US declines Swiss aid conference invite

Calmy-Rey said the US had "reacted negatively" Keystone Archive

The United States has turned down an invitation to participate in a humanitarian conference on Iraq organised by Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss foreign minister.

This content was published on February 9, 2003 - 13:33

However, Calmy-Rey received a boost on Tuesday when two key humanitarian players confirmed that they would be attending the conference.

The news that the United States will not be present at the meeting - slated to take place this weekend in Geneva - is a setback for Calmy-Rey.

She is also facing the prospect of a no-show by several other key figures who have yet to confirm their attendance. Calmy-Rey has also been criticised for not inviting Iraq.

However the Swiss foreign minister received some good news on Tuesday when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) announced they would be attending.

The ICRC is sending its head of Middle East affairs, Balthasar Staehelin, and the organisation's head of operations for Iraq, Georges Comninos.

They will be joined by Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Antonella Notari, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, said the Geneva meeting would facilitate "an exchange of views and information on the current humanitarian situation in Iraq".

It would also enable aid organisations to discuss their ability to respond to a crisis in the country, she added.

No point

However, Louis Fintor, a US State Department spokesman, told swissinfo that Washington did not see the point of such a conference as several United Nations agencies had already drafted emergency aid plans for Iraq.

"We understand that the UN operational agencies have been engaged in well-coordinated contingency planning for quite some time and have issued an appeal to support the effort.

"We are uncertain as to how this conference would assist that planning," said Fintor.

"It would be more effective to respond to the UN agencies' appeal," he added.

European Union countries are also reportedly hesitant to accept Switzerland's invitation. "The Greek presidency has to discuss the participation of EU member states," the Swiss newspaper quoted spokesman Roussos Koundouros as saying.

Under pressure

Within Switzerland, Calmy-Rey - who has only been in the job since January 1 - has been criticised for not informing her cabinet colleagues about her plans for a meeting before making them public.

The Swiss foreign minister admitted in an interview with the "Matin Dimanche" newspaper that it would have been wise to inform Bern before announcing her plans.

"But on the whole, collaboration is going well; above all, we share the same position on this issue," she said.

Philippe Stähelin, the president of the center-right Christian Democratic Party, questioned her judgement in publicising the conference before the details had been finalised.

The rightwing Swiss People's Party called on the government to restrain Calmy-Rey, who belongs to the centre-left Social Democrats, before she did any more damage to the country's external relations.

Calmy-Rey on Sunday defended her decision to push ahead with the conference. She said that Switzerland had not lost credibility on the international stage by calling the conference at such short notice.

"On the contrary, the humanitarian reputation of Switzerland has gained in strength... the fact that we have provoked one side or another is not a bad thing. In fact, we have to continue doing so," she told the "Matin Dimanche" newspaper.


Calmy-Rey has also been criticised for not sending Iraq an invitation.

"How can they not invite Iraq, when the conference is about what the humanitarian consequences would be in Iraq after a military attack?" Samir Al-Nima, Iraq's UN ambassador, told swissinfo.

The Swiss foreign minister justified the decision, saying Iraq had not been invited because the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation wanted to avoid turning the conference into a political event.

"Humanitarian issues have got nothing to do with politics," Calmy-Rey said. "We must do everything we possibly can on the humanitarian side before, during and after a possible war."

Popular endorsement

While Calmy-Rey's forthright approach has caused political waves, the Swiss seem supportive of their new foreign minister.

Eighty per cent of the Swiss are in favour of a humanitarian conference on Iraq, according to a poll published in the "" newspaper. Furthermore, 53 per cent approved the "public diplomacy" demonstrated when Calmy-Rey announced her plans before informing her cabinet colleagues in Bern.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Washington has declined an invitation to attend a humanitarian conference on Iraq which is being organised by the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Iraq was not invited to attend the meeting which will take place on February 15-16 in Geneva.

Calmy-Rey announced the conference last week and has been criticised for the way she has handled the affair.

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