First Head of State to Visit Birzeit University: Swiss Federation President Flavio Cotti expresses solidarity and friendship with the Palestinan people

On 18 May 1998, President of the Swiss Federation, Mr. Flavio Cotti, paid a visit to Birzeit University, the first ever by a foreign head of state. President Cotti was received by Birzeit President Dr. Hanna Nasir (right), Palestinian Minister for Higher Education Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Minister Nabil Sha'ath, and members of the University administration. President Cotti, known internationally for his committment to human rights, spoke of a "moving" visit to a refugee camp prior to arriving at the university and stated that, "Switzerland is profoundly convinced that the best bulwark against violence, extremism and terrorism does not lie in the use of force but in the hope of being able to determine one's own future in a free, just and secure environment." The speeches at Birzeit University of President Cotti, Minister Ashrawi and President Nasir are reproduced in full below.

Dr. Hanna Nasir, President, Birzeit University: Mr. Flavio Cotti, President of Switzerland, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour to receive you at Birzeit University. You are the first head of state whom we have had the pleasure of receiving on the university campus during the last 30 years of occupation. Even President Arafat has not been able to visit the campus until now because the Birzeit is located under zone b which is presently under partial Israeli military control. More than a year ago Birzeit, along with more than 30% of the Occupied Territories, should have been transferred to a free zone A. But the peace process, stalled by Israel, has not given us a chance to free ourselves completely from the throes of occupation. The Human Rights issues that you address are of great relevance to us. The rights of the Palestinians, humanitarian as well as political, have been unjustly compromised for decades. Palestinians deeply appreciate your country, Switzerland, as the sponsors of the International committee of the red cross, the guardians of the fourth geneva conventions, which are considered the bible of the people under occupation. The geneva conventions have been violated on an almost continuous basis by Israel ..This university has suffered a great deal from these violations. It was closed more than twenty times by military orders, at one time it was closed for four and a half consecutive years. Sixteen of our students have been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers using live bullets to disperse students protesting occupation and the illegal building of settlements and other violations. Hundreds of our students and staff have been put in prison without due process of law. Some are still in jail now. We are not unique in this matter. Other institutions, and in reality, the whole country, has suffered miserably and still suffer from the effects of occupation. As an academic community we value human rights issues and democratic principles. IN fact, the university has a twenty year old and still active human rights project which monitors and deals with any abuses against members of its community. One of the founders of this important project is the distinguished Minister of HIgher Education. Our student elections have been a model of a democratic process. Democratic processes and human rights go hand in hand and we, the Palestinian people, stand united to uphold these principles. We also stand united for our poetical rights as stipulated by international conventions and uN resolutions and look forward for the world community to support us in achieving these rights. We know that rights are usually not granted but are earned, however, within the process of peace we are determined to use diplomacy and international support to deal with such matters. Your presence on Palestinian soil and on Zone B is significant to our just cause and we greatly welcome you. May I have the opportunity to also welcome, Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Minister of Higher Education, who i s sponsoring this important event, and I call on Dr. Ashrawi to welcome you officially on this occasion. BUt before she does that, may i have the pleasure to present to you, President Cotti, with the shield of the University, a token of our appreciation of your visit and your keen interest in human rights.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Minister of Higher Education: Thank you Dr. Hanna Nasir. President Flavio Cotti, President of the Swiss Federation, dear friends and colleagues. I don't want to call everybody by his or her distinguished title. Let me say that there are so many important and impressive people in this room that I will just call you all friends and colleagues. It is indeed an honour and a privilege, to welcome President Cotti, to Birzeit University, to Palestine, to the Ministry of Higher Education, and we feel that this visit of yours has a special significance. It is not only the fact that Switzerland has a model dimension much greater than its size, the fact that Switzerland hosts the ICRC and the fourth Geneva convention and is a neutral country, but we have also had a tremendous relations in which we felt that Switzerland has supported Palestinian rights and has stood in the face of injustice and we have followed your presentation very carefully in terms of the basic issues that you have raised and you have had the moral courage to present. Basically, the issue of self-determination for the Palestinian people is crucial, the issue of Human rights is the essence of our struggle, and we are also very grateful that you have raised the question of adherence to the fourth geneva conventions, including the right to freedom of movement and of cours3e, the fact that settlements are a violation of the fourth geneva convention. Your recipe in you speech to stability and peace which involves not the use of force but the creation of an environment of freedom, of dignity, of recognition, these we understand are the requirements for real stabilty and to neutralize the urge to violence and conflict. And for these moral, political and legal stances, we thank you very much President Cotti.

We also would like to point out that your visit here is indeed very opportune because it is a few days more than fifty years ago, that the Palestinian Nakbe took place. What we call Nakbe in arabic is the disaster, or catastrophe. In which a whole nation was dismissed from the course of history, was evicted actually from the course of time, and we were told that we did not exist. We had peaceful marches, demonstrations, to present our case, not jsut Palestine as a collective memory, but our commitment to our heritage to our culture, to our national identity to our rights and to our future. In your visit, in many ways you embody the cycle of Palestinian history because you have the courage and the foresight to visit a refugee camp and visiting the Jalazoun refugee camp is important because that embodies the core, if not one of the major issues of the Palestinian question, the fact that more than half of the Palestinian people were either evicted, dispossessed, sent into exile, living a life of either statelessness at the mercy of host countries, or of deprivation of any type of national, human or civil rights. And therefore, your visit to the refugee camp is also very opportune because the right of return is the essence of the solution to the Palestinian question. And again the issue of Jerusalem is significant.

When you came this morning to the Ministry, it was clear that the Israelis tried to exercise on the president of the Swiss federation the same tactics that they exercise on the Palestinians. We understand that we are under occupation but they cannot behave like occupiers with the rest of the world. They diverted your motorcade to take a bypass road and to come through another entrance to the city of Ramallah. This is the attitude of domination. The attitude of attempting unilaterally to determine the course the direction and the geography of the region whcih has not succeeded. It has backfired in the case of the Palestinians because we were not diverted from history, and although they may control our geography temporarily we will be free and we will have our state. But at the same time, this diversion through the bypass road gave you the opportunity to see settelements, President Cotti, and you saw them first hand, and you saw what it means for a people to see their land stolen from beneath their very feet where they can live in a house and see a settlement being erected on theri own land. This is the tragedy of the Palestinian people. But it is also the essence of the Palestinian determination and the Palestinian will to endure and to thrive. We appreciate your support, morally, politically and economically. And again, we are happy to welcome you here because we feel that your support to the Palestinian institutions, particularily Birzeit as a university which embodies the Palestinian will to build a nation by its own initiative, by its own individual effort, and this institution was built by the initiative of peple even under occupation that continue to assert their own will, their own right to education, their own right to join the human community as equals among peers. Your visit today has been indeed very heart warming, very encouraging. As head of state, as honoured guest, and as good friend, you have taken the time to meet with the Palestinian people, to ask to speak to the Palesitnian peopole, to listen to the Palestinian people. You have touched our hearts and our minds, and we thank you for this.

President Flavio Cotti:


Mr. President of the University of Birzeit, Minister of Education, ladies and gentlemen. After this really impressing day, the second part of it was dedicated to a visit for myself and the Swiss delegation to some concrete situations in the field, such as the great and high task of rehabilitating detainees, and specifically also the visit to a refugee camp. After this moving part of my visit today in your region, I would like to try to speak this time from a more reflective intellectual conclusion about this visit, from the point of view of a Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs who feels really committed to the conflict situations in the world, and your situation is by definition, one of the most dreadful conflict situations since the Second World War at the least, and at the same time committed to human rights which remain in my eyes the first foundation for realising better general conditions for humanity.

Let me first signal to you that I came here saddened by the tragic upsurge of violence that has marked the last days. The death of innocents is an additional tragedy to an already long list of victims. We deplore the killing of your countrymen. The Swiss government and myself, on behalf of the Swiss people, express compassion with your painful mourning and that of your people.

As the first President of the Swiss Confederation to make an official visit to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian people, I would like to tell you how much honour I feel bringing you friendly greetings from Switzerland. As a member of the Swiss government and Minister of Foreign Affairs, I had several opportunities to discuss with President Arafat and his ministers the situation in your region. It is also a pleasure to be at Birzeit, important center of Palestinian culture and symbol of Palestinian consciousness. It is a privilege to speak in this university which has become famous for protecting and maintaining the principles of academic freedom throughout the Israeli occupation.

This land, which is holy for the three monotheistic religions, also has an emotional meaning for me. As a child in Switzerland the names of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem and Jericho were more familiar than the names of some towns of my own country.

But the journey I am now undertaking leaves a strong impression on me. I can now witness, feel and touch the problems which you confront every day and I am deeply moved by what I have seen. I am aware of the challenge to be faced by you and the international community.

I am all the more understanding to your situation because I come from a country where several cultures and several religions co-exist in harmony. This co-existence was achieved over centuries, through the determination of all the Swiss people, who succeeded to respect the principles of tolerance, not without difficulties in overcoming their differences. The stability and prosperity of my country are certainly due in large to its creative diversity.

The current situation

I come here at a particularly difficult time. The peace process has come to a virtual stand-still; confrontations and conflicts continue and the expectations of peaceful co-existence in mutual dignity have not been fulfilled.

It is not easy to speak of hope at present, in the face of such frustrations. It is also not easy to speak of co-existence or of future prospects when so much of the horizon is clouded.

The Israelis are celebrating the anniversary of the foundation of the Jewish state. Your own political objective is exactly the same: to establish a Palestinian state alongside the existing Jewish state.

A famous Swiss writer, Friedrich Duerrenmatt, was able to precisely describe this dilemma when he referred to the creation of the State of Israel: �One natural law is set against another, one fatherland against another�. Today the whole world recognises the legitimacy of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.

The daunting task of the Middle East leaders may be summarized in one sentence: give all its inhabitants hope and the prospect of a peaceful and prosperous future. Switzerland is profoundly convinced that the best bulwark against violence, extremism and terrorism does not lie in the use of force but in the hope of being able to determine one's own future in a free, just and secure environment. Switzerland firmly believes that a settlement of the conflict would allow all people of the Middle East to enjoy a peaceful life, which would include the rule of law and respect for human rights, education and the certainty of their own material well-being.

I am especially thinking about children and youngsters who are only too often in desperate need for a better life. This is a must so that they will later grow up to become responsible adults. Despair is the worst enemy of peace.

I would like to mention to you here a fascinating experience which I had at the beginning of May this year in Switzerland with, amongst others, Saeb Erakat and Shimon Peres:

The American NGO 'Seeds for Peace' and the Swiss pharmaceutical multinational Novartis organised a seminar in Villars, Switzerland, to which they invited 72 young people for a Middle East youth summit. Together the Palestinian and Israeli participants drew up the 'Villars Charter', containing constructive proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These will be conveyed to the political leaders in your region.

These young people realised that they actually had more things in common than disputes separating them.

They made clear their determination to have a future which is not simply a repetition of the past. They saw that despite their different viewpoints and ideas, they are not condemned to perpetual hostility.

That encounter - let me call it a mini peace process - was rich in lessons and filled me with optimism. It was a model from which all, young and old, may draw inspiration.

The Swiss position

As you know, Switzerland has made very strong appeals for a peaceful solution to the problems of the Middle East. We are convinced that the solution must be founded on the recognition of the mutual legitimate and political rights of both people.

We fully support - as stated in the Declaration of Principles - that the Interim Agreement is an integral part of the whole peace process and that the negotiations on the permanent status will lead to the implementation of what has been agreed upon. As I mentioned to the Israelis yesterday, every party has to fulfill its respective commitment.

Since the 1967 war, the Swiss Government has deplored the use of force, firmly condemned all acts of terrorism by any party and reaffirmed the principle that acquisition of territories by force is inadmissible by international law.

The extension of Israeli sovereignty to the Eastern part of Jerusalem in 1980 constitutes a unilateral act. Switzerland shares this view with the great majority of the international community.

The Swiss Federal Council has always stressed the high value it attaches to respect the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and in particular to the application of the Fourth Convention. It considers, in particular, that the establishment of Israeli settlements in all the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, constitutes a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The peace process

I repeat: Switzerland favours a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict. Switzerland also whole-heartedly supports the peace process started in Madrid in December 1991. Subsequently, Switzerland has become an active contributor to the bilateral and multilateral dimensions of the Middle East peace process. In this context and on the basis of the mandate which was entrusted to us in May 1995 in Montreux, Switzerland, we try to promote the human dimension in all multilateral working groups. This includes civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights as well as intercultural and inter-religious understanding.

The deadlock affecting the bilateral peace process has led to the suspension of the multilateral track of the process for almost two years. In spite of this situation, which we deplore, we pursue our bilateral co-operation with the Palestinian people.

My country also continues to support the Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron (TIPH), which is an integral part of the Interim Agreement.

Since 1993, Switzerland has contributed more than 40 million dollars as part of the international effort to strengthen the socio-economic development.

Let me mention some examples of our fruitful co-operation with the Palestinian Authority:

  • the socio-economic rehabilitation of former political prisoners. I just visited this interesting project and was impressed by the will of the former detainees to take their destiny into their own hands.
  • the establishment of a vocational training system which is already considered as a model by the neighbouring countries.
  • the extensions and upgrading of more than 20 school buildings, particularly in the Gaza Strip.
  • the support to capacity building of the Ministry of Labour.
  • the labour statistics and the first Palestinian census through the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics
  • Let me finally mention a program of high importance to you and to us: the introduction of a course on human rights, humanitarian law and democracy, designed to be compulsory for all university students. This also reflects the commitment of Switzerland to promote human rights in any society.

Switzerland also participated in the financing of several technical assistance funds through the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme.

During the last years, we developed a constructive form of co-operation, on the basis of equal partnership. Based on this experience, Switzerland is firmly committed to continue its co-operation with the Palestinian Authority.

In addition to our bilateral co-operation, we are also contributing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian refugees. This aid is mainly channelled through the UNRWA. Swiss aid to UNRWA amounted to a yearly average of 7 million US$.

The future of the Palestinian refugees is one of the permanent status issues for negotiations to be completed by May 1999. The present situation of over 3 million Palestinian refugees in the Near East must be resolved based on the UN General Assembly resolution 194. Otherwise, the Palestinian refugees will remain a source of insecurity and tension for the region. This afternoon I visited Jalazone: I was deeply moved by what I saw and learned. The services provided by UNRWA must be fully maintained until a permanent solution is achieved. Therefore, Switzerland will continue to provide its support to the UNRWA.

The future

The Palestinian people clearly expressed and demonstrated its internationally recognised desire for self-determination and independence.

Successful co-operation must be based on principles of tolerance and respect of human rights. The enforcement of human rights and the rule of law are of paramount importance for a sustainable development of the Palestinian society. It goes without saying that the approval of the basic law is a precondition for this. Switzerland attaches great importance to good governance which means to us transparency, accountability, an independent judiciary system and truly democratic mechanisms. Needless to say that a well functioning democratic system contributes to non-violent conflict resolution. I encourage you to continue on your way to enhance democratic principles in all your institutions. Like you, we strongly feel that corruption must not be given any chance and we welcome your endeavours to fight it. We consider the human rights situation not yet as satisfactory. The problems remaining are torture, detention without trial, arbitrary arrests and restrictions in the freedom of expression. At several occasions Switzerland intervened on the highest possible level.

I encourage you to pursue the Madrid-Oslo road in a climate of tolerance, in spite of obstacles and provocations. We will encourage and support you in establishing future relationships of trust and peace in the region.

There is no viable alternative to an active negotiation process in which all relevant parties will participate leading to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Palestine and Israel. We call upon you to fulfill your responsibility to contribute to the security in the area.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends
Let us close our ranks and work together. You the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Swiss and others let us search for ways and means for a better common understanding.
Let us look for positive measures to build mutual trust and to foster real partnership.
We want to give hope to young and old people.
We are bound to success - not to failure.
Our common cause is too important: let us try.