Diplomacy in the service of victims

A member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, Cyril Prissette has swapped his hat as deputy regional director of the SDC office in Amman, Jordan, for a diplomat's suit and tie. Since 2012, Cyril Prissette has been working as the adviser for humanitarian affairs for the Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York. His experience puts him in a better position to bring the specific needs of people on the ground to the political discussions in which he takes part.

Seated next to representatives of Syria, Cyril Prissette speaks at the United Nations headquarters in New York
As far as Cyril Prissette (on the right) is concerned, the discussions that bring together states, multilateral agencies and NGOs in New York help improve the coordination of humanitarian aid and thus to make it more effective. © FDFA

Cyril Prissette has had to get used to protracted negotiation sessions that take over the agenda. Having worked for the UNHCR in Uganda and the ICRC in Lebanon, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Kosovo, he now finds himself in the much more confined working environment of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York. As a facilitator of intergovernmental discussions and a information liaison for the SDC, Cyril Prissette is in a privileged position to observe the diplomatic negotiations that determine the contours of the humanitarian aid that is delivered during armed conflicts and following natural disasters.

Cyril Prissette, what does your typical day in New York consist of?
My job is to strengthen Switzerland's humanitarian voice within the United Nations and various multilateral organisations. I am working to promote Switzerland's positions in discussions, which often turn out to be highly politicised. At the same time, I inform my colleagues in Bern about the results of regular discussions that we hold with our various partners.

Is a diplomat's job an easy one on a day-to-day basis?
I can't complain. A large number of ideas are floating around here. It's very exciting. But also a little bewildering. I don't always have the time to immerse myself in all the dossiers. This is New York: you're always on the run. You're always running from one place to another – quite literally from one mission to another by way of the UN headquarters. And I must admit that I sometimes find it somewhat frustrating. It's frustrating to see the gap that sometimes exists between discussions held this side of the Atlantic and the results one would like to see on the ground.

It's the main criticism that is often levelled against diplomats: what real use are you?
My answer is twofold. First of all there is a great deal of work on resolutions that establish the normative foundation for humanitarian action. I'm not just talking about resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly during the month of September. The Security Council is increasingly expressing its position on critical situations in which the lives of thousands of people are at stake. Syria and the Central African Republic are cases in point.

But a resolution is not always enough to change the situation on the ground...
Quite clearly, the implementation of certain resolutions poses a challenge. But I wanted to mention a second level of results produced by "humanitarian diplomacy": progress made with respect to the best ways to deliver and evaluate humanitarian aid around the world. Regular discussions among states, multilateral agencies and NGOs have unquestionably helped to improve the coordination of humanitarian aid in recent years. Specifically, in many cases aid reaches the victims more quickly because there are better synergies between the various actors. During Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November of 2013, several million Swiss francs were made available in just a matter of a few days. Coordination means greater effectiveness.

And also the traceability of the money spent on saving lives?
Absolutely. Another area where progress has been made is with respect to the greater accountability of humanitarian actors. "Post-aid evaluations" and control mechanisms enable us to determine if the aid that was given was adequate. Have the recipients of aid really benefited from it? Have their basic needs been taken into account? Were they consulted to ensure the best possible balance between the investments that were made and their impact on the ground? All this and many other aspects of humanitarian action are largely determined by diplomatic negotiations conducted in New York.

Speaking of which, a new resolution has recently been adopted by the Humanitarian Affairs Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This resolution reportedly kept you very busy...
Yes, I was representing Switzerland, which was co-facilitating the process of negotiation with Bangladesh. The idea was to find compromises acceptable to all states. In the end, the resolution made it possible to make some progress on the issue of forced displacement and the education of children affected by humanitarian crises. It was the second year that Switzerland was invited to co-facilitate the discussions.

Does Switzerland's reputation work in its favour?
First off all, I think that the states were very satisfied with our well-balanced arbitration efforts last year. It's also quite clear that Switzerland can capitalise on its image of neutrality and as a bridge-builder. But I would also add that Switzerland is perceived to be a leading actor on certain matters, such as aid effectiveness, access to victims and the protection of victims. On the one hand, people are constantly referring to the Geneva Conventions. And on the other hand, Switzerland is playing a leading role in addressing new humanitarian aid challenges. The preparatory consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit 2016 will take place in Geneva. The topics to be discussed include the new type of conflicts, management of risks, the need to improve linkages between humanitarian action and development aid. Switzerland's expertise and assets in each of these areas are widely recognised.

Nansen Initiative: better protection for people fleeing natural disasters

At the 2011 ministerial conference of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees held in Geneva, Switzerland and Norway pledged to work for the better protection of people forced to flee natural disasters and seek refuge abroad. To this end, the Nansen Initiative was launched in Geneva and New York in 2012. Improving respect for human rights is one of Switzerland’s foreign policy priorities.

As part of the Nansen Initiative, a protection agenda for people forced to leave their country owing to natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or drought, is to be elaborated. At present, these people have little legal protection: the 1951 Refugee Convention does not cover them, and human rights do not govern such decisive factors as entry, stay or the basic rights of the affected people.

The protection agenda should cover the following subjects:

  • international cooperation and solidarity
  • standards for entry, stay and status
  • implementation measures such as financing mechanisms and determining the responsibility of humanitarian and development actors

The Nansen Initiative is an intergovernmental and participatory process involving UN agencies, regional organisations, universities and representatives of civil society. In order to create the protection agenda, five regional consultations are taking place in the regions most affected by the phenomenon. This includes the Pacific region, Central America, the Horn of Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia.

Switzerland and Norway co-preside the initiative. The steering group comprises Australia, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Germany, Kenya, Mexico and the Philippines. Other interested states and regional organisations such as the United States or the EU are represented in the Group of Friends.