Top diplomat to US champions open diplomacy

Ambassador Ziswiler during an interview in Bern earlier this year Keystone

Switzerland and the United States have a lot in common despite differences over civil liberties and the fight against terrorism, says Bern's ambassador to Washington.

This content was published on August 13, 2006

In an interview with swissinfo, Urs Ziswiler talks about his experience of bilateral relations since being appointed to the US post three months ago.

The ambassador is not only in charge of ensuring diplomatic ties between Washington and Bern but also represents the interests of Iran and Cuba towards the US.

Ziswiler's previous diplomatic postings include Canada and Argentina. He has also served as advisor to Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

swissinfo: What was the focus of your activities during the first three months in Washington?

Urs Ziswiler: We have a busy few weeks behind us. Three Swiss government ministers, two state secretaries and the president of the Swiss National Bank visited Washington to sign or conclude three accords.

But besides the bilateral issues, Switzerland is also representing the diplomatic interests of Iran and of Cuba here in Washington.

swissinfo: The justice minister recently signed a new agreement with the US aimed at combating terrorism. Will this deal put an end to criticism in Switzerland of Washington's controversial anti-terrorist drive, including the prison in Guantánamo?

U.Z.: It was important straight after the attacks on September 11, 2001 for Switzerland to show its willingness to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and in particular in the funding of terrorist organisations.

We proved those critics wrong who believed that Switzerland was a safe haven for terrorist funds.

This was one reason for concluding a cooperation agreement with the US. We came in for criticism because the details of the accord were not made public. The new agreement is transparent. It will only be ratified after parliament has given its approval.

swissinfo: How big are the differences between the US and Europe over security and personal freedom?

U.Z.: Indeed opinions differ on these issues, but both sides have the same goals. We have always argued that it is crucial not to neglect or undermine human rights and civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

swissinfo: Can the Bush administration be trusted on these issues?

U.Z.: As the depositary state of the Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law is a key element of Switzerland's foreign policy. There have been a few debates over the past years on how far this is a means to an end. And it is a fact that viewpoints differ.

But I want to stress that the separation of powers [between the government, parliament and the courts] is a long-standing tradition in the US and this has not changed. Just think of the Supreme Court ruling on the Guantánamo detention camp.

Admittedly it took quite some time for the judges to reach their verdict. But the US is a fundamentally democratic country where such values are deeply rooted in society.

swissinfo: A point of contention is whether the fight against terrorism is a multilateral or a unilateral matter. Is Switzerland's voice being heard at all?

swissinfo: A point of contention is whether the fight against terrorism is a multilateral or a unilateral matter. Is Switzerland' s voice being heard at all?

U.Z.: Switzerland believes in a multilateral approach because we're convinced that problems can only be resolved in agreement with other states.

There was a tendency in the US to opt for a unilateralist policy but in my opinion there are signs of a revival of multilateralism.

I think Washington has realised that many problems are best resolved together with others although the US can achieve a lot on its own.

swissinfo: Initial talks about a free trade agreement between Switzerland and the US were suspended earlier this year. Is it still possible to move towards the same goal with the Trade and Investment Cooperation Forum which was set up instead?

U.Z.: I'm sure it is. But it is too early to speak of success or failure at this stage. Switzerland has always been a champion of free trade but we realised during the exploratory phase of the negotiations that it made no sense to aim for a wide-ranging agreement.

Therefore both sides agreed not to pursue it, but instead to opt for a sector approach. And this is what we are doing now.

swissinfo: The areas of responsibilities of an ambassador have shifted considerably over the past years. How did the changes affect your work?

U.Z.: Communication plays a much bigger role. I devote half my work time to establishing and fostering relations with all kinds of circles.

Besides the contacts with the US administration, it is very important to be in touch with representatives in Congress. You can never do enough of that, as they say.

"Public Diplomacy" has become a popular formula and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey is a practitioner of this policy. The public should know what we're doing and why we're doing it.

swissinfo: What lessons did Swiss diplomats learn from the crisis in bilateral relations with the US over the dormant Holocaust assets in Swiss banks?

U.Z.: Let me remind you that this crisis is over and it no longer affects bilateral ties. We learned our lesson: prevention is better than cure. We have to be prepared for incidents of this sort.

It is crucial to have a broad network of contacts. Therefore we stepped up our presence in the US, and on all levels. The aim is to show the Americans that our country has more to offer than just clichés.

We also want to tell the world that we have come to terms with our past at home as well as on the international stage. It's a way of standing up and admitting publicly that we have made mistakes.

swissinfo-interview: Marie-Christine Bonzom and Rita Emch in Washington

Key facts

The US is the second most important destination for Swiss exports behind Germany.
In 2005 Swiss exports to the US reached a record SFr16.1 billion ($13 billion) while imports from the US were worth SFr10.7 billion.
Swiss companies, including the Nestlé and UBS, have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the US.
Last year 71,773 Swiss expatriates were registered in the US. 49,871 of them have dual citizenship.
There are about 60,000 US nationals in Switzerland.

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Ambassador Urs Ziswiler

Urs Ziswiler, who was born in 1949, became ambassador to the US in May 2006.
He was previously head of a key foreign ministry unit and worked for the Swiss-European integration office.
He has also served as advisor to Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.
His diplomatic postings have included Canada, Argentina, Israel, Nigeria, Norway and Belgium.

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