Neutral Switzerland has a role to play in Security Council, says think tank director

Former Swiss president and minister of foreign affairs Ignazio Cassis casts his ballot to elect five non-permanent members to the Security Council for 2023 to 2024 at UN headquarters in New York, on 9 June 2022. (Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)

As Switzerland takes its seat at the UN Security Council, what does the neutral country stand to accomplish?

For the first time since becoming a member of the United Nations, Switzerland joined the Security Council this month as one of its fifteen members. Richard Gowan, director of UN affairs at the think tank, International Crisis Group, in New York, gives his outlook for the nation’s two-year term in the UN's highest body.

Le Temps: What can a small country like Switzerland do as a non-permanent member of the Security Council?

Richard Gowan: I don't consider Switzerland to be a small country at the UN. Switzerland is a mid-sized power in the UN system and should approach its Security Council membership with ambition. It is more or less in the same category of countries as Norway and Ireland. Both countries have achieved a great deal in the Security Council. Norway played a crucial role in developing the mandate for the UN to stay in Afghanistan and to cooperate with the Taliban to prevent the country from collapsing. Ireland made a major contribution last year to the Security Council's approach to the war in Ethiopia. It also cooperated with the United States on a resolution guaranteeing humanitarian exemptions within the UN sanctions regime. Norway and Ireland have proven that it is still possible to be diplomatically innovative even in a Security Council extraordinarily divided over the war in Ukraine.

What will be the main difficulties for Switzerland?

It will have to accept the fact that the Security Council operates on two different levels. There is the situation of Ukraine, and in that context, the sad reality is that there is almost nothing that the council can do to stop the war. It has in fact become a political stage for Russia and its allies on the one hand, and the US and Ukraine on the other, to put forward their arguments, such as the absurd accusations made by Russia that the US has a biological weapons programme in Ukraine. This is pure theatre. But there is another level where pragmatic diplomacy can still be conducted on less salient peacekeeping issues, such as humanitarian diplomacy. This is where opportunities will arise for Switzerland, which will have to position itself firmly in the humanitarian field and in international law, where it has a recognised reputation and expertise.

Switzerland will preside over the Security Council in May 2023 and in September or October 2024. What can these two months of presidency offer?

I think their importance is overstated. The presidency entails a mountain of logistical work. Many agenda items are beyond the control of the presidency and are more time-bound. But it is always possible to use the position to promote certain issues. India, for example, promoted the fight against terrorism. Switzerland could push issues such as humanitarian affairs or even climate change – although countries such as China and Russia do not like to talk about them.

Some Swiss fear that their country's neutrality will be undermined in the Security Council...

This topic seems to me to be more of an internal Swiss conversation than a question in New York. I have closely followed the work of neutral countries in the Security Council, including Ireland and Sweden, which has now taken a new direction with its  NATO membership. Each country has its own definition of neutrality, and Switzerland's definition is all the more unique because it cannot hide behind the banner of the European Union. But the member states do not express the slightest concern about Switzerland's status, because what they see is a competent diplomatic team in New York with a vast network, a country that will be the main representative of western Europe in the Security Council alongside Malta. Switzerland, like Norway for that matter, is seen as a diplomatic player that can grease the wheels of the Security Council in cases like this.

Who will be Switzerland's natural allies?

On most issues, Switzerland will be on the side of the European countries and sometimes on the side of the US. This will probably not keep Russia from pointing out that neutral Switzerland is in fact close to the Western group. Bern should not take offence at this. It will be Moscow’s game. But while it is important for the confederation to work closely with the Europeans, it must also cooperate with states in other regions: with Ghana or Gabon in Africa on the climate issue, for example, but also with the United Arab Emirates, which is planning the Cop28 climate conference in 2023, and even with Japan, which will chair the council in January and raise the issue of rule of law. Clearly there are many potential partners.

Should Switzerland give up on any hopes?

Yes, on the issue of Ukraine. The Security Council will not be the place where Russia negotiates a peace agreement. Even the humanitarian aspects of the situation in Ukraine are almost impossible to discuss there. The council could possibly be called upon to support a possible agreement or a mechanism to verify its implementation later on. Switzerland would then have some expertise to contribute since it chaired the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] in 2014.

Does being a non-permanent member of the Security Council raise a country’s profile in the UN sphere afterwards?

Swiss diplomats will be very popular for two years because everyone will go to them after the closed council sessions.

Any recommendations for Switzerland?

You can be very well prepared, as Switzerland is, and still be surprised by the mountain of work that will come in January. The first two to three months may seem hectic, because unexpected crises arise and the other members of the council have to be informed about them. But after three months, you realise that it is manageable. It is a unique experience that exposes Switzerland to global diplomacy and geopolitics like no other. This experience could be very useful for Swiss diplomats in the future.

Switzerland’s chronology at the UN

1946 After the disintegration of the League of Nations, the UN moves its European headquarters to Geneva.

1986 By a very large majority (75 per cent), Swiss people reject the confederation's membership to the UN.

1994 Switzerland rejects (57 per cent) the idea of sending Swiss peacekeepers to UN peacekeeping operations.

2002 A national referendum approves (54.6 per cent) Switzerland's membership to the UN.

2010 Former federal councillor Joseph Deiss presides over the UN General Assembly.

2023 Switzerland becomes a non-permanent member of the Security Council for two years.

This article originally appeared in French in Le Temps. Articles translated from third party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.