150 years of Swiss humanitarian commitment

Signed 150 years ago, the first Geneva Convention is the foundation stone of international humanitarian law, which is applicable in situations of armed conflict. Switzerland demonstrates its humanitarian tradition through its commitment to supporting victims, ensuring compliance with and the further development of international humanitarian law. This web dossier provides an overview of Switzerland's broad-based humanitarian commitment.

 An employee of Swiss Humanitarian Aid discusses with internal displaced persons in the surroundings of Bor in South Sudan
An employee of Swiss Humanitarian Aid discusses with internal displaced persons in the surroundings of Bor in South Sudan. ©SDC

After witnessing the human disaster following the Battle of Solferino in 1859, Henry Dunant (1828–1910), a native of Geneva, introduced the first measures to protect people caught in situations of armed conflict. His humanitarian initiative led to the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Switzerland's most important strategic humanitarian partner, and to the signing of the first Geneva Convention on 22 August 1864.

The Geneva Conventions – the centrepiece of international humanitarian law – demand that a minimum of human dignity be safeguarded in armed conflicts. While initially the focus of concern was on wounded or sick members of armed forces participating in hostilities, the 1949 Conventions were extended to the protection of civilian populations. International humanitarian law, which also limits the means and methods of conducting warfare, is applicable in every armed conflict and to all parties to a conflict.

New challenges
Compliance with and the strengthening and promotion of international humanitarian law are priorities of Swiss foreign policy. Switzerland, together with the ICRC, have launched a diplomatic initiative to promote its application in the field and to step up the fight against impunity. Other examples of the search for responses to current challenges include the drafting of a code of conduct for private security companies or the support granted to radio stations active in areas stricken by conflict: in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic for instance, local radios make international law more widely known in the interests of peace and security.

A multifaceted humanitarian commitment
Switzerland's humanitarian commitment also encompasses activities and initiatives in the field of peace policy and human rights policy. Swiss Humanitarian Aid deploys various instruments for the protection of people, including providing financial support for partner organisations such as the ICRC and seconding specialists from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit. Lastly, the “international Geneva” plays an important role as a recognised international centre of competence for humanitarian aid and humanitarian law.

Last update 11.01.2023

  • Head of the Directorate of International Law of the FDFA, Ambassador Valentin Zellweger, explains Switzerland's expectations regarding compliance with international humanitarian law

  • Swiss Humanitarian Aid is committed to reducing the suffering of victims of armed conflicts. Four members of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit deployed in South Sudan and Ethiopia describe their work

  • The "Fondation Hirondelle", which has enjoyed long-standing support by the SDC, helps African radio stations and other media outlets broadcast reliable information. A recently launched project in partnership with the ICRC raises awareness of the principles of international humanitarian law

  • What purpose do diplomats serve? Cyril Prissette, counsellor for humanitarian affairs at the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York, describes his daily work and progress made in the field of humanitarian aid in the world

  • An exhibition of powerful photographs of victims of war by the Geneva photographer Jean Mohr will be opened on 22 August 2014 at the Landesmuseum in Zurich, 150 years to the day after the signing of the first Geneva Convention

  • Switzerland cultivates its humanitarian "brand image" through the "international Geneva" sphere. A host state of diplomatic meetings, Switzerland endeavours in the meantime to promote reflection on strategic issues

  • Two archival documents illustrate the preparations of the international conferences convened by Switzerland in 1864 and 1949. A century and a half ago, Switzerland shaped its foreign policy around its neutrality and humanitarian tradition

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