Geneva, 31.03.2022 – Opening address by Ignazio Cassis, President of the Swiss Confederation and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA – Check against delivery

Speaker: Cassis Ignazio; Head of Department, Ignazio Cassis

Ladies and gentlemen

There used to be a sign at railway crossings in France warning people that the approaching train might be hiding another one just behind it. This meant that behind a danger you can see lurks an invisible one. Very few of those signs are still up today. A pity, when you think about it.

  • A pity because this is precisely where the great challenge of our time lies: crises rarely come alone. We usually have to face several of them at the same time. While different in form and gravity, they are intertwined.
  • Also a pity because removing signs can be understood as giving an all-clear.
  • And lastly a pity because getting fixated on just one challenge leads to a silo mentality of disconnected specialists replacing teams with complementary skills.
Teams with such skills interact and bring forth synergies, which is what we need. That is why I chose 'together different' as this forum's theme. Or, to put it differently, we could say 'together' in my native language: insieme.

1.    Switzerland's position with respect to the current war

The greatest difficulty in crisis management is dealing with multiple problems at the same time, not dealing with problems arriving one after the other. With the COVID-19 pandemic not even over yet, the crises in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria are raging on, nature is up in arms, the temperature is rising, and now the war against Ukraine has spawned further calamities. Thousands of people have already been killed, with millions more having fled their homes. While the war is hitting Ukraine the hardest, it is also impacting Ukraine's neighbouring countries, the Russian people and Western civilisation as a whole. It is destroying cities, setting back civilisation, and sundering relations and relationships between people, communities and countries. And with the possibility of the granaries drying up, a food crisis is looming, one likely to hit the poorest countries the hardest.

Ladies and gentlemen, War has returned to Europe. For the first time since the Second World War, a sovereign democratic country has been attacked. International law has been violated, with the prohibition on the use of force trampled underfoot. Geopolitics, spheres of influence, great powers, military armament... somehow these terms sound quite familiar. Suddenly, power politics has regained the upper hand, with the power of politics deeply undermined. Has the world truly learned nothing from the past? Fortunately, we are also seeing strong forces pushing back; there are people taking a stand for freedom, for fundamental rights, and for international law. In impressive unity, the West is opposing the war of aggression and standing up for democracy and self-determination.  Switzerland, as a small neutral state in the middle of Europe, has joined those standing for independence and against oppression.

2.    Neutrality: an obligation and an opportunity

I often hear claims – sometimes meant as accusations – that in adopting the EU's sanctions, Switzerland has given up its neutrality. Because we have taken a stand. Because we do not remain silent and stand by, doing nothing. But if you help an aggressor by doing nothing, are you really remaining neutral?

There is a difference between neutrality law and neutrality policy.
  • The law of neutrality is sacrosanct: we do not interfere militarily in conflicts as a belligerent state. Neither with troops nor with weapons.
  • Neutrality policy, on the other hand, deliberately leaves enough leeway for us to stand up for justice and against injustice. For us to condemn aggressors and to help victims. Neutrality policy is a flexible instrument of our security and foreign policy. It does not focus one-sidedly on our own interests, but rather also takes into account the interests of those who respect our neutrality. Switzerland must be a reliable partner when it comes to defending international law.

Doing so does not compromise our humanitarian tradition, support for refugee families here and in the field, experience in conflict resolution, deployment of peacebuilding experts, and role as a host of international conferences. History teaches us that sooner or later, every war comes to an end, with weapons falling silent. We are working towards this goal and are ready to pave the way to peace with our diplomacy and good offices. With all the modesty of a small state, we will actively work to ensure that the belligerent states and the actors in world security policy find a way out of this horrific war.

3.    Drought. Hunger. People fleeing as bombs fall.

As terrible as this war is, as much as it punches us in our emotional gut, we must not lose sight of other crises. It is not enough to solve this world's problems one after the other. They are all going on at the same time. And some of them could annihilate our very existence, in the long term. Indeed, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed on 28 February 2022, climate change is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. Almost half of the world's soon to be eight billion people are living in high-risk regions – mainly in West, Central and East Africa as well as in South Asia and Latin America. As a doctor and federal councillor, I have on multiple occasions seen how climate change is affecting these people in their countries. In Mongolia in the spring of 2018, I saw the consequences of drought and malnutrition. A few weeks ago, I visited Niger, a poor country in the Sahel that is a hotspot of migration. The country offers food, shelter and protection to thousands of displaced people despite its own high level of poverty.

The problem is that only proximity stirs up empathy. In contrast, if far away from us, even the worst catastrophes can be forgotten over time. For example, on my trip to Niger, it was not the suffering of the local people that made headlines, but the fact that my shoes were dusty... But appearances can be deceiving. Distance is not a legitimate justification. Reality knows no borders. We here in Europe are also already feeling the effects of climate change; for instance, with last year's catastrophic heavy flooding that hit Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and parts of Germany in particular. And our country is not spared either, be it from forest fires, flooding, landslides, or melting glaciers.

4.    Deeply intertwined: climate change as a trigger for conflicts

The consequences of climate change are already all around us today. Natural cycles are being upended all over the world. Rising temperatures are destroying livelihoods and leading to conflicts over water and food. Today, wars fought over 'blue gold' are already claiming more victims than those waged over 'black gold'. People are being forced to leave their homelands. Entire regions are losing their stability. We are now learning anew that security and prosperity in Europe cannot be taken for granted.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am aware that with so many trees it is difficult to see the forest. How are we to tackle this plethora of challenges? With a plethora of ideas! By sharing ideas, leaving our silo mentality behind us, and thinking outside of the box. The SDC alone offers a wealth of the best minds in development cooperation. This is excellent, but not enough. Why? Because conflicts can get entangled with each other, making it necessary to go beyond technical expertise, adding more and more cross-cutting skills the longer the conflicts persist. Such solutions need scientists, diplomats, financial and energy experts, NGOs, and many more stakeholders. We need political decision-makers just as much as the scientific community, the business community and the private sector.

5.    'Work in progress' instead of turnkey solutions

That is exactly why we are here today. You are experts in your fields. You all have ideas and approaches to addressing individual aspects of climate change, migration or peacebuilding. But even with the best isolated idea, we cannot stop climate change. What we need to develop is a 'work in progress' mentality – the ongoing willingness to bring together ideas from different fields, taking into account scientific insights and anticipating the interconnectedness postulated by chaos theory.

The 'insieme' approach requires a shift in mindset for many people. Because it means leaving familiar terrain and facing something new. That is precisely why the 'together different' theme of this forum is so important. Accepting that the person across from me has a different opinion, or could even be right or at least a little bit right, is not always easy. But the progress of humanity is based precisely on this kind of exchange of knowledge. You can only break new ground if you set out to look for it. And for that, we need a thriving landscape of all kinds of opinions – places where people can express their opinions freely, without any fear of reprisals. And it is all the better if the other person's opinion challenges us to think outside of the box, outside mainstream opinion. Joint trial and error is the engine of innovation. Switzerland, with its living direct democracy, its different languages, religions and cultures, brings forth such interactions every day.

6.    Creating new solutions together

This is why as Switzerland's president, it is an honour for me today to promote such diversity within the framework of this IC Forum and to bring together all stakeholders, both those attending in person and those joining us online from all over the world. An effort that is worth it. Or as one of my predecessors, Kaspar Villiger, put it: "With our limited knowledge and skills as individuals, we would never be able to survive on our own in good health, enjoying prosperity. Only cooperation within society allows us to use the knowledge and skills of other people and diverse organisations."

And that is precisely what I am expecting from this IC Forum. I want to see us pool our knowledge and put our ideas to a collective stress test in workshops and the plenary in order to devise new solutions together – together different.

Let’s get together, let’s come up with different solutions. In this vein, may our 2022 IC Forum be thrilling, challenging, and fruitful!

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Federal Department of Foreign Affairs

Last update 06.01.2023


FDFA Communication

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