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Cornelio Sommaruga
Cornelio Sommaruga

Cornelio Sommaruga: ‘We are not alone in this world’


Cornelio Sommaruga, Swiss humanitarian, diplomat and former President of Initiatives of Change International, has died in Geneva at the age of 91.

After a distinguished career as a Swiss diplomat, he served as President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from 1987 to 1999, guiding the ICRC through war in the former Yugoslavia, the first war in Chechnya and the Rwanda genocide. He said the murder in December 1996 of six ICRC staff in Chechnya was the toughest challenge he faced while in office. He restored dialogue between the ICRC and the Jewish community by his frank recognition of the ICRC's 'mistakes and omissions' during the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. He played a central role in the Ottawa Treaty, banning anti-personnel mines, which has now been ratified by 164 countries.

'He was known for his unyielding belief in the power of dialogue,' wrote the news platform BNN Breaking, 'often engaging with conflicting parties to secure safe passage for aid workers or the release of detainees. These efforts, sometimes conducted under the radar, saved countless lives and underscored the importance of humanitarian organizations' independence in conflict resolution.

With children in Somalia while President of the ICRC

'His voice, both stern and compassionate, became a beacon for those caught in the crossfire of conflicts. Sommaruga not only shaped the course of the ICRC but also the broader narrative of humanitarian work in the late 20th century.'

Sommaruga became President of the Swiss Caux Initiatives of Change Foundation in 2000. He initiated the International Association of Initiatives of Change (IofC), bringing together national bodies from all continents, and served as its first President. His great humanity enhanced IofC’s reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, Sierra Leone and many other situations.

With his friend and successor as IofC International President, Mohammed Sahnoun

He called IofC a 'wonderful international network of motivated people'. At Caux he could often be seen in the dining room, serving ice cream and laughing with conference participants. He loved to greet everyone with 'Grüss Gott', explaining that the greeting, typical in eastern Switzerland, invokes a third presence in every encounter. 'We're not alone in this world,' he used to say. 

Our thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. We will miss him.