In his rambling diatribe to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi criticized the world body for being unfair to small nations. The comment struck a chord with the Swiss, since Gaddafi has been on a self-proclaimed mission to destroy their little country.
A few weeks ago, Gaddafi submitted a proposal to the U.N. to abolish Switzerland and divide it up along linguistic lines, giving parts of the country to Germany, France and Italy. Although the motion was thrown out because it violates the U.N. Charter, which states that no member country can threaten the existence of another, some Swiss leaders are still concerned that Libya could use its yearlong presidency of the U.N. General Assembly, which began on Sept. 15, to keep up Gaddafi's vitriolic attacks on their country.
Gaddafi's animosity toward Switzerland may seem bizarre or maybe not, given the Libyan leader's all-female bodyguard squad and penchant for pitching Bedouin tents during state visits to other countries. Relations between Libya and Switzerland soured in July 2008, when Gaddafi's son Hannibal and his wife were arrested by police in Geneva for allegedly beating their two servants at a local hotel. Gaddafi was so enraged by his son's two-day detention that he immediately retaliated by shutting down local subsidiaries of Swiss companies Nestlé and ABB in Libya, arresting two Swiss businessmen for supposed visa irregularities, canceling most commercial flights between the two countries and withdrawing about $5 billion from his Swiss bank accounts.
Then came Gaddafi's suggestion that Switzerland be carved up like a wheel of Swiss cheese. During the G-8 summit in Italy in July, Gaddafi said Switzerland "is a world mafia and not a state," adding that the Italian-speaking part of the country should be returned to Italy, the German-speaking part to Germany and the French-speaking part to France. In an attempt to defuse the tension between the countries as well as to win the release of the two Swiss nationals being held in Libya, Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz traveled to Tripoli in August to apologize for Hannibal's arrest. The move was highly criticized in Switzerland, with repeated calls for his resignation.
The reaction among the Swiss public to Gaddafi's idea of splitting up the country has been a mix of outrage and incredulity. "Even though Gaddafi is a leader of a country and the current head of the African Union, he loses credibility when he comes up with outrageous comments like that," says Daniel Warner, a political scientist at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. Others see irony in Gaddafi's comments. "It's a paradox that Gaddafi wants to dismantle Switzerland because, as he claims, it is not a homogenous country, while Libya is divided by a desert into two regions that hate each other," says Baptiste Hurni, a Socialist parliamentarian who blogs about Libya.
Despite the fact that Gaddafi is still holding the two Swiss nationals, many Swiss have found much to laugh about in his statements. The newspapers abound with tongue-in-cheek comments from readers who not only question Gaddafi's sanity, but also wonder how Switzerland would be divided up if the Libyan leader's motion were to be taken seriously. "Who is going to get the Matterhorn?" a reader asked in the Lausanne daily Le Matin. "Linguistically it belongs to Germany, but geographically it borders Italy." Another reader in Le Matin said he is "scandalized that Austria is not getting its fair share," while a Geneva resident wrote that he doesn't want his region to be annexed to France and asked about the possibility of linking it to French-speaking Quebec instead.
Most everyone agrees on one point: Libya should not be casting stones. "Is the U.N. going to listen to a long-standing democracy or to a long-standing dictatorship?" Eduard Hediger, 19, asked in a recent Le Matin podcast. If Gaddafi's long-winded speech to the General Assembly is any indication, the U.N. may not have much of a choice in the matter.