Former minister compares Cassis to Donald Trump

“The problem is not UNRWA, the problem is that there is no ongoing peace process," said Calmy-Rey. Keystone

Switzerland’s former foreign affairs minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, has denounced controversial comments made recently by current foreign affairs minister Ignazio Cassis about the United Nations’ policy on Palestine.

This content was published on June 4, 2018

“He has an attitude a bit like Donald Trump, who just tweets whatever thought happens to come to his mind,” Calmy-Rey said on Sunday evening in an interview with Swiss public television, RTSExternal link. She said it was unclear what Cassis hoped to achieve with his comments.

Cassis had previously said that the UN Palestinian Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)External link had become part of the problem by maintaining refugee camps. He described the agency as an “obstacle to peace”External link and described the return of Palestinian refugees as an unrealistic “dream”.

Experts reacted with surprise and consternation to Cassis’s comments, which came after his first official trip to Jordan.

High-level representatives at the United Nations also complained to the Swiss mission in New York and questioned Switzerland’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council.

+ Swiss foreign minister defends controversial Palestinian commentsExternal link

+ UN ‘complaints’ after Cassis’s remark on PalestineExternal link

Reputation at risk

Calmy-Rey, who was Switzerland’s foreign affairs minister between 2003 and 2011, said that the country has long supported UNRWA as well as UN resolutions and their implementation.

“The problem is not UNRWA, the problem is that there is no ongoing peace process. Simply expressing one’s current state of mind on the matter does nothing towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said.

It was not surprising that Cassis had faced criticism after questioning a policy that had been consistently pursued by the international community for decades, she said.

Calmy-Rey also feared that the remarks would “call into question our credibility as a country that participates in the promotion of peace”.

Giving Palestinians a choice

Peter Krähenbühl, the UNRWA’s Commissioner General, also expressed his surprise that Cassis’s comments “were made following a field visit”.

He praised Switzerland’s “extremely strong, very courageous commitment” to the organisation but criticised Cassis’s remarks strongly.

“These words reduce five million refugees to second-class citizens, denying them their right to dignity,” Krähenbühl said.

Whoever is concerned about the right-to-return issue should “actively engage in the development of a two-state solution which would give Palestinians a choice to settle in a future independent Palestinian state,” he said.

Government reaction

Following the negative fallout from Cassis’ remarks, the Federal Council intervened to reaffirm Switzerland’s commitment to the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA). At the end of May, president Alain Berset confirmed that there is no change in Swiss policy and that the agency would remain a strategic partner for Switzerland.

Berset said UNRWA “plays an essential role for stability in the region and the fight against radicalisation”. He also said that as a donor country it was however legitimate for Switzerland to join the debate on the agency’s future.

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