Swiss Envoy Sees Lesson for Democracies in Ukraine War

For Jacques Pitteloud, Switzerland’s ambassador in Washington, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back memories of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing a set of democratic reforms known at the time as the “Prague Spring.”

“That’s when I realized for the first time what it meant when free people are being attacked by a bully,” he said in a recent interview. “I was 6 years old.”

Describing those events as his “first conscious political memory,” Pitteloud said, “I remember our cities being flagged with Czechoslovakian flags, I remember the refugees, I remember our old car, our old family car — with Czechoslovakian flags all over the car — just to [show] our solidarity.”

Now 60, Pitteloud said he is proud that his traditionally neutral country has chosen to join other democratic nations in supporting Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty through economic boycotts and votes at the United Nations.

But, he said, he hopes the war will drive home to Western leaders the need for closer economic cooperation even in peacetime and reverse the drift in recent years toward greater barriers to trade “even among nations in the free world.”

“The conflict in Ukraine is a tragic reminder of the importance of international collaboration and the need for close political and economic ties between democratic nations,” Pitteloud told VOA.

Switzerland, he said, is “absolutely convinced” that democratic nations should “intensify” collaboration, and expand trade relations and technology exchanges if they are to prevail in an increasingly competitive global environment.

The issue is of economic as well as geopolitical interest for Switzerland. The exchange of intellectual property accounts for the largest share of trade in services between the United States and Switzerland. While many Americans associate Switzerland with chocolate, watches and banks, in reality exchanges of high-tech and intellectual property now make up 80% of Switzerland’s trade and economic presence in the U.S., the ambassador said.

For Pitteloud, the successful relationship demonstrates that trade between nations that share the same values and norms can benefit both. “And that’s how it should be,” he said.

In a not-so-subtle pitch for his country, the ambassador said that when trading with Switzerland, the United States doesn’t need to worry about the theft of intellectual property or having its market flooded with cheap products.

“We don’t have cheap products,” he said, with a slight wink. Switzerland’s per capita GDP is about $20,000 higher than in the U.S.

While the war in Ukraine has prompted questions worldwide about oil and gas supplies, Pitteloud said Switzerland has benefited from having none of either.

“I think we’re extremely lucky not to have any natural resources,” he said. “We didn’t have oil, we didn’t have coal, we didn’t have diamonds, whatsoever. The only way to be competitive on the world market was to make a difference with the quality of the products that we had.”

Pitteloud said his country’s industrial development began in the 18th century with textiles. “Then we moved into the machinery industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry, and every time we had to have something better than the rest, because we had to pay more for raw material than everyone else because we didn’t have any.”

If being compelled to make something from nothing has pushed the Swiss to become masters of precision, the country’s top diplomat in Washington says he’s spotted a quality in American life that his fellow countrymen could profitably emulate.

“The U.S. is a country where failing is proof that you tried; in Switzerland, failing is almost considered a social crime; in that sense, we need to be more American.”

A blessing his country shares with the United States, he said, is the talent that arrived through successive waves of immigration.

“You would be surprised at how many of the biggest and most successful companies in Switzerland were created by economic or political refugees of Europe who came because they couldn’t find in their own countries the conditions to operate,” the envoy said.

“Switzerland was, for a while, after the revolution of 1848, the only liberal democracy in Central Europe,” he added. The world-renowned watch industry in Switzerland, for example, benefited from French Protestants who brought their skills when they fled persecutions in 1685.

“It was an incredible opportunity for Switzerland,” he said. “In the end what made the U.S. so successful and what made Switzerland so successful is we’re able to draw good people into our society, into our universities, into our economy.”

Pitteloud said he believes the future belongs to countries that value and encourage diversity.

“What most people don’t know is that 35% of the Swiss population is either foreign, foreign-born or second generation,” he said, adding that he himself is “one-fourth [native] Swiss, two-fourths or one-half Italian, one-fourth French, and my wife is from Rwanda, Central Africa. I’m a typical Swiss!”

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Donors Pledge $2.4 Billion for Afghan Relief

International donors stepped up Thursday with more than $2.4 billion to keep Afghanistan from a humanitarian collapse, despite misgivings about the country’s Taliban government.

“Without immediate action, we face a starvation and malnutrition crisis in Afghanistan,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a virtual pledging conference. “People are already selling their children and their body parts, in order to feed their families. Afghanistan’s economy has effectively collapsed.”

With Afghanistan suffering from the effects of decades of war, successive severe droughts and COVID-19, the United Nations has appealed for $4.4 billion to assist 20 million Afghans with food, shelter, medical care and other essentials — its largest-ever single appeal.

Among the major donors were Britain with $374 million; the United States, which announced nearly $204 million in new assistance; Germany with $218 million and Japan with $109 million. In all, the U.N. said 41 donors pledged new funding.

With more than 24 million Afghans — 60% of the population — needing humanitarian assistance, and 9 million people at risk of famine, it is one of the most severe humanitarian crises in the world.

This week, U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths briefly visited the capital, Kabul, and Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

“I saw human suffering during those three days that left me quite speechless,” Griffiths said from Doha, Qatar, where he had just arrived. Qatar, along with the United Nations, Britain and Germany, are co-hosting the pledging conference.

Griffiths visited a children’s hospital and was deeply shaken by the sight of tiny babies too weak to even cry.

“In Kabul, I visited the Indira Gandhi hospital and saw severely malnourished children and newborns — newborns — clinging to life, sharing run-down, rickety incubators,” he said. “These babies were emaciated, listless and far too small. Mind you, this is downtown Kabul, not out in the rural, poorer areas of the country.”

Griffiths said humanitarians are just managing to stave off extreme food insecurity, preserve some basic services and are “barely preventing a complete meltdown of the country.”

Since the Taliban takeover in August, Afghanistan’s economy has gone into free fall.

Billions of dollars in international assistance that propped up the economy has dried up, and $9 billion in Afghan central bank reserves have been frozen abroad, leading to a severe financial crisis.

Western donors have reservations about their funding being appropriated or misused by the Taliban. The Taliban’s decision last week to renege on a pledge to resume education on March 23 for girls from secondary school up has confirmed a deep mistrust of them and the belief that they have not changed from their previous time in control of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when they repressed human rights.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that decision was “inexcusable.”

“It is impossible not to feel a sense of profound outrage when we see girls and young women across Afghanistan wracked with tears as they learn they will have to leave their classrooms after all,” she said in a video message to the conference.

Thomas-Greenfield and many others called for the reversal of this decision, emphasizing that education is a fundamental human right and essential to the country’s economic recovery and stability.

While there is a lack of confidence in the Taliban, there was strong international support for the Afghan people and a recognition of the need to help stabilize the country and its economy.

Next month during the spring meetings of the international financial institutions, there will be a ministerial meeting to further discuss the Afghan financial crisis.


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Could Russia Get Away With War Crimes in Ukraine?

War crimes happen whenever there is war, but seldom have they been investigated in real time and within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, as is happening with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After a brief initial hesitation to publicly brand the architects of the Ukraine invasion as war criminals, the United States and its European allies began issuing explicit statements about what they were seeing before the war was one month old.

“We’ve seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.

“Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded.”

Normally, investigations into such allegations take place after the guns go silent so that investigators can inspect war-torn regions, document evidence, talk to victims and substantiate crimes.

But in the case of Ukraine, even the normally cautious International Criminal Court has been moved to action within the first week. “I have decided to proceed with opening an investigation,” ICC prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan announced on February 28.

Khan’s probe into possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine must be authorized by the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber, and there appear to be many legal and political obstacles in the way.

Last resort

In July 1998, more than 100 countries signed the so-called Rome Statute, creating an international judicial institution that would investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity internationally. It would also prosecute individuals responsible for such crimes.

Since it began operations in July 2002, the ICC has handled 30 cases, resulting in 10 convictions, 35 arrest warrants and four acquittals. From those convictions, 17 individuals have been incarcerated at an ICC detention center in the Netherlands.

Only an ICC member state, of which there are 123, can refer a case to the court for investigation and prosecution.

Ukraine is not a member. Neither is the U.S., Russia or China.

However, Ukraine has accepted ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate alleged war crimes on its territory.

“The ICC is a court of last resort,” said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union. He told VOA that the court acts after it has determined that the country where the crimes were perpetrated is unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute war criminals.

U.S. laws even limit the ways the U.S. can support ICC investigations, according to Alex Whiting, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

“The U.S. has actually taken the position that there are different ways to hold alleged Russian perpetrators to account, citing Ukrainian law and the possibility of prosecutions under that law, prosecutions by third states with jurisdiction, and then finally the ICC,” Whiting told VOA.

U.S. President Joe Biden has called his Russian counterpart “a war criminal” who should not “remain in power.”

Double standards

As of now, the ICC has 17 open investigations, mostly in Africa and Asia. The U.S. government has strongly opposed two ICC investigations — in Afghanistan and in the Palestinian territories.

In Afghanistan, a state member of the ICC, the U.S. conducted its longest foreign war for about two decades. The ICC has a long list of crimes allegedly committed by warring parties, including U.S. forces and Taliban fighters, against Afghan civilians from 2003 onward.

The U.S. government, under former President Donald Trump, went as far as to impose sanctions on an ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

Successive U.S. administrations have also objected to the ICC’s probing of alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces against Palestinians.

“I think the U.S. is still seen as hypocritical in the way that it’s engaging with the ICC, because it says as long as the ICC is not addressing or not dealing with accountability for our own conduct, we will be fine with that,” said the ACLU’s Dakwar.

He said that policy has undermined the ICC. “Either you are on the side of international justice, or you are on the other side,” Dakwar added.

The Biden administration has lifted the sanctions on the ICC prosecutor tasked to investigate the Afghanistan case, but the U.S. government says it still disagrees “strongly with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Palestinian situations.”

Dakwar said the U.S. “is really standing at a juncture here because it has to decide on which side of history or which side of international justice it wants to be.”

Bargaining chip?

Lea Brilmayer, a professor of law at Yale University, told VOA there is no way to bring Russia into the criminal court. “It’s wishful thought by politicians when they say Russia should be held accountable for the war crimes in Ukraine,” she said.

In general, she said, only defeated leaders face trials, such as the Nazi generals and politicians who were tried in Nuremberg after World War II. But Russia is unlikely to face the fate of Hitler’s Germany.

While waging the war in Ukraine, Russian officials have held talks with representatives from Ukraine and other countries.

Some experts see the accusations of war crimes against Russian President Vladimir Putin as political rhetoric and a possible bargaining chip in future peace talks, rather than a viable effort to bring the Russians before any legal forum.

They note that in the brief history of the ICC, no world power has yet been investigated and tried for the wars it has conducted or sponsored in other countries.

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Turkish Doctors Flee Amid Violence, Inflation and Indifference

Turkey is in the grip of nationwide protests by doctors over surging violence and worsening economic conditions. The country is witnessing an unprecedented increase in doctors quitting to take jobs overseas, which as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, threatens one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s major achievements.

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Kenya Supreme Court Rejects President’s Bid to Change Constitution 

In a ruling Thursday, Kenya’s Supreme Court blocked changes to the constitution initiated by President Uhuru Kenyatta. Six of the seven judges ruled constitutional amendments must come from ordinary citizens, not the president. 

Following the hotly-contested 2017 election that almost split the country apart, Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga unveiled a plan they called the Building Bridges Initiative. 

The initiative would introduce the permanent office of prime minister and create 70 new constituencies.   

The two leaders argued the best way to avoid election-related violence that has plagued Kenya is to create more political positions. 

But the Supreme Court shot down changes in its ruling Thursday. Chief Justice Martha Koome read the verdict of the judges. 


“The president cannot initiate constitutional amendment and changes through the popular initiative under Article 257 of the constitution, Njoki Ndungu Supreme Court Judge dissenting,” Koome said. “Issue 2 the president initiated the amendment process initially, Njoki Ndungu and Lenaola Supreme Court Judges dissenting.” 

The Supreme Court agreed with the previous ruling of the two lower courts, the high court and the court of appeal, declaring the initiative unconstitutional. 


Odinga served as prime minister under a power sharing agreement that followed Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections.  However, the position was abolished after the 2012 polls. 


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Moldova Watches Ukraine with Special Concern

Moldova is watching the war in neighboring Ukraine with special concern. Like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and it has a very large Russian-speaking population – factors that for some Moldovans have sown fears of becoming the next target of Russian ambitions. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in southern Moldova.

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