Swiss brand

150 years after the first Geneva Convention, Switzerland continues to cultivate its humanitarian 'brand image'. Building on the 'International Geneva', Switzerland isn't simply a host state for diplomatic meetings. Its attractiveness enables it to be a strong advocate for strategic themes. Humanitarian actors gathered in Geneva recognise Switzerland’s role as a catalyst for discussion.

View of the city of Geneva
Switzerland aims to make its voice heard at the international level as often as possible beyond the ‘International Geneva’ scene. © ork.ch

Geneva, its jet d'eau and the peaceful view of the Alps which the city at the end of Lake Geneva offers, are undeniably strong symbols of Switzerland. However, the city-canton of Geneva would certainly not be as world-famous if the jet d'eau wasn't associated with Switzerland's long humanitarian tradition. A century and a half after the signing of the first Geneva Convention in 1864, Switzerland benefits from its reputation as a neutral and hospitable nation as well as depositary state of the Geneva Conventions.

2,700 conferences and international meetings
'International Geneva' is a major player in global diplomacy. It hosts over 2,700 conferences and international meetings each year, attracting some 220,000 experts and delegates. 30 international organisations are based in the canton, as well as 174 permanent missions of foreign governments and 300 NGOs.

“Switzerland presents the dual advantage of having a geographically central location and a reputation of promoting peace,” notes Daniel Endres, head of the Division of External Relations for the UNHCR in Geneva. Pauliina Parhiala, director of programmes at ACT Alliance, which represents the interests of over 150 NGOs around the world, concurs: “Swiss authorities have demonstrated time and again their ability to bring diverse voices together in order to generate interesting political developments.”

Pauliina Parhiala speaks knowingly: “We had a very positive experience in September 2013 when Switzerland helped us initiate preparatory discussions on climate justice. Over 50 NGOs were able to express their points of view.”

Host and committed state
In conjunction with its role as host state, Switzerland displays energetic commitment. It promotes political dialogue on various themes. A telling example is the joint initiative of Switzerland and the ICRC (read Ambassador Valentin Zellweger's interview). Discussions pertaining to guidelines for international humanitarian law and to the delivery of humanitarian aid constantly overlap. “Geneva is simultaneously the sanctuary of legal standards and the capital of humanitarian experience,” sums up Ambassador Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland's representative to the international organisations in Geneva.

The concentration of a multitude of key humanitarian-action players in Geneva is unanimously considered an advantage. “Visitors passing through seize the opportunity to visit our president,” explains Isabelle Barras, deputy-head of the External Resources Division at the ICRC. “Geneva is the only place where we can offer so many 'briefings' on our actions, for instance in the framework of our funding appeals (Switzerland was the 3rd largest contributor to the ICRC in 2013, after the United States and the United Kingdom, Ed.).”

The ICRC building in Geneva
The ICRC is one of many organisations with headquarters in Geneva. © Erdrokan

Competition on a global scale
However, Geneva and Switzerland are not alone in putting themselves forward to be or become centres of global governance. New York, Paris, Copenhagen and Istanbul, city selected to welcome the first World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, all provide strong competition.

In light of this, Geneva and Swiss federal authorities published a joint report in June 2013 entitled 'International Geneva and its future'. One of the conclusions of the prospective study was the necessity to consider the strengthening of 'International Geneva' (or 'International Switzerland through Geneva') in dual terms: “We must think in terms of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’”, considers Ambassador Fasel. “This means looking after our guests on the one hand, doing a better job and doing more to provide them with attractive material services; and on the other hand, spreading the Geneva or Swiss ‘brand’, to ensure that our country contributes to creating decisive content.”

Productive synergies
The affirmation of Geneva's humanitarian 'software' can be envisaged within as well as outside of the country's borders. Within the country, Switzerland has gone to great lengths to put in place platforms for sharing information and experiences that facilitate dialogue between the institutions present in Geneva. From the 'Geneva Peace Building Platform' to the very recent 'Geneva Internet Platform', several initiatives have already proved successful.

Current debates about sexual violence carried out in conflicts offer another promising development. They represent a great potential for synergies, advocates Doris Schopper, director of the Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH), a joint centre between the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. “Everyone talks about it, but no one really knows what to do about it. In partnership with the ICRC, Handicap International, Médecins Sans Frontières and the UNHCR, we are in the process of developing a study programme on this type of gender-based violence. It will enable policy makers within international organisations to establish action plans based on cutting-edge knowledge.”

Being seen everywhere
Outside of its borders, Switzerland seeks to communicate its message around the world. Its diplomatic representations engage themselves on a daily basis; drawing on its field experience, the SDC sends its experts to take part in strategic multilateral discussions. “Switzerland must be seen everywhere, even when discussions take place elsewhere,” insists Ambassador Fasel. With a little help from history: “The humanitarian spirit formally fostered for 150 years by the Swiss Confederation, as well as its neutrality, give Switzerland's voice solid credibility,” observes Isabelle Barras.

Arab Spring, urbanisation, transitional justice, climate change... Discussion topics abound and civil society has genuine expectations. “In an international context undergoing transformation, where new global and local actors are asserting themselves, Switzerland must embody this ability to make coherent lines of action emerge,” puts forward Nan Buzard, director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, a Geneva-based network representing over 80 NGOs from around the world. “Gathering everyone's ideas in Geneva, to then export new strategies for humanitarian involvement, is a challenge. It is both an opportunity and a great responsibility entrusted to today's Switzerland.”

Regulating the activities of private military and security companies

The "Montreux Document" is one example of a diplomatic initiative concerning international humanitarian law launched by the FDFA in Switzerland. The Document was adopted on 17 September 2008 by 17 states after two and a half years of negotiations. Six years on, the number of states officially supporting the document has grown to 50. From Switzerland's perspective the proliferation of private military and security companies (PMSCs) called for the need to recall that all players in this sector are required to comply with existing international law governing the protection of the victims of armed conflicts.

At a time when many countries are sub-contracting the security of their territories to PMSCs, the Montreux Document

  • highlights the need to regulate the PMSC market
  • sets out good practice with regard to surveillance and control that states must apply to themselves
  • encourages the adoption of legal provisions at the national level

Then, an "International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers" was developed on the basis of the Montreux Document.

From its inception in January 2006, the Montreux Document crossed the borders of the "International Geneva". It was in Zurich that the Directorate of International Law of the FDFA organised a first exploratory meeting with representatives of governments, security companies and civil society. Montreux then hosted two other preparatory meetings before the document was finally adopted there.

Since 2008, several review and advocacy conferences have taken place throughout the world, the last one in Montreux in December 2013. On this occasion, Switzerland, the ICRC, and the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) reiterated their availability to assist states in the implementation of the Document.