Sovereign Military Hospitaller
Order of St John of Jerusalem of
Rhodes and of Malta


The Sovereign Order of Malta in Geneva: committed to promoting human dignity and religious freedom

The Sovereign Order of Malta in Geneva: committed to promoting human dignity and religious freedom

Interview with Ambassador Marie-Thérèse Pictet-Althann

With over 2,500 conferences organised each year, Geneva, the humanitarian capital of the world, is a centre of multilateral diplomacy. 172 Permanent Missions, 30 international organisations and some 250 NGOs make up ‘international Geneva’ with a workforce of 28,000 diplomats and civil servants. The Sovereign Order of Malta has Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations and its specialised agencies. Its scope is to develop relations with international and intergovernmental humanitarian organisations and to inform them about the activities of the Order of Malta, by contributing to the discussions on all aspects related to the protection of human dignity. Head of the diplomatic mission since 2005, in this interview Ambassador Marie-Thérèse Pictet-Althann, explains her role and how the Mission has changed over the years.

The role of Permanent Observer to the United Nations in Geneva has changed a lot over the past years, for many reasons. Activities in the humanitarian field worldwide have grown enormously due to an increase in natural and manmade disasters which in turn has led to more organisations and humanitarian agencies being based here. Within our Mission we are four diplomats coming from different professional backgrounds. We are engaged all year round in conferences, official meetings, informal consultations and side events. In addition to the sadly growing number of crises, another reason why our workload has expanded so much is related to the establishment in 2006 of the UN Human Rights Council. This has undoubtedly given Geneva additional importance, as the Council deals with the concerns related to the subjects addressed by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council (both based in New York). The Human Rights Council meets in three regular sessions per year and also holds special sessions to deal with conflicts or other emergency situations (Iraq, Gaza, Syria, Libya, etc.). We address the Council on subjects of interest to the Order of Malta’s activities and participate in discussions and consultations prior to the adoption of decisions and resolutions by member states.

We also organise side events with other Missions and co-sponsor events on topics directly connected to the Order’s vocation, namely religious freedom, refugees, health, migration, contemporary forms of slavery, protection of the family, older persons, peace and human rights. To give you an example, last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of ‘Pacem in terris’ – the encyclical issued by John XXIII in 1963 shortly before his death – where the Pope urges resolution of conflicts by negotiation and not by violence. We work closely with the Apostolic Nuncio, H.E. Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, and together we launched the Foundation Caritas in Veritate. Through its collaboration with experts all over the world, the Foundation helps us identify and expand on subjects of interest, such as interreligious dialogue, the fight against slavery, ethical issues, with the aim of having a practical and effective impact on the international stage.

The war in Syria and then in Iraq has had catastrophic effects on the surrounding countries – Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan. How effective has international diplomacy been in halting this trail of blood and securing the lives of the millions of civilians affected?

From a humanitarian point of view there has been a mixed result. There is an extremely complex problem inside Syria where out of 6.4 million internally displaced persons some 4.5 million citizens are living in areas hard to reach by humanitarian agencies because of restricted access and insecurity. Both Jordan and Turkey have been tremendously generous in receiving 608,000 and 815,000 refugees respectively by keeping their borders open. Lebanon, to which the Order of Malta is particularly close, has taken in more than 1.1million, with a population of less than 5 million. The country is going through an enormously difficult period as the huge number of Syrian refugees is impacting on the country’s economic, medical, health and educational systems. Host communities and public services everywhere are completely overstretched by these huge influxes and they are struggling financially as a result of the refugee crisis.

The EU is striving to unite its country members under one foreign policy flagship. In your opinion would this strengthen international diplomacy and humanitarian action?

The guidelines the EU adopted in 2005 and updated in 2009 on the promotion of humanitarian law are a perfect list of the measures which every state of the Geneva Convention should take. The question is: how many EU states have actually taken those measures? We must also remember that the EU budget for humanitarian activities is the largest in the world.

Given the current dramatic situation with the threats to the Christians and other religious minorities in a vast area of the Middle East, the feeble truce between Palestine and Israel, the enduring wars in Central Africa causing famine and millions of displaced people, what is the role of the Order of Malta’s mission in Geneva?

We must reaffirm two basic and paramount goals: accessing those in need on the one hand and protecting and preventing on the other. What is forgotten in many humanitarian efforts is the importance of prevention. We must repeatedly reaffirm fundamental human rights to the international community, and call for the application of Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Convention. Human life and dignity should be protected and we cannot do this alone. We plead for promoting human dignity and we plead for the respect of religious freedom and protection of minorities.

Human trafficking linked to forced migration is now flourishing due to these crises. What should the UN and the European institutions do in the wake of such an influx of people on the move?

A EU policy for migration has yet to be established. The director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has appealed to member states to consider migration as an opportunity. If we receive migrants with an open mind and open arms and with generosity we can only benefit from their presence. We wholeheartedly share this message. Having said this, the topic needs to be addressed with a long term strategy in order to identify a policy of integration. We must liaise not only within Europe but also with the countries of origin. The Order of Malta is very active with regard to immigration. We assist migrants in many countries, such as in Germany, France, Belgium and Spain and we are actively involved in the rescue operations in the Strait of Sicily.

You were a member of the team of Ambassadors participating in in the preparations for the Human Rights Council event ‘The Power of Women to effect transformative change’. Do you think women can make a difference in the field of human rights?

Yes, I believe so. Our group of women ambassadors has decided to contribute to the implementation of women’s rights by organising an annual event during the main session of the Human Rights Council. This year we addressed this topic and in 2013 we concentrated on ‘The Power of Empowered Women’. We invite famous women from all over the world to share with us their experiences as to how they got to where they are today. Through these insights we want them not only to be examples and an inspiration for other women, but also to act as encouragement for a stronger engagement of women in key political positions and decision-making processes so as to reduce poverty by enlarging economic productivity and welfare in their home countries.