“Translating a beautiful vision into a necessary reality” - Opening of the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation in Geneva

Geneva, 25.10.2016 - Address by Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter at the opening of the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation in Geneva – Check against delivery

Ladies and gentlemen
Dear friends

It is an honour and pleasure to jointly open with you the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation.  We are launching today what Switzerland considers to be a crucial asset for humanitarian engagement. I am grateful to the ICRC as our host and to everyone involved for translating a beautiful vision into a necessary reality.

The strategic partners of the Centre – the ICRC, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, Médecins sans Frontières and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue – are all committed to alleviating the plight of people in need. I commend you for this commitment, And I thank you for your work, which has become ever more important as we see ourselves confronted with a scale of suffering not seen in a long time.

The humanitarian challenges we are facing today are staggering. It has become commonplace by now to point out that crises and crisis actors are proliferating. That these crises are increasingly complex and difficult to resolve in our fragmented world. That ever-growing numbers of people are in need. And that humanitarian work has become more demanding.

All of this is true, but it often comes across as something abstract. As representatives of major humanitarian actors, you know first-hand what these developments actually mean for the men, women and children in need.  How the lack of humanitarian access can turn into the lack of hope for those waiting for help. How relentless bombardments such as the bombardment of Aleppo and combats elsewhere such as in Yemen are wearing the civilian population down and traumatising children. And how the outrageous and all too frequent violations of international humanitarian law are leaving civilians ever more vulnerable.

The fact that humanitarian organisations today have to negotiate basic principles such as the protection of the civilian population, humanitarian access to deliver basic services, the decent treatment of detainees, or respect for the principles in the conduct of hostilities is worrying. Dignity and humanity must not become negotiable.

Switzerland will never accept the bombings of hospitals or of humanitarian convoys as a ‘new normal’. This is why we tirelessly work to strengthen respect of international humanitarian law. And this is why we remain committed to helping ensure that there will be no impunity for the most serious crimes under international law.

Ladies and gentlemen

Switzerland has been involved in the creation of this Centre from the outset. And we are determined to remain a strong supporter now that the wheels have started to turn.
There are two reasons for this:

First, the protection and assistance of those in need are and will remain a key pillar of Swiss foreign policy. Last month, the Swiss parliament approved over two billion Swiss francs for humanitarian action and policy for the next four years. As foreign minister, I have noted the credibility Switzerland enjoys in this field week by week. For example, we are still the only third country to provide aid through direct measures to the population on both sides of the contact line in Ukraine.

Strong support for humanitarian actors like those present tonight plays a major part of Switzerland’s humanitarian engagement. Most of you are coming from organisations that are supported by Switzerland not only financially and politically but also with secondments of skilled personnel. Yet our support can only have the desired impact if humanitarian actors are in a position to negotiate rapid and unimpeded access – that is, if the parties to armed conflict consent to humanitarian action.

Our commitment to this Centre therefore reflects our commitment to maximising the effectiveness of your work and the impact of humanitarian assistance to people in need. I have no doubt that the Centre can, and will, make a significant contribution to this end.

The second reason why we are a dedicated supporter of this Centre is that Switzerland beyond its deep-rooted humanitarian identity is equally committed to promoting dialogue and negotiated solutions. This characteristic of our foreign policy is also well reflected in what this Centre is about.

Switzerland is involved in dialogue activities that comprise not only state actors but also various non-state actors, including armed groups. In Syria, for example, Switzerland is engaged on various levels for a settlement of the conflict and for the respect of international humanitarian law, including vis-à-vis armed groups. With more than CHF 250 million spent so far, the Syria crisis is also by far Switzerland’s biggest humanitarian engagement. For example, by reconstructing 138 schools in Jordan and Lebanon, we have help enable 87’000 refugee and local children to have equal access to education.

Another example is our support for the OSCE in the Ukraine, including through a Swiss chairperson for the humanitarian working group. All in all, Switzerland is currently involved in over 20 mediation-related activities around the world. In its foreign policy strategy 2016-19, the Federal Council has committed to expanding Swiss mediation capacities to meet the high demand.

Let me add that we believe that it is worth looking into how peace mediation and humanitarian negotiations, although different areas of expertise with different objectives, do have some aspects and methods in common. I have also discussed this with the ICRC President. Switzerland seeks to promote both, peace mediation and humanitarian negotiations, and to build bridges between these fields so as to ensure that the best of both are utilised for the sake of the affected population.
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Humanitarian negotiations are a sensitive matter. Confidentiality, credibility, and acceptance are essential. The Centre for Humanitarian Negotiation offers a framework of trust for practitioners to engage in a thorough exchange and learn from their respective experiences. 

The Centre serves as a unique and innovative platform. It offers the space, the resources, and the necessary expertise to foster cooperation, research, and peer-to-peer exchange among humanitarian personnel. It will help humanitarian actors to be better equipped to negotiate based on the best available expertise and effective practices in today’s difficult circumstances.

As we inaugurate the Centre, our common objective should be to promote a real cycle of global learning that brings together a broad variety of backgrounds. A cycle where the experiences of both international negotiators and local staff – who often take up important tasks in frontline negotiations – are taken into account.

Geneva, as a humanitarian hub, offers great opportunities to make the Centre a success. I look forward to continuing our substantive exchanges and cooperation over the coming years. And I thank you once more for your work and your commitment, as agents of aid and as so many people’s agents of hope!

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