Swiss diplomats told to do more on world stage

The ambassadors were all ears when it came to Calmy-Rey's speech Keystone

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, has called on Switzerland's diplomats to play a more prominent role in international affairs.

This content was published on August 25, 2003 minutes

Calmy-Rey said Switzerland could only defend its interests if it was prepared to make its presence felt on the world stage.

The foreign minister was speaking at the annual conference of Swiss ambassadors which kicked off in Bern on Monday.

She added that guaranteeing the security of Switzerland was linked to combatting global poverty:

"Poverty feeds and amplifies the spread of terrorism, the result of resentment and despair, which in turn provokes the fall of states into anarchy and chaos."

Calmy-Rey said Switzerland should participate fully in the debate on reforming the United Nations and renewed calls for strengthening multilateralism in areas such as climate control.

Aid officials

For the first time in its history, 16 top officials from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) are attending the conference, in addition to 108 diplomats.

High on this year's agenda are controversial plans to reform the diplomatic service.

Calmy-Rey wants to boost cooperation between ambassadors and the SDC - a move fiercely opposed by some diplomats.

Ahead of the conference, Calmy-Rey said she would like to reorganise her department by promoting cooperation between the diplomatic service and the SDC.

This would mean that embassies and SDC bureaux would be merged in countries which receive large amounts of Swiss aid.

And in some countries, diplomatic tasks would be handed over to aid and development officials, who would then receive the title of ambassador.

The minister said that this concept had already been put into practice, citing the role played by the SDC’s bureau in Mali - which has no Swiss embassy - during the Sahara hostage situation.


The European Union and the role of the arts in foreign policy are also due to be debated at the four-day conference.

The foreign ministry has called for reinforced collaboration between itself, the arts council Pro Helvetia, the Federal Office for Culture and Presence Switzerland, which promotes Switzerland’s image abroad.

Discussions will also focus on the issue of whether Switzerland needs an embassy in each of the European Union (EU) states after it welcomes in ten new members in 2004.

Delegates have also been invited to take part in a debate entitled, “The United States, are there limits to a superpower?”.

On Thursday, the final day of the conference, there will be a trip to canton Valais with the Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin.


Before the conference, Calmy-Rey said that pressure to cut government spending had prompted a review of Switzerland’s embassies around the world and whether there was a need for closer cooperation.

She said the plans, which she originally announced in April this year, would be discussed in more detail at the ambassadors’ conference.

Jean Nils de Dardel, a Social Democrat parliamentarian, believes Calmy-Rey is on the right track with her reforms and is right to prioritise humanitarian work.

“The diplomatic corps is pretty ossified. This is not the case at the SDC,” de Dardel told swissinfo.

But this point of view was rejected by Xavier Contesse, a former consul and now a director of the business-funded think tank, Avenir Suisse.

“Most of our ambassadors are extremely competent, like many Swiss aid workers. But the ambassadors’ corporate culture is totally different,” said Contesse.

Opponents also say that Calmy-Rey has yet to reveal a proper strategy for carrying out her proposed reforms, and they accuse her of trying to give too much power to the SDC.

An indispensable reform

But Contesse does concede that the diplomatic service needs to undergo some changes.

“Ambassadors shouldn’t just be defending Switzerland’s interests, they should also be trying to raise awareness of Switzerland in the world,” said Contesse.

Others, such as Jean-Pierre Gonthard, a long-time consultant to the foreign ministry, are also calling for changes to how the ministry works.

“Collaboration between different ministries should be reinforced,” said Gonthard, adding that this was happening increasingly out in the field.

Reform of the diplomatic service is not a new concept. In August last year, a parliamentary committee recommended more flexible career planning and access for women to higher ranks, as well as the closure of several embassies.

And since she took office in January this year, Calmy-Rey has made no secret of her desire to prioritise humanitarian work in the foreign ministry.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand (translation: Isobel Johnson)


Switzerland’s diplomatic service:
93 embassies.
12 missions in international organisations.
44 consulates.
35 SDC bureaux.

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