Pascale Baeriswyl, Switzerland’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told PassBlue that the country’s historic neutrality does not stop it from speaking out against violations of international law. Switzerland has been a UN member state since 2002, and it became an elected member of the Security Council in January, facing questions inside the country and outside about whether it would be forced to take stances that would diminish its impartiality.
“When we speak about violations of international law, human rights law, Switzerland has never been indifferent,” Baeriswyl told PassBlue in an interview on April 28.
For Switzerland, Russia’s reported abduction and resettlement of children from parts of Ukraine is a violation of international and human-rights law. Russian diplomats at the UN convened an informal Security Council meeting on April 5 on the matter, titled: “Children and Armed Conflict: Ukrainian Crisis, Evacuating Children From Conflict Zones.” Russia used the meeting to argue its case for the “forced transfers” of Ukrainian children into occupied territories in the country or into Russia itself. The briefers included Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, who with President Vladimir Putin has been issued an arrest warrant for war crimes by the International Criminal Court for seizing Ukrainian children.
“We reject the participation of so-called representatives of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ as well as a person under investigation by the International Criminal Court and for whom an arrest warrant has been issued,” Switzerland’‘s representative said at the meeting. “Russia’s attempted annexations” — of certain Ukrainian territory — “have no validity and constitute serious violations of international law. Our presence here today should not be interpreted as recognition of such a change in status.”
The 35th periodic report of the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights recognizes the right of an occupying force to evacuate children to safety but condemns Russia’s placement of resettled children in Russian families (including what they call “adoptions”) and the issuing of Russian citizenship to the minors.
Although not a member of the European Union, Switzerland is aligning with EU sanctions on Russia, ruling the Swiss out of future mediation to peace talks. The array of sanctions has indirectly affected the export of Russian agricultural produce, for starters, including much-needed fertilizer to the global market. Moscow is threatening to tear up the Black Sea Grain agreement that it reached with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Türkiye’s president, to enable Ukrainian grain exports to pass through Black Sea minefields to reach the rest of the world. Historically, Ukraine (and Russia) has been a major exporter of grains. The deal expires on May 18 and has faced two previous renewals since it was agreed on in July 2022. A separate but related memorandum of understanding between the UN and Russia to get such Russian products as fertilizer and ammonia to international markets also hinges on the grain deal renewal.
“I think this is really on the UN to make sure that the deal can be implemented,” Baeriswyl told PassBlue. Russia has argued that sanctions placed on global payment and insurance systems, including Swift, have barred its agricultural goods from reaching world markets, although these products are not directly targeted by embargoes from Switzerland, Europe, the United States and other allies. Yet insurers, for example, are loath to do business with Russia while it illegally invades Ukraine and find the overall sanctions regimes daunting. A current key demand for Moscow to renew the Black Sea deal is exempting Russia’s state agricultural bank (Rosselkhozbank) from the Swift payments system. But Russia’s real goal may be to drop the grain deal to export its own goods free to African countries to curry favor and compete with Ukraine’s “Grain From Ukraine” free shipments to the continent.
During Switzerland’s Council presidency, the Black Sea deal is not on the agenda, although if it is not renewed by Russia, the Council is likely to take up the problem in May. Guterres sent a letter recently to Putin proposing an extension and expansion of the deal, but the UN has not released new information on the offer.
The Council is also planning to hold open debates on Ukraine now that the monthly rotating presidency has passed from Russia in April to Switzerland. Meetings on Ukraine that may land on the agenda include a focus on humanitarian aid, especially as the Ukrainian counteroffensive is tentatively slated to start in mid-May. The Council is holding an informal open session on May 2 about preserving cultural heritage in armed conflict. Ukraine’s deputy permanent representative, Khrystyna Hayovyshyn, is scheduled to speak. (It will not be live-streamed by the UN’s official channel because of Russia objecting, following a tit-for-tat with other informal Council meetings when China first blocked UN WebTV from covering an informal session on North Korea. It takes only one Council member to block the UN channel from broadcasting the gatherings, known as Arrias. In the last two months, the US and Britain have also taken such steps.)
Amid the regular Council program of work, covering the enduring crises in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, the Sahel region of West Africa, among others, Switzerland is holding three signature debates. As to Afghan women being blocked by the Taliban for working with the UN, it is unclear whether this topic will surface in the Council this month, as Guterres just ended a two-day meeting on the matter in Doha, with no specific strategy except to hold another gathering.
The first key debate, “Futureproofing Trust for Sustaining Peace,” is to be held on May 3. Volker Turk, the high commissioner for human rights, is scheduled to brief remotely. Switzerland’s foreign minister, Ignazio Cassis, is to chair the meeting.
This session will be followed by another signature event, on the protection of civilians. The May 23 debate is expected to feature three high-profile briefers: President Alain Berset of Switzerland, Guterres and Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. Baeriswyl said the debate would be framed around food insecurity. (The concept note.) Switzerland will end its presidency with an honorary session marking the 75th-year of peacekeeping, on May 25.
As for the weeks-old fight wracking Sudan, the Council has an open meeting scheduled on May 22 about its political mission there, called Unitams. As Switzerland’s first Council president, Baeriswyl said she felt joy for herself and her team to serve the international community. She is also a jazz saxophonist who plays on Sundays to relax.
“Just looking over the East River, I feel privileged that I can work here,” she said. “New York is not the worst place to be and to listen to the most wonderful artists all here in this crazy city.”
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN diplomats as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of Switzerland, listen to PassBlue’s podcast series, UN-Scripted, produced by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, on SoundCloud.
Below is an excerpt, edited and condensed, from an interview with the ambassador on April 28.
PassBlue: What are your plans for the Security Council as rotating president? The first is a debate on May 3, called “Futureproofing Trust for Sustaining Peace.” So it will be a strong focus on trust. We will hear the UN high commissioner for human rights [Volker Turk] for the first time, have an African Union youth ambassador, who will be speaking about the aspect of inclusion — and a professor speaking about how modern technologies can contribute to building trust. We will prepare a report to the secretary-general, to the Peacebuilding Commission, which will have a retreat in July, and to the president of the General Assembly, who is holding a series of discussions also around trust. On May 23, a presidential debate is planned on the protection of civilians. Our president, Alain Berset, will brief the Council and, of course, the [UN] secretary-general and the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Last but not least, we will commemorate on May 25 the 75th anniversary of peacekeeping. Our minister for defense will be here. We will also have the force commander of the UN’s oldest mission, Untso, who is Swiss, here.
PassBlue: Regarding your event on conflict resolution on May 3. Switzerland has always favored peaceful resolution of conflicts. But with the war in Ukraine, do you think there is still an avenue for a peaceful resolution in this case? I think there is no other way than believing that and making all efforts possible to work towards an immediate stop of that war and the peaceful resolution of that conflict — which was started by military aggression of Russia against Ukraine. So we always believe in dialogue, we always think that weapons should stop talking. So we should sit at the table and try to find solutions and stop this war, while of course, respecting the UN Charter.
PassBlue: There has been a long debate in Switzerland about it joining the Security Council as an elected member and how it could mean giving up its famed neutrality. Your statement at the Russian-led informal meeting in the Council on April 5 on the forced transfer of Ukrainian children by Russia was very un-neutral. Has Switzerland stopped being neutral and being the go-to country for mediation? No, I think we cannot say that. And I’m really grateful that you give me the opportunity to explain a bit what it’s about when we speak about Swiss neutrality or other forms of neutrality. First, I think we always make conflict resolution contributions. That’s also part of our concept of neutrality. In the Council, the question of whether Switzerland is neutral has not been a topic high on the agenda because our positions have been longstanding on all conflicts in the world. Neutrality has been an integral part of preparing for those positions. So there have been no surprises in the Swiss positions in the Council. I think that’s also why the topic of neutrality in the Council has not come up that often. If you look at the concept closely, there is a legal part of neutrality which is based on the Hague Conventions. And the Hague Conventions say that you have to treat conflict parties exactly the same way. Switzerland has adopted that within a war context that is based, of course, on international humanitarian law. When we speak about violations of international law or human-rights law, Switzerland has never been indifferent. We have always been speaking up in many, many other contexts of the world. I think what surprised people a year ago after this terrible war [in Ukraine] started, is where we had most often the opportunity to explain neutrality — and that we followed the EU sanctions. But that has been the case in many circumstances. Since the end of the Cold War, Switzerland, for nearly 30 years has been following the EU sanctions whenever it came to a flagrant violation of international law.
PassBlue: Moving away from the issue of neutrality, will the Security Council be holding a meeting on the Black Sea Grain deal in May? This is not the Council’s business. But, of course, any Council member can call for meetings. I think, first of all, the parties to that agreement have to make sure that it can continue. Then we have to take it from there. I very much hope that this Black Sea grain initiative can continue.
PassBlue: How does it feel to be the first Council president from Switzerland? I feel the “somehow historic moment.” But it’s not my moment. It’s the moment of the team here, which is working really hard. And I think the feeling is that of joy that we have the honor of working for the international community, showing our solidarity in a really difficult time to be a strong voice for international law.
Ambassador to the UN: Pascale Baeriswyl, 55
Languages: French, English and German fluently; working knowledge of Spanish and Italian
Education: Master’s degree in private and public law (specializing in European law) and a second master’s in history, French literature and linguistics (specializing in neurolinguistics), from the University of Basel.
Her story, briefly: Pascale Baeriswyl, who was born on April 4, 1968, in Berne, the capital, is married and has two grown children. She has had a long career in the Swiss foreign affairs department, where she has held such positions as deputy head of the human-rights policy section in the Human Security Division and vice director of the Directorate of International Law. She became the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Switzerland in 2016, the first woman to hold this post. In 2020, Baeriswyl was appointed as the ambassador and permanent representative of Switzerland to the UN in New York City.
Head of State: President Alain Berset
Foreign Affairs Minister: Ignazio Cassis
Type of Government: Semidirect democratic federal republic
Year Switzerland Joined the UN: 2002
Years on the Security Council: 2023
Population: 8.703 million (2021)
Per capita CO2 emission figures, 2021 (in metric tons): 4.02 (by comparison, the US is 15; China, 7.2)
Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.