Inspiring Stories
Micheline Calmy-Rey

Micheline Calmy-Rey

Class of 1968
President, Swiss Confederation (2011)
Head of Foreign Affairs Department, Swiss Confederation (2003-2011)

Micheline Calmy-Rey was elected president of the Swiss Confederation in 2007, the second woman in history to have ever been elected for the role. Before her presidency she was the only woman to serve on the Conseil Fédéral from 2004-2006. Calmy-Rey also worked at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, where she practised positive discrimination in favour of women in court cases where parity between men and women was not respected. 

In May 2003, with tensions mounting between North and South Korea, Calmy-Rey crossed the demarcation line between the two countries on foot, wearing red trainers with a white cross. Her symbolic act was followed by her paraphrase of Neil Armstrong's famous statement after he set foot on the moon: "It was a small step, but I hope it will be a big step for peace in the region". In addition, she worked to establish the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2006.

Calmy-Rey played an important role in the recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008, which sparked criticism in Switzerland under the argument of neutrality. She pointed out that Switzerland has the largest Kosovar diaspora in Europe. "Therefore, we have an interest in contributing to the stability of the Balkans". She added that Berne had good relations with Serbia and that Switzerland "has a balanced policy in the Balkans". A plaque in honour of Calmy-Rey was placed in Vitina, Kosovo, in memory of the role she played.

As both president of the Swiss Confederation and head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Calmy-Rey has always embodied Switzerland's ‘Good Offices’. In international law and international relations, the term 'good offices' under the UN Charter refers to all diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives by a third country or a neutral institution whose purpose is to resolve a bilateral or international conflict or to bring the parties to the negotiating table. ‘Good Offices’ are a long-standing tradition and play a key role in Swiss peace policy. Switzerland can build bridges where others are prevented from doing so, because it does not belong to any power bloc and does not pursue a hidden agenda. She was in office while Switzerland still acted as intermediary in US-Cuba and US-Iran relations.

This was the case when Calmy-Rey met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad as tensions arose between the United States and Iran on the nuclear crisis. She wore a veil in order to speak with him, justifying her action – which was criticised in Switzerland – by saying that it was necessary to open dialogue. She stated: "I wore the veil as a proud Swiss woman. Not as a submissive woman. And I don't ask anyone to shave their beard when they come to visit me in Switzerland.” The veil was "a sign of politeness to a host state,  but I understand that it may have another meaning for Iranian women".

In 2009, Calmy-Rey and United States President Barack Obama met in Istanbul during a meeting with the heads of Turkish and Armenian diplomacy. He called on the two countries to normalise their relationship, with Switzerland playing a mediating role in the conflict.

Switzerland further played the role of mediator between Georgia and Russia in 2011. Diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi had broken down. To maintain a thread between them, the two nations turned to Switzerland as an intermediary: Berne represented Russian interests in Tbilisi and Georgian interests in Moscow. Negotiations between Georgia and Russia, mediated by Switzerland, led to an agreement between the two countries which directly enabled Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.

Calmy-Rey also played an important role in launching the Geneva Initiative, an alternative peace plan drawn up by the former Taba negotiating partners to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Calmy-Rey advocates for a contemporary interpretation of neutrality, one that is active, invested with a mission to promote peace and resolutely removed from the myth of withdrawal. She sees it not only as a strategic positioning for Switzerland, but also as a source of inspiration for a more powerful European Union with a greater presence in a polarised world.

She further advocated for Switzerland to have a seat at the UN Security Council. The Federal Council approved the candidature and made its submission while she was in office. The efforts will likely lead to the country’s temporary election on the Council in June 2022.

Icone PDF
Poster version

Micheline Calmy-Rey