Cultural relations and the National Commission for UNESCO

by Pauline Milani

Pauline Milani est historienne. Après une thèse sur la politique culturelle de la Suisse à l'étranger, elle travaille maintenant sur les artistes femmes du XIXème siècle. Elle enseigne à l'Université de Fribourg et à UniDistance.

By joining UNESCO in 1949, Switzerland not only became part of one of the agencies of the UN, but also of a network of international relations. Like any member country, the Confederation was invited to form a National Commission to liaise between the institution, situated in Paris, the Federal Council and the national circles active in the fields of education, science and culture.

It took several months to establish the National Commission for UNESCO, during which its composition was heavily contested. Should it mainly consist of representatives of the Federal administration, of cultural associations or of politicians?

In an attempt to please everybody, the commission, nominated in May 1949, was composed of 64 people, elected for a first term of four years. Only three of them were representatives of the Federal Council, eight were members of Pro Helvetia. By 2013 the commission was reduced to 20 members, nominated by the Federal Council. The Commission is in charge of promoting UNESCO values in Switzerland and seeing to the implementation of its programmes. Sometimes it  was risky work. How was a country, which did not respect fundamental principles, championed by UNESCO, to be presented at its best? In Switzerland, women were disenfranchised and thus excluded from the ranks of active democracy until 1971. The members of the National Commission, good third women, were well aware of their twofold mission. They had to promote Switzerland at UNESCO while at the same time spreading the idea of equality, the right to education for everyone, and cultural tolerance in their own country.

The commission organised seminars for pedagogues and professionals in Switzerland.  In 1960 e.g. it initiated a training course for teachers on the topic of “Asia Today”. 1950, the director of the UNESCO, Jaime Torres Bodet, was invited to Switzerland. The Commission also produced many publications to popularise the work of the UN organisation as well as a great amount of reports covering a wide range of topics, such as the Swiss education system, the maintenance of museums, or even Swiss cinema and the youth.

But far from only being a “factory of reports”, the commission is an impressive tool for international relations. Every year since 1949, the members of the commission have been afforded the opportunity to meet their foreign counterparts at seminars or scientific conferences. One of their traditional tasks remains to provide experts to other countries for technical aid missions lasting several days or even months. In 1968 e.g. 48 people volunteered for a UNESCO mission. Cooperation also manifests itself in donations of books, brochures or even in hard currency, paid out for projects concerning education or the protection of cultural heritage.

Although Switzerland itself did not sign any cultural agreements, the National Commission was able to do so with their counterparts. In February 1972, a memorandum of understanding was signed with Cameroon, and in the following year two Swiss librarians went to Cameroon to teach a course in organisation and management of  school libraries. The secretary of the Swiss commission, Jacques Rial, published a minor work on “La littérature camerounaise de langue française “. In July 1973, it was his  Cameroonian counterpart Charles Bebbé’s turn to visit the Swiss institutions.

Thus, the National Commission for UNESCO works well as a true instrument for the development of  international cultural exchange.


Archives :

BAR, Bestand der Schweizerischen UNESCO-Kommission, E9510.0


Commission nationale suisse pour l'UNESCO

Déclaration de Jaime Torres-Bodet, directeur général de l’UNESCO, à l’occasion  de la 16e session du Conseil exécutif de l’organisation. Torres-Bodet salue la constitution d’une commission nationale suisse de l’Unesco et rend hommage à la Suisse comme exemple de coexistence harmonieuse entre différentes cultures. Il présente le rôle des commissions nationales dans la réalisation des objectifs de l’UNESCO.

Journaliste : Paul Ladame.


A “second path” for Third-World countries

1970 to 2000

By their very nature, museums of ethnography are part of a country’s cultural relations.

The Swiss abroad – promoting cultural influence

1916 to 1976

For  a long time, Switzerland had been a country of emigration, its inhabitants leaving because of

Cultural relations and the National Commission for UNESCO

1949 to 2016

By joining UNESCO in 1949, Switzerland not only became part of one of the agencies of the UN, but

Rousseau made in Switzerland

1945 to 1968

Quite often, Rousseau was instrumentalised, reinvented and “helvetised” by Switzerland’s cultural

A brief survey of Swiss culture in Japan

1950 to 1970

In Japan book fairs enjoy high regard.

A young historian thinking about Switzerland’s cultural influence


Pro Helvetia was founded in 1939 to join the struggle for the Spiritual Defence.

The architects and the renewal of cultural relations between Switzerland and Germany after World War II


After the war, the question of cultural relations with the German neighbour remained something of

The origins of the Swiss pavilion at the “Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris"

1925 to 1933

Combining cultural and science diplomacy, the Swiss pavilion at the “Cité Internationale Universit

Men and women working for Pro Helvetia

1939 to 2012

First and foremost, Pro Helvetia is a Board of Trustees, originally consisting of 25 members, and

Switzerland and UNESCO - a culture of peace


“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must b