Friday June 22, the last day of the Rio+20 conference. A haze of exhaustion hangs over the media center at RioCentro. At the far end of the auditorium, which houses a mess of cords, cameras, laptops and weary-eyed journalists, a huge screen depicts a live feed of dignitaries delivering carefully prepared statements from the plenary hall. Suddenly laughter fills the press center followed by an uproar of applause. On screen, Bruno Oberle, Director of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, reads the final statement from the Swiss delegation: “Yes, we made progress, but we missed the historical opportunity….” A well-reasoned statement steeped in empiricism, but not one that would ordinarily get a rise out of a tired press corps.
Front and center in the shot of Oberle delivering his remarks, a delegate from Asia has nodded off to sleep. A fitting critique of the Swiss delegation’s effort at Rio+20—and enthusiastic actor with empathy for both sides of the argument, trying to promote a common agenda, while others closed their eyes!
Though Switzerland was not the only country trying to mediate the north-south divide that developed in the negotiation process, it represented the leading arbitral voice with a force disproportionate to the size of its population.
A dwarf willing a mountain to move
Switzerland’s role in the negotiation process was ambitious from the start. Challenging the world’s largest economies is a daunting task. Justifying the expense to a hyper-engaged, civically-minded Swiss populace known for keeping its politicians on a tight budget is equally challenging.
In true Swiss fashion, the delegation started their journey well prepared, setting up an information platform for Rio+20 in four languages (French, German, Italian and English) with clearly stated objectives for governance and green economy. Additionally they took civil society engagement very seriously, inviting stakeholders to pre-Rio briefings and providing logistical support to help these groups coordinate their actions. Masters of representative governance, the Swiss went further: they invited representatives from civil society to join the delegation, allowing some to actively participate in negotiations from the Swiss negotiator’s desk. Indeed, the Swiss Delegation incorporated many of civil society’s suggestions, advocating for a more concrete outcome document.
A snapshot of the negotiating document on June 2nd, reveals the name “Switzerland” frequently associated with change requests. Doris Leuthard, the Swiss Federal Councillor representing Switzerland in Rio explains: “You need to position yourself. You need to be ambitious to reach at least half of your goals.” (Listen to an interview with Leuthard below.)
Switzerland’s efforts have been recognized. According to David Nabarro, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General on Food Security and Nutrition, “one country has stood out in the negotiation process and that country is Switzerland.”
The world’s NGO can afford to engage
There are many reasons why a tiny country would take on a big role in international negotiations. In the case of Switzerland at Rio+20, three stand out: Switzerland is on the leading edge of sustainable development, Switzerland’s economy is robust, and issues that might affect Switzerland’s economy or its regulatory policy are not up for debate in this case.
With one of the world’s highest GDP per capita, following micro-states like Luxemburg and Qatar, Switzerland’s economy is strong enough and large enough not to fear sustainable development measures stifling growth or impinging on Swiss prosperity. Many developing countries, on the other hand, are perpetually concerned that new environmental commitments will weigh down economic growth. With the debt crisis in full swing across Europe and a second dip into recession looming in America, even industrialized nations are afraid of taking on too many commitments. Student Reporter managing editor and Rio+20 team leader, Tim Lehmann maintains that Switzerland can act like an NGO because it has already implemented all the sustainable development measures and environmental protections up for debate at the conference. Indeed, Switzerland’s sustainability agenda is well defined and goes beyond what the Rio agenda called for. “We are a little bit ahead of the international community,” admits Mrs. Leuthard. Finally, many crucial points for Switzerland such as the corporate tax system, bank secrecy and agricultural subsidies were not part of the Rio+20 negotiations. While Switzerland admirably took on the role of a lead mediator in the negotiations process, they did so from a comfortable starting point.
Losing the “nice guy” label?
The US and Iran are not on good diplomatic terms; therefore, Switzerland runs some embassy processes for the US in Teheran and does the same in Cuba. This intermediary role, together with its declared political neutrality, gives the Swiss a rather balanced and moderate international profile. However, many countries from the G77 were surprised by the uncharacteristically insistent positions of Switzerland, explains Hans Hurni, professor and president of the CDE (Centre for Development and Environment) at University of Bern and Swiss Delegation consultant at Rio+20. During the Green Economy negotiations, I witnessed Swiss negotiators stridently opposing any watering down of commitments. Mrs. Leuthard explained Switzerland’s hardline negotiating strategy: “When… [other negotiating countries] feel [like] ‘Okay we have Switzerland. We can make a deal. [Switzerland will] weaken their position.’ You will always lose. Therefore I am very proud that our team in all the negotiation rounds were tough.”
Does this represent a paradigm shift in Switzerland’s neutral orientation in foreign affairs? Very unlikely. The Swiss may very well balance their sustainability aspirations at Rio with traditionally neutral positions in other international affairs. Still, the Swiss decision to make a stand at Rio and leverage significant political capital is important and represents the country’s commitment to sustainable development.
Wealth, a proactive domestic sustainable development agenda and the absence of any topics too sensitive to Swiss polity and economy combined with the country’s internationally recognized role as a trustworthy mediator, to make it easy for Switzerland to take on the role of lead go-between at Rio+20. Privilege brings responsibility. Switzerland answered this call by shaping the Rio+20 negotiation process, wielding an influence far greater than its weight in population. Considering the limitations inherent in such a huge negotiation, Switzerland’s effort can be seen as a success and an important contribution to the final declaration. A first step has been made, but it does not end here. If Switzerland wants to reap maximum benefit from the efforts sewn in Rio, it must engage with the implementation of the Rio+20 declaration, intervening where necessary. Most importantly, Switzerland must continue to be a first mover in the field of social and environmental sustainability, taking steps that other countries might not be ready to take.