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Will Switzerland host a ‘peace’ meeting between Russia and Ukraine?

The two countries might meet for talks in Geneva soon. This wouldn’t be the first or last time that quarrelling parties try to work out their problems in Switzerland’s most international city.

Will Switzerland host a ‘peace’ meeting between Russia and Ukraine?
Geneva is accustomed to holding international negotiations. Photo by Anokhi De Silva on Unsplash

Please note: Switzerland on Monday afternoon announced it would join the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia. Here’s what you need to know

As reported by Swiss media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis to organise a peace conference in Geneva in order to bring about a ceasefire with Russia.

The meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, scheduled in the city for Monday and Tuesday, in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to participate, would be an opportunity for peace talks.

READ MORE: Switzerland stops new banking business with Russians on EU sanctions list

Switzerland, Russia or Ukraine have not confirmed yet that such a meeting will take place, but Zelenskuy’s request sheds new light on Geneva’s pivotal role in international diplomacy.  

In fact, due to its long humanitarian tradition and strategic location in a neutral country — as well as a convenient presence of numerous UN agencies — Geneva has hosted a number of important international summits since the end of World War II (see below).  

“Switzerland is a globally renowned and sought-after partner as a mediator in peace negotiations and in supporting mediation and peace processes”, according to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA).

“Mediation is part of Switzerland’s good offices and one of the country’s foreign policy priorities”, the FDFA added.

How do nations settle their disputes in Geneva?

According to the FDFA, “with the agreement of the parties in conflict, Switzerland creates a space for negotiations – it does not take sides or influence the agenda. It helps the parties to identify the root causes, formulate their concerns and work out solutions”.

Switzerland may be requested to act as a mediator by conflicting parties themselves — as is the case with Zelensky reportedly asking the Swiss president to set up such a meeting — or may offer its mediation services. It acts as a mediator itself or offers support to negotiating parties”.

For instance, “Switzerland is increasingly deploying experts in international organisations such as the UN and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), to mediate in conflicts”.

United Nations headquarters in Geneva. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

What top-level meetings has Geneva hosted in the past?

Here’s an overview of several of many conferences that have taken place in the city since the end of the war:

April-July 1954: Geneva Conference on Korea and Indochina

Representatives from France, the US, the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, as well as  emissaries from the Viet Minh, met at the Villa Le Bocage just across the street from the UN Geneva headquarters.  

After long negotiations they agreed on the provisional partition of Vietnam, and the creation of three new states: North Vietnam, led by the Viet Minh, Laos and Cambodia.

The agreement became known, appropriately enough, as The Geneva Accords.

November 19th-20th 1985: Geneva summit

“Cameras from all around the world were there to capture a historic, seven-second-long handshake between US President Ronald Reagan and USSR leader Mikhaïl Gorbachev in front of the Villa Fleur d’Eau, in the Geneva suburb of Versoix, according to Geneva Solutions publication.

The first meeting between the two superpowers sought to slow down the nuclear arms race. But even though it did not end the weapons race, summit served to renew the dialogue between the two blocs, “initiating a détente in US-USSR relations which would last until the end of the Cold War”.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during a two-day summit between the superpowers in Geneva. Photo by AFP

November 24th, 2013: Iranian nuclear negotiations

Iran, the US, France, the UK, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union met in Geneva’s City Hall to continue peace talks that had already started in 2006.

During the 2013 conference, preliminary consensus was reached, stipulating that the Iranian nuclear agreement would remain solely civilian and will not be used for weapons.

This meeting laid the foundation for the signing of a joint plan of action on  July 14th, 2015. However, “despite these advances, in 2018 former US President Donald Trump withdrew from these agreements”.

June 16th, 2021: Biden-Putin summit

In the first top-level US-Russia meeting in Geneva since the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the two leaders met on a sunny day in Villa La Grange, a luxurious mansion overlooking Lake Geneva.

US President Joe Biden Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a summit at Villa La Grange. Photo by SAUL LOEB / POOL / AFP

Talks were held amid beefed-up security: around a thousand troops have also been deployed, while the Swiss air force policed the sealed-off skies for up to 50 kilometres around the city.

For other historic meetings in Geneva, see here.

READ MORE: UPDATE: How Switzerland could be impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine

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For members


‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine