Switzerland’s Humanitarian Role presented at Harvard Club of Boston


Switzerland’s Humanitarian Role presented at Harvard Club of Boston

Welcoming Remarks by Ambassador  Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America

on the occasion of the luncheon with Friends of Switzerland at the Harvard Club of Boston

at Harvard Club of Boston, Boston

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

Ambassador Dahinden at the Boston Harvard Club
Ambassador Dahinden at the Boston Harvard Club Embassy of Switzerland

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you very much for your kind invitation and for giving me the opportunity to speak about Switzerland’s humanitarian role today in Boston.

Humanitarian issues have been important throughout my professional career. Before becoming the Swiss Ambassador to the United States, for more than six years I headed the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which is also responsible for Switzerland’s humanitarian aid. Earlier I gained field experience as the director of the Geneva Center for Humanitarian Demining and dealt with specific weapons-related issues as an expert on disarmament and arms control affairs.

Today it is hardly possible to watch a news bulletin without images of armed conflict or people suffering from man-made or natural disasters. Most of those challenges require comprehensive responses including political negotiations for a peace settlement, measures to better respect human rights and the enforcement of the rule of law, democratization, combating poverty and so forth.

Switzerland’s humanitarian role mainly consists of two aspects:  developing and enforcing international humanitarian law and bringing about concrete humanitarian action. Both are not remedies for all of the world’s evils or all aspects of an unfolding crisis. They have two very specific roles with a common purpose:

Firstly, international humanitarian law sets rules and standards of behavior in armed conflicts with the overarching aim of limiting the effects of armed conflicts. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare.

Secondly, humanitarian action supports directly affected populations and is usually carried out by international, government or nongovernmental organizations, sometimes by the parties to the conflict themselves. The aid is also governed by international rules and standards, for instance, respect for the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence and the obligation to respect the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblem. These principles provide the foundations for humanitarian action. They are central to establishing and maintaining access to affected people, whether in a natural disaster or a complex emergency such as armed conflict.

The common purpose of international humanitarian law and humanitarian aid is the reduction of human suffering.

Both international humanitarian law and humanitarian action are core elements and priorities of Swiss foreign policy. They enjoy the unanimous support of the Swiss Parliament and  the Swiss population. It is therefore fair to say that Switzerland’s humanitarian commitment  is part of the Swiss identity, a hallmark of Switzerland. And it is even visible in the Swiss Cross and the Red Cross, which share the same design.

Even though some rules of warfare existed in ancient times, international humanitarian law in its present form started to emerge in the 1850s and 1860s at a time when there were wars with an unprecedented death toll such as the Crimean War with almost 1 million deaths and the American Civil War with approximately 620,000 casualties. You are probably familiar with the Geneva citizen Henry Dunant and his biography. Dunant personally witnessed the Battle of Solferino in 1859, which changed his life and inspired him to write his powerful bestselling book "A Memory of Solferino" at the beginning of the Red Cross Movement. At the Battle of Solferino, Dunant was not only an observer, but on witnessing the human suffering on the battlefield, he took action and spontaneously started binding up the wounded soldiers and called upon others to do likewise irrespective of the origin of the victims. In other words, at the very beginning of the Red Cross Movement, we can find both the call to respect rules and to come to the aid of the victims.

Switzerland’s Commitment to International Humanitarian Law

Switzerland is the depositary, the custodian or caretaker, of the Geneva Conventions and has played an important role in the further development of policies and norms. Few other countries have such in-depth experience and legal knowledge in this area as Switzerland. Few other countries are so committed to international humanitarian law. That role is historically rooted and linked to Switzerland’s status as a permanently neutral state, which means that we do not take sides in an armed conflict. However, neutrality does not mean that we turn our back on the world. On the contrary, neutrality obliges us to play an active role.

While the basic rules and principles of international humanitarian law have proven their value, new forms of conflict and methods of warfare present a challenge to implementing them. For example, the previously mentioned important rule to distinguish between a military and a civilian target means something different in cyber warfare than it meant on 19th century battlefields.

Unfortunately, international humanitarian law continues to be frequently violated by both States and non-State armed groups. If international humanitarian law were better respected, there would be less suffering. The compliance mechanisms in international humanitarian law that do exist are rarely, if ever, used. Moreover, they are applicable only in international armed conflict, whereas the majority of conflicts are now non-international. Therefore the ICRC and the Swiss government are undertaking consultations and doing research on possible ways to improve compliance with international humanitarian law. The current initiative aims to strengthen compliance by means of enhancing the effectiveness of existing mechanisms where possible and examining the creation of new ones. Switzerland’s and the ICRC’s mandate to strengthen compliance mechanisms in international humanitarian law was recently renewed and made concrete by the States Parties to the Geneva Conventions at their 32nd Conference in Geneva in December 2015.

Swiss Humanitarian Aid

In terms of absolute volume, Switzerland is not among the biggest humanitarian aid providers, but is recognized for the high quality of its aid, for its innovation and capacity to react swiftly. A significant part of Swiss humanitarian aid supports the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Switzerland has the capacity to launch humanitarian operations within six hours after an alert. Very often Switzerland instead supports ongoing efforts by providing resources and expertise rather than building up parallel structures.

The Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit comprises 700 experts ready to be deployed. It provides financial support to the activities of the ICRC and the UN's humanitarian organizations. It also supports humanitarian nongovernmental organizations active on the ground. Switzerland supplies food aid in 38 countries via more than 22 Swiss relief agencies and the UN's World Food Program (WFP). Swiss humanitarian aid aims to ensure the sustainability of its commitment on the ground through linking emergency aid with medium- and long-term programs. For 2013–2016, Switzerland has earmarked more than CHF 2 billion in humanitarian aid for those most in need.


Humanitarian action and international humanitarian law face many challenges. The so-called shrinking humanitarian space and the politicization of humanitarian aid are probably the most urgent ones. But there is a wide range of other challenges such as the impact of new technology on warfare and international humanitarian law.

The Shrinking Humanitarian Space

One of the toughest choices for any head of a humanitarian organization is to decide what level of risk you are prepared to take; to what extent can you expose your personnel and your operation to danger to help populations in desperate need and to avoid possible atrocities? One of the difficulties is that you very often do not have the reliable information you need for making such a decision. Even if the flow of information with other governments and nongovernmental organizations works well, you usually have a very incomplete and biased picture of what is going on and what can be expected. Very often you depend on your people on the ground. Interestingly humanitarian aid workers do not seek  to avoid risk at all costs. They instead have the tendency to take too many risks when they face enormous human suffering and humanitarian need.

In the past decades, we saw a significant decrease in respect for international law and the emblem of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The reasons are manifold. Once parties to a conflict were armies or at least armed movements with the ambition to become a government one day. Today we very often face armed groups without any prospect of becoming part of a government (for instance, the Al-Shabaab movement in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda). Therefore they do not act in such a way as to be respected one day. That makes humanitarian aid very dangerous.

The terrorist organization ISIL is even worse. Publicly executing aid workers and journalists has no military benefit as was the case with classic violations of international humanitarian law. Violating international humanitarian law has been turned into a propaganda tool demonstrating that ISIL does not share the values of the international community.

Better education and outreach to combatants attempt to improve respect for international humanitarian law and the working conditions for humanitarian aid. But it is an uphill battle. Another avenue is changing humanitarian work itself, which can also be problematic. Using armed guards, for instance, or even army escorts can compromise the perception of impartiality in an area of conflict. That leads to the next topic:  the politicization of aid.

Politicization of Humanitarian Operations

Today’s zones of conflict are definitely messier than they were some decades ago. Typically you find a lot more actors than in earlier times, such as regular armed forces, non-state armed groups, organized crime, sometimes UN or other peacekeeping forces and a lot of international organizations and NGOs but also the media and the presence of social media. Most of the armed conflicts are protracted conflicts, which means that they are deeply rooted, longstanding, and require a comprehensive approach including diplomatic, military, and humanitarian and development action.

There is a risk that humanitarian organizations will be instrumentalized to push a political agenda ahead. That risk is particularly important for United Nations humanitarian organizations (such as the UNHCR and the UNOCHA) if UN peacekeeping operationstake place at the same time as the armed conflict. Personally I am convinced that there is no alternative to an independent, impartial and neutral status of all humanitarian organizations. That is the only way to be accepted by the parties to a conflict and eventually to gain access to all people with humanitarian needs. But that is wishful thinking in some contexts.

Technological Challenges

Technological developments and new weapons  always present challenges to international humanitarian law. How can you distinguish between military and civilian targets when concepts for nuclear warfare were developed during the Cold War? A much discussed new topic is cyber warfare.

Lawyers and technical experts agree that the potential for computer network attacks is considerable, raising questions about the application of international humanitarian law and even the definition of “armed conflict” itself. Military reliance on computer systems and networks has increased exponentially, thus opening a “fifth” domain of warfare next to the traditionally recognized domains of land, sea, air, and outer space. There is, however, no specific mention of cyber warfare and computer network attacks in the Geneva Conventions or their Additional Protocols. In Switzerland’s view, the principles and rules in those treaties governing the means and methods of warfare are not restricted to situations that existed at the time they were adopted. International humanitarian law clearly anticipated advances in weapons technology and the development of new means and methods of waging war. In Switzerland’s view, there can be no doubt that international humanitarian law covers cyber warfare. There is, however, a need to engage in further discussions about how exactly the existing principles apply to the cyber realm.


Let me conclude with brief remarks. The rules of international humanitarian law and humanitarian aid have proven to be useful for more than 150 years. They have saved a tremendous number of lives and reduced human suffering. They are still appropriate for current and future forms of conflict. New forms of conflict require a thoughtful understanding of existing norms and standards rather than a new set of norms as respect for them is the main challenge at present. Humanitarian aid and humanitarian access have become much more difficult (with the exception of natural disasters). But that encourages us to do more and to do better. Switzerland remains actively committed to strengthening international humanitarian law and providing humanitarian aid.

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