print preview

Back Homepage

33 years in the service of military peacebuilding

Sandra Stewart-Brutschin, SWISSINT Communications, interviewed Colonel Gerhard Ryser, Deputy Commander of Swiss Armed Forces International Command (SWISSINT) and Head of the Liaison Office SWISSINT

22.07.2021 | SWISSINT Communications, Sandra Stewart-Brutschin

As a Course Adjutant, Gerhard Ryser was already responsible for the implementation of the first Military Observer Course of the Swiss Armed Forces in Winterthur and Frauenfeld in 1992. Among those to give him active support was the Norwegian officer Steinar Holm.


Colonel Ryser, you were the first Swiss officer to attend a United Nations Military Observer Course in Finland in 1988. How did that come about?

In summer 1988, my then office neighbour at the Federal Department of Defence (FDoD), Urs Freiburghaus, asked me if I wanted to attend a threeweek UN Military Observer Course at the Nordic United Nations Training Centre, and added, however, that I had to make my decision quickly. It piqued my interest straight away, as I was just as fascinated by international cooperation then as I am now. I took the opportunity and said yes. A few weeks later, I flew to Niinisalo in Finland where I discovered the passion that would define my career: military peacebuilding.

What happened next?

In 1988, there was a "Working Group for Good Service and International Peacebuilding" (AGDIF), made up of FDoD and Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) employees, whose objective was to begin supplying personnel support to the UN alongside the financial support we were already providing. The idea behind sending a Swiss officer to a UN Military Observer Course was to establish a small coordination cell for peacekeeping activities within the Army, which would enable us to achieve this objective. The idea quickly became reality and Urs Freiburghaus, a member of the AGDIF, was appointed head of the newly created coordination cell on 1 January 1989. My participation in the international training course in Finland put me in an excellent position in terms of my career path, and in early 1989, Peter Haldimann and I joined the team. The three of us were tasked with building up our military peacebuilding capacities. I thought that we would have had time to settle ourselves into the field, look around and compile information before starting work on a gradual implementation. But by the end of February 1989, the Federal Council had already decided to send a Swiss Medical Unit (SMU) with an average of 150 staff to support the UN mission in Namibia. The three of us rolled up our sleeves and did what we had to do as part of a project led by Major General Huber (FDoD) and Ambassador Bill (FDFA). In early April 1989, we flew the bulk of the first contingent out to Namibia. A second SMU was sent to the Western Sahara in 1991. Parallel to this, I was ensuring that the Swiss Army continued to send interested officers to the Military Observer Course in Finland, as the Federal Council’s next objective was to send military observers to support UN missions.

What do you particularly remember about this time of planning and organising the missions in Namibia and the Western Sahara?

Often, it was crucial to think and act outside of our normal procedures. In 1989, for example, Peter Haldimann and I drove former Swiss Post VW Buses that had been sprayed white at a garage in Langenthal up to Frankfurt, where they were flown to Namibia on an American military aircraft for the SMU to use there. Another time, I spent a full night welding air-conditioning systems into containers with Peter Haldimann and Daniel Liechti, a new colleague of ours. The containers were to be used as offices and accommodation for the SMU in the Western Sahara, and had to be shipped to Morocco from a port in southern France in late July 1991. Time was running out to ensure that they would make it there on time. So with some brief tuition from the Army’s construction workshops in Thun, we got to work. We received some enthusiastic support from one young captain in particular, who went on to become Major General Melchior Stoller. We worked outside and didn’t even let a violent storm hold us back.

The Swiss Army has provided military observers to UN missions since 1990. What impact did this have on your career?

I was responsible for recruiting officers and supporting them throughout their training and onwards into their missions. We sent 15 Swiss officers on the Military Observer Course in Finland in 1989, with a further 15 following in 1990. This gave the Army a good starting point of 30 well-trained military observers, so it could gradually build out its capacities. Having completed their missions, many of these first military observers went on to become trainers on the Swiss Military Observer Course (SUNMOC), which we were able to implement annually from 1992. In terms of my own career, I started as a Course Adjutant, then became Deputy Course Commander in 1995 and Course Commander a year later.

In 1997, you were Deputy Commander of the Yellow Berets (Swiss Headquarters Support Unit) in Bosnia-Herzegovina. What was the mission like for you?

I was there for the first local elections after the war. The Yellow Berets’ role included transporting the ballot boxes. It was an interesting but delicate task as nobody knew if there were groups who would try to manipulate the election results, and if there were, what methods they would use. I remember our fantastic collaboration with the Swiss Embassy fondly. Alongside our main activities supporting the OSCE mission, we were able to use our logistical skills to support its valuable rebuilding work, which established a lot of trust in this war-torn country.

You put together your fourth contingent with SWISSCOY in 1999. How did it all start?

We all had our hands full with the ongoing Yellow Beret mission and the military observers on their various deployments. In June 1999, Brigadier Josef Schärli 1 came in and told me and Bruno Rösli, Head of the Peacekeeping Operations Department (AFO2 ) that we were to accompany him on a two-day business trip the following day. He couldn’t tell us anything more at the time. We flew to Vienna the next day, where we spent two days planning the SWISSCOY mission with the Austrians. On our return, we had an audience with the Chief of General Staff (CGS), Lieutenant General Hans-Ulrich Scherrer, who listened to Bruno Rösli and me, patted us on the back and asked: "Can we do it?" Hearts pounding, we said yes and began working on the implementation immediately once the political decision was made, supported by the CGS and Brigadier Schärli.

What were the greatest challenges in your job?

Coming to terms with the abductions and deaths of Army members in the field and providing support to their relatives. You can prepare and practise in exercises, but you never know how the people involved will react in a real-life situation. I was there for seven of the nine deaths we have seen since 1953, and coming to terms with the situation was challenging every time.

Can you pick a particular highlight from your many years of service?

In September 2019, I took over command of SWISSINT on an interim basis. Although this was the result of a sad event, it was a fantastic experience to bear the overall responsibility for all of the staff who help us to achieve the third objective of the Swiss Army. The cooperation was impressive. I felt supported by the staff and they gave me their full support in return, regardless of how long their working days proved to be.

You will be retiring on 1 August 2021. What do you hope will happen with regard to peacebuilding going forwards?

I would like SWISSINT to get another contingent mission off the ground. I was able to implement four of them and see how a team can become a firm community in a very short period of time during an intense phase of work, and how they can achieve the unbelievable. I will follow the developments in the field of peacebuilding with interest, but keep to the motto of "servir et disparaître" – "serve and disappear". I say this knowing that SWISSINT has plenty of capable staff to continue successfully implementing the third objective of the Swiss Army.


1 Head of the Peacebuilding and Security Cooperation sub-group, superior authority of the AFO
2 The coordination cell for peacekeeping activities was renamed several times before becoming the Peacekeeping Operations Department as part of the Army 95 model in 1996. In 2004, it was renamed to the Swiss Armed Forces International Command (SWISSINT), as it remains to this day


More exciting reports from the world of peace support in the magazine Swiss Peace Supporter 02/21

Back Homepage