Les Réverbères de la Mémoire - Interview with Carlo Sommaruga

6 November 2013

Carlo Sommaruga is a Swiss politician, representing the Socialist Party, member of the National Council, and a Member of Parliament since 2003. Needless to say, he is a very busy man with numerous interests and calls upon his time. As part of his charitable commitments, he chaired the NGO Geneva Third World from 2001 to 2006. He is a committee member of the Swissaid Foundation, an organization for development co-operation. He is also a member of the Council of the Swiss Abroad and the Board of Trustees of the Swiss Institute of Rome. We met him in Geneva, where he is one of the strong supporters of the Les Réverbères Project.

Q: Could you tell us something about yourself?

I am a father, a family man, a lawyer and a Swiss politician, member of the Swiss Committee on Foreign Policy, presently vice-president, but scheduled to become chairman of the committee in September 2013. My concerns consist of maintaining the social order, namely the need to retain a strong social fabric in Geneva, to show solidarity for the needy and the poor, and keep cohesion between local and International Geneva.

My other interests concern particularly what we call International Geneva ‒‒ a place of excellence with the all the major international organizations: ILO, WHO, UNHCR, etc. In addition to those operating under the UN umbrella, we also have a huge number of diplomatic missions. If we talk about civil society, we have a multitude of NGOs and associations representing all kinds of interests –‒ trade, health, humanitarian issues, intellectual property, etc.

On top of that, Geneva is also a place where you find a high concentration of multinational companies, whether in the commercial field, the food business or banking. Geneva is also an internationally recognized centre for arbitration ‒‒ we do have unique expertise in this field.

I do my best in Bern to advocate International Geneva, so that my colleagues there are also concerned about this issue. In December 2012, I submitted a motion to the Federal Council requesting that they should support a strategy for International Geneva, and place financial assistance on the table. In other words, Switzerland is ready to maintain a quality infrastructure for International Geneva. This proposal was supported by my colleagues ‒‒ 120 out of 200. This motion was recently accepted by the Federal Council and it is clear that it would also be acceptable to the second chamber.

Q: Do you think that Geneva is unable to stand up for itself?

I think that during the Cold War Geneva was an ideal meeting place. Today, we are in a multi-polar world, and there are plenty of countries wishing to become involved in global governance by providing infrastructures and incentives for international organizations to settle there. This is something that I find quite legitimate. Nevertheless, Geneva has something unique that you do not find anywhere else ‒‒ not even in New York. As I said before, we have the United Nations, international organizations and NGOs representing humanitarian issues, trade, health, intellectual property, etc. We also have a university that is associated with an institute of international relations. I would say that Geneva is now facing more competition, but it has advantages that no other site can offer, and it is necessary to highlight them so that different stakeholders appreciate them. For a start, you have to convince the majority of politicians in Switzerland; it’s pretty easy to do but they must be constantly reminded. We need to mobilize local authorities, and that’s also what I try to do.

Geneva remains a focal point for global governance, but it is true that we must mobilize energy and money. The Confederation is now ready to commit itself and is coming up with several hundred million Swiss francs to participate in the renovation of the buildings of the UN, ILO, WHO and others.

Q: Do you think International Geneva is not able to sell itself?

I think sometimes that local controversy, such as the present security issue, is part of a squabble between local politicians and elements that disserve Geneva. What we can say is that, despite everything, Geneva is a much less violent city than many of the larger cities, such as Rome, Paris, New York, etc.

I think we should look at things the way they are and compare them to the rest of the world. There are still challenges facing Geneva, including the high cost of living. It is true that it is expensive, but not necessarily more expensive than elsewhere. This is one aspect. Now there is also a concern about housing, but I think that the authorities have undertaken co-ordinated efforts with neighbouring France so that people would be able to find homes to buy and let allowing them to find accommodation in good condition.

Q: There is a controversy at the moment over the Les Réverbères Project. The Armenian community wants to commemorate the shared memory of Geneva and the Armenians. What is your opinion?

I am a member of the Parliamentary Group Switzerland Armenia and I think it is an excellent project. The Armenian community will finance the work. Initially, it was intended to locate a work of art in the old town of Geneva. As it happened, there would have been problems if we had placed it in its original location. Today they are carrying out an archaeological dig on this very spot. Given these difficulties, it was decided to move the project to a piece of land in the Ariana Park owned by the city of Geneva. We must bring this project to completion as soon as possible. My only regret is that parts of the Turkish community, even the Swiss-Turkish, those pure and hard karmalistes, are mobilizing themselves to prevent this happening. I know that already two to three years ago pressure had been put on the authorities. Right now there are other protests.

I think the mayor and the city councillors must now demonstrate courage and firmness, and to stand by their convictions. I heard that there are problems because it would be too close to the United Nations! I am surprised that anyone would think that a memorial about the Armenian Genocide ‒‒ comparable to a Holocaust Memorial or one to the victims of the Khmer Rouge ‒‒ does not belong there. I think this is precisely the first role of the United Nations ‒‒ to remind us about fundamental values such as peace, respect for other people, and the struggle against racism and discrimination. Seen from a purely practical point of view, I cannot understand an argument saying that it must not be too close to the United Nations. I hope this work of art will attract many people. If the UN already hosts the international tennis club on its premises, why should anyone object to a work of art on the fringes of UN on a piece of land that is the property of the city of Geneva? This should not be a major problem ‒‒ a memorial has a symbolic value.

Q: Our readers are primarily diplomats and “internationals”. If you have a message for them, what would it be?

As an elected official in Geneva and in the Swiss Parliament, and being very interested and involved in international diplomacy and International Geneva, my concern is contact between the international and the local community. My message is addressed to officials of international organizations, diplomatic missions, NGOs and others: Make the effort to meet the people of Geneva, because I am always asking the people of Geneva to discover the international community. I appreciate the efforts that have been made by some organizations, especially the WTO, to open its doors regularly to local people so that they can discover what is happening behind its walls. If embassies or missions organized similar events open to the local population, it would be easier to get to know more about different countries. And this would also make people feel good about the city.

I would like us to live in an integrated world, rather than a segregated world. Today, there is some interaction, but nevertheless we live in two segregated worlds. I would like them to become more integrated.