Switzerland's membership of the UN Security Council: a look back and a look ahead

For the UN Security Council, 2023 was a year of multiple crises. Barely any of the world's conflict hotspots failed to make the agenda of its virtually daily meetings, from Haiti and Sudan to Ukraine and the Middle East. Over the past year, Switzerland has focused on the four priorities defined by the Federal Council, which it intends to build on during the second half of its Security Council term in 2024.

Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis sits at the horseshoe-shaped table of the UN Security Council during the Swiss presidency.

In 2023, Switzerland set out priorities in the UN Security Council which it intends to build on in 2024. Pictured here is Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis during Switzerland's presidency of the Security Council in May 2023. © FDFA

Switzerland's membership of the UN Security Council comes at a time when the world feels increasingly out of joint. The war against Ukraine, which has been going on for almost two years, the violent escalations in the Middle East, Nagorno-Karabakh and Sudan, and the coups in Niger and Gabon have further increased global instability. The tensions and mistrust between world players that accompany these crises and conflicts are also reflected at the Security Council table, with the major powers becoming less and less willing to work together to find common solutions. One example is the Security Council's handling of the conflict in the Middle East since 7 October. Out of a total of six draft resolutions, the Council has only adopted one, a resolution aimed at the humanitarian protection of children. But despite these challenges, the Council continues to make important decisions on many issues, in contexts as diverse as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. 

Infographic presenting key figures about the work of the UN Security Council in 2023.
2023 in the UN Security Council: the year in numbers. © FDFA

Over the past year, Switzerland has established itself as an active and constructive Council member while promoting its four thematic priorities ("Building sustainable peace", "Protecting civilians", "Addressing climate security" and "Enhancing the effectiveness of the Security Council"). This was achieved in part thanks to its chairmanship and penholder roles during its first presidency in May, but also in behind-the-scenes negotiations. Championing its own values and interests was vital in this context. These include, among other things, its mandate under the Federal Constitution to work for the peaceful co-existence of peoples, strengthening international humanitarian law and human rights, and building bridges in order to promote problem-solving within the UN body. Examples of specific areas on which Switzerland focused in 2023 are set out below for each priority:

Building sustainable peace

As part of its priority of building sustainable peace, Switzerland, as a member of the Security Council, is committed to fostering trust in order to strengthen cooperation between Council members. On 3 May, Switzerland organised a high-level debate during its month-long presidency, focusing on building trust for global peace and security. With the statement "Where there is trust, anything is possible", Federal Councillor and head of the FDFA Ignazio Cassis launched the Council discussion on a topic that is more important than ever against the backdrop of mistrust and tensions between the major powers. The bulk of the 68 countries that took part in the debate agreed that trust in institutions is a key enabler of peace. Mr Cassis emphasised that science can play a key role in promoting sustainable peace. Scientifically sound facts underpin mutual trust, and science and new technologies offer the opportunity to anticipate and understand future risks and opportunities, in order to respond to them.

A Swiss Armed Forces member observes a valley in Bosnia and Herzegovina with binoculars.
Since 2004, Swiss Armed Forces personnel have been contributing to peacekeeping within EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina. © DDPS

On 2 November, the UN Security Council unanimously authorised the mandate of the EUFOR ALTHEA stabilisation mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina for another year. The core task of the mission is to support the authorities in maintaining a secure environment in the country. This year's negotiations took place under Switzerland's leadership. In this role, it facilitated dialogue between all parties. EUFOR ALTHEA makes an important contribution to peacekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina and helps stabilise the Western Balkans region.

Protecting civilians

On 30 May 2023, Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), presented five principles for the protection of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in south-eastern Ukraine to the UN Security Council, in the presence of Ukrainian and Russian representatives:

  1. No attacks of any kind from or against the nuclear power plant;
  2. No storage or stationing of heavy weapons or troops at the plant;
  3. No threat to the external power supply;
  4. Protection of all systems necessary for safe operation against attacks or acts of sabotage;
  5. No actions that undermine these principles.
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis and IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi address the media in New York.
Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis and IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, call on Russia and Ukraine to implement the five IAEA principles for the protection of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant. © Keystone

The session focused on the protection of civilians from nuclear disasters. "We are all aware of the risks to the civilian population when a nuclear power plant is located in a war zone. It is our duty to protect the civilian population," said Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis at the meeting in New York. In consultation with the IAEA and the other Council members, Swiss diplomacy had been working in the weeks prior to 30 May to ensure that this meeting took place. Mr Cassis, who chaired the meeting in the Council, recalled that the protection of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a matter of respect for international humanitarian law. Respecting and promoting this law is a priority for Switzerland and a pillar of its good offices.

Switzerland also organised another open debate in the Security Council during its presidency. Chaired by the President of the Swiss Confederation, Alain Berset, the meeting discussed actions to break the vicious cycle between conflict and food insecurity and was attended by a large number of high-level participants. The debate highlighted the importance of international humanitarian law in armed conflicts, an issue that Switzerland, as depositary state of the Geneva Conventions and host state of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has long been strongly committed to. Speaking on Switzerland's behalf, Mr Berset suggested concrete ways in which civilians could be better protected, while stressing that political will was crucial. 

Addressing climate security

Switzerland was also able to make its mark in the area of climate security, although the issue is not an easy one in the UN Security Council due to the national interests of various Council members. The effects of climate change, such as droughts, floods and other natural disasters, threaten the livelihoods of people worldwide. This undermines stability and security in many countries and regions. Armed conflicts are prevalent in more than half of the states most affected by climate change and most vulnerable to its consequences. During the negotiations on five mandate renewals for UN peacekeeping missions in 2023, Switzerland successfully advocated for the issue of security to be incorporated in the adopted resolution texts and given greater consideration. The missions concerned are those in South Sudan (UNMISS), Iraq (UNAMI), Haiti (BINUH), Libya (UNSMIL) and Somalia (UNSOM). 

Enhancing the Council's effectiveness

As part of its priority of enhancing the effectiveness of the Security Council, Switzerland is committed, among other things, to strengthening the Council's link with the work of the UN in Geneva and to improving working processes and the Security Council's capacity to act. At Switzerland's initiative, the current ten non-permanent members (E10) of the Council and the five newly elected members for the years 2024–25 met in Geneva and in Glion, near Montreux, between 27 and 29 August 2023. This exchange provided an opportunity to build relationships and discuss common challenges and potential solutions in the Security Council. This engagement also promotes the institutional memory of the E10 and thus the continuity of the Council's work. Furthermore, it strengthens the capacity of elected members to influence the Council's agenda, working methods and decision-making processes. This ultimately benefits the Security Council, the UN and multilateralism. After all, against the backdrop of countless conflicts and crises around the world, an efficient and capable Security Council is more important than ever.

21 women and men from all parts of the world sit around a table and discuss.
The current and future non-permanent members of the UN Security Council deepened their cooperation in Switzerland in order to enhance the effectiveness of the Council's work. © FDFA

A look ahead to the second half of Switzerland's term on the Council

"I am confident that, in the coming year, Team Switzerland will succeed in building on previous successes and promoting its priorities with a lasting effect," says Thomas Gürber, head of the UN Division and deputy state secretary at the FDFA.

There are plenty of avenues to pursue. For its priority of building sustainable peace, Switzerland aims to strengthen and promote the role and use of recognised scientific data, among other things. This ties in directly with the flagship event chaired by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis during the Swiss presidency of the Security Council in May 2023. On that occasion, Mr Cassis underlined the importance of science in building mutual trust for the benefit of peace and security in the world.

Regarding the protection of civilians, the Geneva Conventions celebrate their 75th anniversary next year. They are the centrepiece of international humanitarian law and must be respected. Switzerland, as their depositary state, will continue to advocate strongly to this end in its foreign policy as well as its work in the Security Council. 

I am confident that, in the coming year, Team Switzerland will succeed in building on previous successes and promoting its priorities with a lasting effect.
Ambassador Thomas Gürber, head of the UN Division and deputy state secretary of the FDFA

On climate security, Switzerland will keep up its efforts next year to ensure that the Security Council continues to address this challenge. Climate change remains the greatest systemic threat to humanity, with civilians in conflict regions particularly affected. The inclusion of climate issues in resolutions on geographical contexts will therefore remain a focus of Switzerland's work in the Council.

The same applies to enhancing the effectiveness of the Security Council. At a time of omnipresent crises and conflicts, it is important that the Council can fulfil its mandate for peace and security in the world. Switzerland will therefore continue to work for consensus and cooperation among all Council members in 2024. In addition, it would like, among other things, to give more emphasis to the rule-of-law aspect of the Council's sanctions measures. With this in mind, Switzerland will continue to do everything it can in 2024 to be "a plus for peace" – the slogan of its candidacy.

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