The official magazine of international civil servants since 1949

La revue officielle des fonctionnaires internationaux depuis 1949



Running Switzerland during Covid
Just finished her second non-consecutive term as President of the Swiss Confederation. We spoke to Simonetta Sommaruga.
1 Mar 2021

Just finished her second non-consecutive term as President of the Swiss Confederation. We spoke to Simonetta Sommaruga

Born in Zug. Professional piano performer. Developed her career in the public sector covering economic affairs, environment, urban planning, health, justice, police, transport, energy and communications.

Traditionally, the President of the Confederation is responsible for representing Switzerland abroad. This position –which is honored for only one year– has the particularity of requiring the civil servant to continue with the previous position. In this case, as Minister of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications. In other words, two appointments at the same time and of enormous impact.

The experience of having done so

This is Simonetta Sommaruga’s second opportunity to preside the Confederation. Unlike 2015, this time –and like other Presidents– she had to confront and tackle unusual and unprecedented challenges. The Confederation needed her mainly in the country to keep the national government united and to manage the crisis – particularly when medical supplies were blocked or when trains could no longer cross borders.

In parallel, she has had to lead and mediate in conflicts when there were differences between the cantons, play an active role in communication when informing the public about urgent measures, and walk out into the streets to better understand the population’s thermometer – patients in hospitals, elderly people in their homes, and executives from different companies. “Although there was very little time to prepare and extreme pressure to make decisions, the President must also take responsibility when things get tough”, she comments.

At the beginning of the year –and before the start of the pandemic– Sommaruga had a more than interesting agenda – 2020 was a key year to make progress on the climate crisis at a multilateral level. Her aim was to bring Switzerland’s experience in climate protection to bear at the international level to finally find a viable and robust solution to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

The challenges of the country

According to her experience, Switzerland has two major challenges ahead. The first is decarbonization, where she sees a great opportunity for the country, since if a clear path is set –now– many jobs will be generated in new technologies, with occupations suitable for the future and opportunities for exports. On the other hand, and she emphasizes “We have to move away from oil, coal and gas and get our energy from clean sources. If we do nothing, our glaciers will continue to melt, islands will sink elsewhere, fires and floods will devastate entire regions and even more people will live in hardship and misery. This is the only way we can stop global warming”.

The second major challenge is associated with digital transformation, to which the pandemic has given a major impulse. However –and like any transformation– it involves risks. She remarks that “We need to ensure that this transformation does not divide our society between those who keep up with the pace and those who are left behind. We must rethink and redesign our approach to education”. On the other hand, digitisation raises new and greater demands in terms of data protection, and thus emphasises that citizens’ fundamental rights must be protected and defended.

Digital transformation also applies to international diplomacy, where much experience has been acquired through telecommunications. According to Sommaruga, “For simple exchanges this can be a good resource, but for complex conversations and issues, physical meetings are essential. Only in face-to-face conversations well-founded arguments can be presented, speak in confidence and read the body language of others”.

Looking ahead, Sommaruga sees Switzerland as an important host country for international meetings, and Geneva as the main venue for discussions on digitisation and technology. She points out that “There is an urgent need for an international centre for digitisation, and Geneva has the best qualifications”. Meeting Michelle Bachelet Human rights are also a priority on her agenda. 

In 2020, she met twice with the High-Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, to share concerns about the impact of the pandemic, as many media professionals are facing limitations in their work, adding “Some countries have used the pandemic to silence critical voices and opposition figures. We have to fight this, and we can only do so by making it a public issue and giving voice to media professionals”.

Addressing human rights, her and Michelle Bachelet’s views led us to discuss the role of women in leadership positions. Out of 193 countries, only 10 are governed by women. Although they are the majority in the population, they are a minority in politics and at the executive levels of companies. And she describes that “Women who get to the top have often had to endure a lot, but they have not been intimidated or stopped. A certain independence helps to find allies and get others on their side”.

The role of women

Sommaruga sees power as a minor motivation for women to get ahead. The emphasis is on women who are good listeners, who know how to read the problems of society, who tend to look beyond the ‘here and now’, and who are willing to work for the good of future generations. She concludes that because of all the above, “Women have a special awareness of environmental and climate concerns”.


* Prisca Chaoui is Editor-in-Chief at UN Today. Julián Ginzo is Editorial Coordinator at UN Today.
Read more articles about FOCUS ON