962)

In September 2017, Switzerland offered its services as mediator between North Korea and the United States. The regime of Kim Jong-un had beentesting nuclear bombs, fired missiles over Japan, and detonated a hydrogen bomb. President Donald Trump had stated that all options are on the table regarding the North Korean threat. The Swiss foreign ministry has criticized previous North Korean tests and has appealed for calm. “Switzerland is convinced that an end to the nuclear and security problems on the Korean peninsula can only be reached in the framework of a negotiated, diplomatic process,” it said. The offer still stands.

In October 2017, Switzerland offered to mediate in the Spanish-Catalan stalemate over Catalonian independence from Spain.

The first time that Switzerland acted as a protecting power was during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), when it represented the interests of the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Grand Duchy of Baden in France.


Switzerland took on several protecting-power mandates in World War I, and in World War II represented the interests of 35 states, including the major powers.

Learning Peace. The Swiss seem to have perfected the art of peace mediation—and now they’re teaching it. Each year, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the Center for Security Studies at the ETH Zurich, and the Swiss Peace Foundation (swisspeace) offer a Peace Mediation Course.

Switzerland as Trusted Facilitator, Mediator, Negotiator, and Guardian of International Agreements

Switzerland is trusted by nations around the world to negotiate fairly and with dedication to the cause of peace and human rights; Swiss technical expertise is also renowned and valued worldwide.

·         Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross helped to broker negotiations that led to Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror group, releasing 21 of the more than 200 kidnapped girls held since 2014. The girls were released in October 2016.

·         In May 2016, the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels issued a joint statement stipulating that their final peace agreement be physically stored in Switzerland. The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) had been providing its expertise to the negotiations and supporting the peace process between the two parties since 2001.

·         In March 2016, United Nations-brokered talks—the Geneva 3 talks—aimed at ending Syria’s five-year civil war began in Geneva. The peace talks’ chief negotiator thanked Switzerland for making the talks possible.

·         Just since 2008, Switzerland has taken part in more than 15 peace negotiations, including for the countries of Colombia, Mali, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Syria.

Switzerland as Host Country for International Organizations

Switzerland’s neutrality and humanitarian tradition have enabled the country to serve both as host of many international organizations as well as an active participant in those organizations. Switzerland hosts the global headquarters for:

The World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva

The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria (The Global Fund), Geneva

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Geneva

The International Labour Organization (ILO), Geneva

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), Lausanne

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Lausanne

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Geneva

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Geneva

The International Organization for Migration, Geneva

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Geneva

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva

The Inter-Parliamentary Union, Geneva

The International Civil Defence Organization (ICDO), Geneva

The Association of Iron Ore Exporting Countries (APEF), Geneva

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), Geneva

The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), Geneva

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Gland

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Basel

The Intergovernmental Organization for International Carriage by Rail (OTIF), Bern

The Airlines Worldwide Telecommunications and Information Services (SITA), Geneva

The Airports Council International (ACI), Geneva

The South Centre, Geneva

The Universal Postal Union (UPU), Bern

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD), Geneva

The Agency for International Trade Information and Cooperation (AITIC), Geneva

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Geneva

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), Geneva

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), Geneva

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), Geneva

The Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), Geneva

The Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), Geneva

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), Geneva

The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), Geneva

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), Geneva

Switzerland’s Official Role in International Organizations

Switzerland is a member of many international organizations represented both in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Permanent Representation of Switzerland in Geneva

In Geneva, Switzerland is represented by two permanent missions:

(1)   Mission to the United Nations Office (and to the other international organizations).
This mission is particularly active on disarmament, humanitarian issues, and human rights.

(2)   Mission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
This mission monitors the work of international organizations with an economic focus, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the International Trade Centre (ITC).

While the United Nations European headquarters, and a host of other UN agencies, are located in Geneva, the Swiss confederation did not become a UN member until 2002. Switzerland has a long-standing involvement with many UN agencies and programs, however.

Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in New York

In New York, Switzerland works actively on all three pillars of the UN mandate:

(1)   Peace and security,

(2)   Human rights, and

(3)   Sustainable development.

Switzerland is involved in negotiating and adopting resolutions and decisions in all main bodies of the UN except the Security Council, of which it is not a member.

Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the FAO, IFAD, and WFP in Rome

In Rome, Switzerland has permanent representation in:

(1)   The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), of which Switzerland has been a member since 1946,

(2)   The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), of which Switzerland is a founding member, and

(3)   The World Food Programme (WFP), which is today the world’s largest humanitarian agency.

Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office (and to the other international organizations) in Vienna

In Vienna, Switzerland’s main work is with:

(1)   The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), to which Switzerland provides technical assistance in areas related to human trafficking, corruption, money laundering, and strengthening criminal justice systems and the rule of law in order to better fight terrorism,

(2)   The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of which Switzerland is a founding member, and

(3)   The preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Permanent Delegation of Switzerland to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and Geneva

UNESCO’s five major programs focus on:

(1)   Education,

(2)   Natural sciences,

(3)   Social and human sciences,

(4)   Culture, and

(5)   Communication and information.

Permanent Representation of Switzerland to the Council of Europe

In Strasbourg, the Swiss representation acts as link between the Council of Europe and Switzerland. The Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1949 with the general goal of strengthening three basic tenets of Western societies:

(1)   The rule of law,

(2)   Democracy, and

(3)   Basic human rights.

Permanent Delegation of Switzerland to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

Like all OECD member countries, Switzerland has a permanent delegation to the OECD in Paris. Switzerland contributes to the OECD in accordance with the size of its economy, and has input in determining the work program and the annual budget.

The OECD was established in 1961, and Switzerland is a founding member.

Permanent Delegation of Switzerland to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna

The Swiss delegation to the OSCE contributes to three main issues:

(1)   Political and military security,

(2)   The economy, and

(3)   The environment and “human security.”

Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels

Switzerland’s mission to NATO promotes good relations between Switzerland and NATO under the auspices of the Partnership for Peace (PfP). The mission represents Switzerland on individual committees, such as the committee that monitors the Kosovo Force (KFOR) international peacekeeping operation.