Switzerland and multilateralism: five personal accounts of peace and diplomacy

The International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace is held on 24 April. It is an occasion that takes on great importance for Switzerland, whose foreign policy contributes towards a peaceful international order. It does so by bringing added value to multilateral bodies and by drawing on the strengths of International Geneva. In the following accounts, five individuals talk about their commitment to peace: diplomacy, mediation and dialogue are the order of the day.

The United Nations flag is projected onto the front of the Federal Palace.

The projection of the UN emblem onto the parliament building visualizes Switzerland's commitment towards multilateralism. © FDFA

The current pandemic has made it all the more evident that global challenges, as outlined in the 2030 Agenda, call for a multilateral response. Providing good offices, preventing and resolving conflicts, mediating, and promoting dialogue are just some of the ways in which Switzerland contributes towards peace and security on a global level – one of the country's foreign policy priorities.

Switzerland builds bridges: this statement is often used to refer to the nation's engagement as a host state, as a mediator or as a member of international organisations. But what added value does it offer at the multilateral level? What role do Swiss experts play within international organisations? The answer to this question first takes us to International Geneva, capital of peace dialogue.

On the lawn of the UN building Anne-Lise Favre Pilet stands next to two UN agents and a bomb-sniffing dog.
Anne-Lise Favre Pilet works with UN agents Popa and David and the bomb-sniffing dog Memphis. Security is a key word at the meetings in Geneva. © FDFA

Geneva: a platform for negotiations

"Having parties in conflict sit down at the same table to talk is already a success in itself.  Sometimes, discussions bring about important steps forward, such as a truce, the formation of a transitional government, the opening of humanitarian corridors or the exchange of prisoners – steps which move away from war and towards peace." – Anne-Lise Favre Pilet, head of the Section for Security and General Affairs of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office and to the other international organisations in Geneva

Geneva is a platform where those seeking dialogue meet. It regularly hosts negotiation rounds. Examples include the talks that led to the Iran nuclear deal and, more recently, talks relating to conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Switzerland offers services ranging from mediation to logistical support. Security is a key aspect.

More on the topic by Anne-Lise Favre Pilet

Geneva is endowed with numerous qualities that make it the ideal place to facilitate dialogue between conflicting parties: its geographic location, at the heart of Europe, and lying midway between east and west; its long-standing humanitarian tradition, which began with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); and its human scale, with an airport located only 15 minutes from the Palais des Nations. Switzerland's neutrality also ensures its impartiality. But what exactly does hosting negotiations rounds entail? "Switzerland offers services ranging from mediation to logistical support, depending on the needs of the parties to the conflict. The team that organises the meetings is small, flexible and fast, allowing us to host negotiations even at short notice," explains Anne-Lise Favre Pilet, who deals in particular with security considerations in Geneva.

Security is a key factor in these meetings, and there are many aspects to coordinate. "Ensuring the safety of heads of state, ministers and other dignitaries, who between them carry out an average of 4,700 annual visits to Geneva, is a considerable undertaking for the public security forces. The cantonal police forces, federal security services and sometimes even the army work together to ensure the protection of the delegations, in coordination with foreign security services and those of the United Nations," she adds. This is where the Security and General Affairs section of the FDFA's mission in Geneva comes in. "Our role is to ensure the flow of information as well as efficient coordination between the Swiss forces and their foreign counterparts, smooth out any diplomatic issues, facilitate the delegations' arrival in Geneva and, at times, enable special permits to be issued, for example in the event of sanctions preventing the movement of a delegate," explains Favre Pilet.

Ms Favre Pilet was involved in many of the negotiation rounds held in Switzerland (in Geneva, Montreux and Lausanne) leading to the Iran nuclear agreement. The seven delegations (Iran, the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the European Union) were often headed by foreign ministers. "It was an extraordinary experience for us, lasting many years. There is something inherently magical about every negotiation: having parties in conflict sit down at the same table to talk is already a success in itself. Sometimes, discussions bring about important steps forward, such as a truce, the formation of a transitional government, the opening of humanitarian corridors or the exchange of prisoners – steps which move away from war and towards peace."  

Close-up of Luca Urech in front of a map of Syria.
Luca Urech is following a Master's course aimed at training professional mediators. Consensus building and intercultural sensitivity are key elements of this profession. © FDFA

Diplomacy for peace and the role of the mediator

"The creation of the Civil Society Support Room in Geneva marks the first time that civil society has been institutionally involved in a UN peace process. Switzerland's efforts in Syria reflect the participatory nature of our democracy." – Luca Urech, diplomatic desk officer for the Peace and Human Rights Division (PHRD) of the FDFA

Over the years, a veritable 'ecosystem' has emerged in Geneva made up of actors and institutions working to promote the peace process in Syria. Swiss peace diplomacy endeavours to ensure that Geneva negotiations are open not only to the parties in conflict but also to civil society. Switzerland is widely trusted thanks to its reputation as a neutral and impartial mediator. In cooperation with the ETH, the FDFA is committed to professionalising peace diplomacy. The role of the mediator is becoming a profession.

More on the topic by Luca Urech

As a host state in the peace process for Syria, Switzerland bears a great responsibility, but it also has the opportunity to help shape that process. For example, Swiss peace diplomacy is committed to ensuring that negotiations in Geneva are open not only to parties in conflict but also to other actors in Syrian society. As Luca Urech explains, "To that end, Switzerland, together with the UN, created the Civil Society Support Room in Geneva. It gave more than a thousand Syrian citizens and organisations a say in the peace process. It is the first time that civil society has been institutionally involved in a UN peace process. Switzerland's efforts in Syria reflect not least the participatory nature of our democracy."

As previously mentioned, Geneva offers various advantages that facilitate dialogue. "Switzerland grants all parties fair and equal access to the discussions," recalls Urech. "In addition, it supports the UN in involving Syrian civil society and provides Swiss experts for the UN working groups." Lastly, Geneva is home to organisations working towards peace in Syria, including humanitarian organisations, such as the ICRC or the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council (HCR).

Neutrality is another important aspect: Switzerland's reputation as a neutral and impartial mediator frequently earns it the trust of the conflicting parties. Mediation, however, requires a variety of attributes and skills that must be learnt and developed. The Master of Advanced Studies ETH Mediation in Peace Processes (MAS ETH MPP), offered by ETH Zurich, aims to train professional mediators in peace diplomacy. It is the only course of its kind worldwide. Supported by the FDFA and three other foreign ministries, the course is unique in focusing on the profession of mediator.

Mr Urech is taking part in this training programme, alongside 20 participants from various foreign ministries, the UN, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and civil society. The course covers subjects such as preparing parties in conflict for negotiations, bringing them to the negotiating table, and planning, initiating and leading mediation processes. In Urech's view, "A key aspect in this career is the ability of the mediator to take an open-minded approach towards the actors in the conflict and to look at the issues under discussion from different perspectives. In order to do so, you need to be a good listener, be prepared to seek consensus and compromise and demonstrate intercultural awareness. Owing to our experience of Swiss federal and plurilingual democracy, these skills are nothing new to many Swiss citizens." 

Natalie Kohli in front of a UN helicopter standing on a green lawn.
Natalie Kohli has been working at the UN Mission in Colombia since 2019. © FDFA

Swiss diplomats at the United Nations – stopover in Colombia

"I joined the FDFA shortly after Switzerland joined the UN, and the UN has been the common thread in my career as a diplomat. Switzerland enjoys an excellent reputation and is a well-established name within the UN thanks to its involvement in a wide range of thematic dossiers and its role as a bridge-builder and a host state." – Natalie Kohli, Chief of Staff at the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia (UNVMC)

Swiss diplomats also occupy a variety of roles within international organisations such as the UN. Although they do not represent Switzerland within these organisations, they bring with them their values and experience as multilateral negotiators, thus contributing to the peace agenda.

More on the topic by Natalie Kohli

Since May 2019, Natalie Kohli has held the post of Chief of Staff at the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia (UNVMC), reporting to the Special Representative of the Secretary General. "The Mission was established by the Security Council in 2017 to support the implementation of the historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo)," explains Kohli. The Mission – comprising nearly 600 members – is tasked with verifying the reintegration of FARC members into political, economic and social life, as well as implementing personal and collective security and protection measures in almost all regions of Colombia. Kohli goes on to tell us, "As Chief of Staff I coordinate all of the Mission's strategic processes, overseeing the communication and legal departments and ensuring, among other things, that the Mission has the necessary resources to implement its political priorities in accordance with the mandate set out by the Security Council."

A recent example that illustrates Kohli's role in the field is the UN Security Council's visit to Colombia in the summer of 2019, the organisation and execution of which she was responsible for. "The standout event on the agenda was the visit to the Valle del Cauca department, which was severely affected by the conflict and where former guerrilla fighters are being reintegrated into civilian life. The Security Council were able to experience agricultural projects firsthand, talk to human rights defenders and witness how former combatants are taking part in reconciliation processes with the victims of the conflict." The mandate of the UNVMC has subsequently been extended twice and Colombia is regarded as a positive example of sustainable peacebuilding by the Security Council.

The UN has been the common thread in Ms Kohli's career as a Swiss diplomat. "As a long-serving multilateral negotiator, I am practised at putting forward compromises and promoting consensus in the face of often very divergent views. When I took up my post in Colombia, I already had extensive knowledge of the UN and of the political dynamics at play between its member states."

Having this opportunity to make a direct contribution, as a Swiss citizen, to the UN peace agenda is a rewarding step in her career. "My experience in Swiss diplomacy serves me well in my current role, in which mediation is a daily task. In practical terms, this means promoting a common understanding in the tension areas between the headquarters in Bogotá and the offices on the ground, as well as with New York and the other UN programmes in Colombia." Switzerland is among the member states that show a great deal of interest and support for the UN Secretariat's reform efforts. In this regard, gender equality plays an important role in the UN Secretary-General. "In fact, I am heading the Mission's working group that is implementing the objective set by the UN Secretary-General to achieve 50/50 gender parity at all professional levels. In Colombia, we are already close to attaining this goal; moreover, 30% of our military observers are women – this rate is exceptionally high in comparison with other peace missions," concludes Kohli.

Talia Wohl standing in a room speaking during a presentation.
The involvement of women in peace processes is a major topic in Talia Wohl's career. © FDFA

Women in peace processes

"The major challenge is to tackle the fundamental and systemic issues that, even today, stand in the way of women's effective and efficient participation in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts. The effective inclusion of women in peace processes requires political will above all else." – Talia Wohl, Senior Adviser of the Peace and Human Rights Division of the FDFA and Swiss representative at the Women, Peace and Security Focal Points Network (WPS FPN)

Women have a key role to play in peace and security. On the strength of this conviction, Switzerland is committed to stepping up the role of women in peace processes and takes part in related initiatives undertaken by regional and international bodies, including the UN, the OSCE and NATO. For example, on the FDFA's initiative, a number of Swiss women diplomats and international security specialists came together to form a network called 'Swiss Women in Peace Processes' (SWiPP). Moreover, Switzerland will co-chair the Women, Peace and Security Focal Points Network (WPS FPN) as of 2022.

More on the topic by Talia Wohl

The WPS Focal Points Network currently comprises 82 member states and international and regional organisations (including the African Union, the European Union, NATO and the OSCE). "The network helps promote technical, political and strategic exchange for the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda at both national and international level," explains Talia Wohl.

It was back in 2007 that Switzerland took its first steps to support the inclusion of women in peace processes. That year, it was one of the first countries to adopt a national action plan (NAP 1325) to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. "Switzerland is currently implementing its fourth NAP 1325 and boasts a long-standing commitment to promoting the implementation of the WPS agenda through bilateral programmes in various national contexts and at multilateral level," recalls Wohl. The Swiss expert joined the WPS network in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. The crisis has not put a stop to the network, which continues to meet digitally.

The chairmanship, which rotates annually, will be held jointly by Switzerland and South Africa in 2022. "Switzerland will use this year as chair to make headway on the main priorities of the women, peace and security agenda. The priority issues include the meaningful, equal and efficient participation of women in the prevention of conflicts and in peace processes, the involvement of civil society, and protection against sexual and gender-based violence in conflict and humanitarian contexts."

Ms Wohl was previously seconded as a Swiss expert to the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre, where she worked as Mediation Support Officer. "Swiss experts are highly valued," she says. "They bring with them democratic values, neutrality and an understanding of the principles of mediation." The mediation team offers support and tailor-made advice to the OSCE representatives involved in mediation or dialogue processes. One of the challenges faced in these processes is ensuring that women are effectively, equally and efficiently included. As Wohl explains, "Women only account for a small minority in official OSCE negotiation processes. For example, since the 1990s, only three of the more than 50 mediators at the OSCE have been women, two of whom are Swiss."

In the OSCE area, women tend to be more involved in peacebuilding activities at local level, which bear little to no resemblance to the official negotiations. This situation inspired Wohl – together with the mediation team and the OSCE Gender Section – to develop a toolkit on the participation of women in peace processes. The toolkit was launched in 2019. "Over the two years of the project's development, we identified practical measures in three areas: the direct participation of women at the negotiation table; linking informal peace initiatives with formal negotiation processes; and incorporating a gender perspective into negotiations."

With great ambitions come great challenges for the future. Ms Wohl concludes, "We need to address the fundamental and systemic issues that stand in the way of women's effective and efficient participation in the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts. The effective inclusion of women in peace processes requires political will above all else."

Claudia Marti speaks from a lectern during a conference in Libya.
Claudia Marti worked for 13 years in the Peace and Human Rights Division of the FDFA. The experience she gained as a Human Security Advisor in Colombia and Libya benefits her in her current work. © FDFA

Conflict prevention: the role of the Peace and Development Advisor

"A central pillar of the role of a Peace and Development Advisor is to support national conflict prevention, peacebuilding and peacekeeping initiatives that are owned and implemented by national actors.", Claudia Marti, Peace and Development Advisor, Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bolivia

Switzerland's international cooperation contributes to conflict prevention and peacebuilding in fragile states. The fragility of a state is characterised by the government’s inability to ensure the security of the population and provide basic public services, alongside its failure to establish mutually constructive relations with the country’s citizens. The SDC is active on several fronts at a multilateral level, with key players such as the United Nations and the World Bank Group. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) plays a central and catalytic role in strengthening the UN in its work to address fragility and prevent conflict - for example by supporting the Pool of Peace and Development Advisors (PDA) in collaboration with the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), whose experts are deployed to fragile countries to advise and support host governments and the UN system on the ground.

On the subject, Claudia Marti

After working for thirteen years in the Peace and Human Rights Division of the FDFA, Claudia Marti decided to apply for a PDA position. Globally, there are 108 such posts, 59 of which are on an international level. She has now been working in Bolivia since February 2021. What do PDAs do? "PDAs advise the Resident Coordinators and the entire UN Country Team on conflict prevention, sustainable peace, and peacebuilding strategies and programmes. They work with the DPPA and the UNDP to link the UN's political and development work. A central pillar of a PDA's role is to support national initiatives for conflict prevention, peacebuilding and peacekeeping that are supported and implemented by national actors. This national ownership is the main focus of the joint UNDP-DPPA programme and a key principle of the UN's development work," Claudia Marti explains.

The UN and Bolivia signed a peace consolidation programme in 2019, the second phase of which began in December 2020. The UN is providing concrete support in three areas: elections; human rights and gender; dialogue processes and reconciliation. Claudia Marti is particularly committed to the third area. Workshops in “Conflict Sensitivity” for the UN Country Team as well as for national partners, supporting dialogue processes, working on the regional initiative on “Climate Security”, preparing political and conflict analyses: these are just a few examples of the activities Claudia Marti is involved with on the ground - also virtually in view of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The experience she gained at the FDFA as a Human Security Advisor in Colombia and Libya benefits her in her current job. "I was able to acquire solid expertise in peacebuilding, conflict prevention and dealing with the past. The practical experience of working with civil society actors and government representatives also helps me today. In Colombia, I supported the implementation of a peacebuilding programme that built bridges between grassroots organisations and government entities. I was very enriched by this experience. In addition, Switzerland often plays a coordinating role abroad, and this experience also helps me today. As a small player, Switzerland often brings in new ideas and innovation, and this attitude certainly benefits me in a large organisation like the UN," Claudia Marti continues.

Before joining the FDFA, Claudia Marti worked in non-governmental and semi-governmental organisations. She was able to gain experience in working closely with human rights defenders and grassroots organisations. "Moreover, I was able to strengthen the organisations in their ability to formulate and introduce policy proposals".

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