This week Renu Chahil-Graf interviews Switzerland’s UN Ambassador Alexandre Fasel. Alexandre talks about what Switzerland brings to international affairs and what lies behind it. During the interview he shows how he embodies it.
A Walk in the Park with Ambassador Alexandre Fasel: Switzerland’s UN representative and Keeper of the Flame of International Geneva.
Switzerland’s ambassador in Switzerland
Indeed, Ambassador Fasel is the proud keeper of the flame of “International Geneva”, the name given to the city because of its tradition of hosting international organisations and citizens of the world. As Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations (UN) Office and other International Organisations in this city he carries two major responsibilities. First, communicatingSwitzerland’s key values: peace, safeguarding international humanitarian law and preventing conflicts and wars. Second, as host country, taking care of some 250 permanent missions or delegations and 39 international organisations. No small task! Expecting to meet an undoubtedly seasoned diplomat, one slowly discovers that he is much more…
Switzerland’s multilingual patchwork in action
Born a stone’s throw away from Bern, in Fribourg, a city that straddles Switzerland’s French-German speaking border, with a parent from each language group, was probably good early training ground. Much of Ambassador Fasel’s career was indeed spent in Bern at the Swiss Foreign Ministry, handling European Affairs and International issues, rising to senior positions. However, he did confess to having had two “hardship” duty station postings – Ottawa (oh, the cold!) and Canberra (the tyranny of distance!)”
Global bank, global sport: from diplomat to formula one and back again
In the middle of his rising diplomatic career, however, Alexandre Fasel was stolen away for three years by the bank Credit Suisse to head its Formula One Affairs Unit. Evidently all his diplomatic skills were needed to take care of the business end, sporting and political issues of the Bank’s F-1 engagement. Hmm… But as he admits, he was a “multilateralist at heart” – driven to get multiple countries working in concert on a given issue, had numerous UN-related responsibilities and “hit the ground running” by the time he was assigned to Geneva. With a great commitment to International Geneva and International Affairs, Ambassador Fasel considers it “a great privilege to work in an environment with a huge wealth of knowledge and with all the tools to do good.”
How Switzerland got it’s street credibility in international affairs
The Ambassador describes how the Swiss have “bred multilateralists” – people who know how to get multiple parties working in concert on a given issue. This sits at the heart of Swiss politics. From the very early days Swiss trading houses were set up in many countries attracted by natural resources lacking at home. Over time, Swiss diplomatic representations followed suit, bringing the messages of “neutrality and universality”. The essential characteristics of Switzerland, never having been a colonial power, not being part of any multi-country alliance, drawing upon the rule of law rather than force, has added value to its international presence. The Ambassador notes that Switzerland has “street credibility” – what you see is what you get, there is no hidden agenda. This establishes a ground level of trust which helps engage with all countries in a “transparent and predictable” manner.
A taste of Swiss honey
Since Geneva is often the location of high profile international events, meetings, talks and negotiations, Ambassador Fasel has to be constantly on his toes. Right now, however, his toes are in shoes which are slowly sinking into the rain-drenched, muddy depths of the UN’s Parc de l’Ariana as we walk towards innocent-looking, doll house shaped boxes donated by Switzerland to the United Nations on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of its joining the United Nations. They turn out to be ten beehives! Not only healthy and resourceful, each beehive displays a message: Paix, Humanitaire, Environnement, Solidarité, Droits de l’homme, Désarmement, Sécurité, Santé, Cooperation, Dialogue. Unflinchingly, the Ambassador sits down next to the beehive most needed at this time, entitled “Paix”. Anticipating the next question, he explains that the harvest of honey is divided equally between the Director-General of the United Nations Offices in Geneva and himself. The former gifts a bottle to every Ambassador when she or he presents their credentials. The latter to every person invited to his residence. It would be great to figure out how to get on that list!
Next, we walk over to “The Rebirth”, a monumental sculpture designed by the Italian artist, Maestro Michelangelo Pistoletto, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations on 24 October 2015.
The sculpture, composed of 193 stones, each representing a UN Member State, symbolizes the ‘rebirth’ of society and aims to send a strong global message of a shared commitment to peace, rights and well-being for all. Placed in an infinity layout and arranged alphabetically, we find Switzerland’s granite from the Alps next to Syria’s stone… While the Swiss mission in Geneva takes care of the traditional host state’s functions for the UN and other international organisations, including delegates for meetings, it does not always get directly involved in any current or planned talks, such as those on Syria, since they are intra-Syrian. However, the Swiss are currently involved in trilateral discussions between Iran, Syria and Switzerland on humanitarian affairs.
Who stole the circonflexe without asking all concerned?
Looking across the landscape at a rare, clear view across the Alps, the Ambassador advises not to look at the highest peak in Europe, the Mont Blanc, where all eyes naturally gravitate, but rather at the mountain to the left of it. Le Môle. He spells out: “M O circonflexe L E”. The circonflexe, now causing diplomatic unease among Francophones in light of neighbouring France’s discussions on dropping this upturned little v! It’s a decision for the Francophonie and not a single state, he clarifies…an example of countries not working together.
Don’t forget the arts
But back to Le Môle: it was the first mountain identified on a painting, the Ambassador explains. A work done by Konrad Witz in 1444, in a picture entitled “La pêche miraculeuse” (the Miraculous Draught of Fishes). The original can be viewed in the Museum of Art and History in Geneva. On cue, the Ambassador whips out his iPad to show this historic painting. Hmm, an artistic bent too. A family trend undoubtedly, with his wife active in the art scene and his daughter studying the Arts, albeit with that Aussie English accent she picked up, you know where…
Swiss modesty. Where the rubber hits the road.
Coming to the end of our walk and meandering towards the iconic flags which grow in number each time the UN acquires a new Member State, and so also the responsibility of the Swiss mission, to take care of all its diplomats and civil servants, now numbering about 42,000. Asked whether he gets calls in the middle of the night on last minute visas, electricity, water and more, Ambassador Fasel just flashes his broad smile… We wave good-bye and the Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations offices and other international organisations is whisked away in a Volkswagen, very modestly Swiss and another ingredient that helps to bring multiple parties together – Swiss street credibility in action once more.
By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a Geneva-based writer and former international United Nations civil servant.