INTERNATIONAL relations have always piqued the interest of Switzerland’s Ambassador to the Philippines Ivo Sieber. He attributes this attraction to the fact that Switzerland is a multi-cultural country where French, Italian and German are spoken, what with its unique geographical location and history.
Growing up in this environment, a one-year experience as a foreign exchange student in the United States during high school further cemented the young Sieber’s inclination to work and live among the international community.
“I’ve always wanted to pursue an ‘international dimension’ in my career,” the ambassador confirmed with The Manila Times during a one-on-one interview in his Makati City office on October 6.
“You develop certain affinities as you grow, and acquire certain interests and outlooks in life. There are some who are more comfortable in an international environment while some are happier in a community environment. But for me, working in the international community has always been attractive,” he explained.
Describing himself as “an intellectual guy who likes to be specific in work,” Sieber took up Law at the University of Zurich in Switzerland after carefully contemplating on a degree to choose. While his interest in foreign relations was a given, he nonetheless decided to pursue law, which he believed would arm him with skills he can use wherever destiny took him.
“It’s not unusual for lawyers to enter diplomatic service. In the international community, you find a wide range of expertise. Although diplomacy and international relations was something I seriously considered taking up, I found law to specialized yet dynamic, and that eased me into the international community,” he said.
After pursuing his Master of Laws in Australia, he practiced commercial law in a sizable firm for about two years before returning to Switzerland. It was during this return that he took the first step toward diplomatic service with Switzerland’s Foreign Ministry and carved his own destiny.
“Upon returning to Switzerland, I took the test [for diplomatic service], where applicants only get one shot. It’s not so much a test as an assessment of a person’s qualification for the field. It was a broad and serious process that covered a lot of areas,” the envoy recalled.
With a passionate heart and a sharpened mind, Sieber naturally passed the test, and thus began his life around the world.
Sieber was first assigned as attaché and deputy head of Mission to the Swiss Embassy in Zimbabwe in 1988. Although the African region suffered from political struggle and racial conflict, the Swiss national was excited to experience a new culture.
After two years in the region, he was transferred in 1990 as first secretary of the Swiss Embassy to the United Nations in New York. It was during this time that he met his wife, Madame Gracita, who was working with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
After getting married in New York, Ambassador Sieber received his first Asian post in Bangkok was in 1994 as counselor and deputy head of mission of the embassy. During his four year posting, he frequently visited the Philippines with his brand new wife then pregnant with their first-born Katrin, now 20.
“I liked visiting the Philippines even then because people are so inviting and hospitable. Manila was not as modern as it is now, but even then it was an interesting place to visit. And when you get to the countryside you really see the beauty of the Philippines.”
By the time the Siebers returned to Switzerland, they were already a family of four, what with a second daughter, Nina, in tow.
As part of the Swiss government’s initiative to expose their diplomats to the demands and requirements of the private sector, Sieber was assigned to work for an industrial corporation called Sulzer. He was assigned to the Legal Department and in Merger and Acquisitions. He also travelled for the company, which had a hydropower project in Turkey as well as a regional office in Malaysia.
“Economic diplomacy is a very important aspect in our work so this initiative was taken by the companies and the ministry. There’s always interaction between the government and the private sector so it is important for us to be familiar as possible with their operations. We had to know their challenges and needs so we can ably promote them globally,” the ambassador explained.
By the end of his two years in Sulzer, Sieber was appointed to the International Environmental Affairs in Bern in 2000, and a year later was made head of the Economic Department of the Swiss Embassy in London.
His most memorable post, however was when he was appointed head of Information and spokesperson on behalf of the Swiss Foreign Minister in 2004.
“Public information is another very important aspect of foreign service and the work is wide ranging and intense. It was a 24/7 demand so that if there were an earthquake in New Zealand at 4 a.m. on a Saturday, the media will call you right away for reactions. As spokesperson of the foreign minister, I traveled around with him, I organized briefings and responded to inquiries. It was always the journalists who called me. It was a challenging high-profile job. I think I didn’t get to see my family in the two years of traveling and being on call for 24 hours,” the ambassador chuckled.
Sieber was then appointed counselor and deputy head of Mission in Sweden from 2006 to 2010, and when the posting in the Philippines opened up, the ambassador was only too happy to pass his application.
In his diverse postings around the world, the ambassador always enjoys the opportunity to become “flexible and creative.” As he gets to experience new cultures and a different working environment every time, his skills and knowledge for the diplomatic service simply continue to grow.
“It’s not always easy to be assigned in different designations, but that’s a usual and critical part of our work. It requires a certain effort to learn and get into the new themes that we need deal with. You are not immediately functional when you switch from one work to another, it enriches your work experience, and I get to learn so many things in the process,” Sieber explained.
Of his many “global” lessons, the ambassador realized that living simply and practically, especially for a diplomat like him, makes life easier and more enjoyable.
“Transfers are always life-changing and intrusive. No matter how long or short the distance of travel is, it’s the process of packing up, saying good bye, then settling in to a new place that tends to be challenging. But the act of moving and settling to a new environment, new culture and societal environment is also very exciting,” he related.
“You have moments of desperation and elation. You are excited to know more about new places, but there’s so much to do at the same time. It’s an emotional thing to move on, both emotionally and physically,” he added.
Discipline, according to Sieber, is key to surviving and enjoying a life like his.
“Eventually you learn in the long run your possessions are all just material stuff. You pack up your stuff and live out of your suitcase until you find a place to settle in. After doing that you realize you can live with just a suitcase and it wouldn’t matter much. So it’s easier to let go of these things and move on to new experiences,” he wisely advised.
One important issue that Swiss Ambassador Ivo Sieber had to tackle in the Philippines was the facilitation of the restitution of former President Ferdinand Marcos ill-gotten wealth, which was hidden in Swiss accounts.
Today, the Swiss government has returned all $685 million from the Marcoses’ account to Philippine government.
With the money in Philippine shores, the ambassador is now working with the Human Rights Commission and claims courts to use a third of the amount to compensate for human rights victims of Martial Law and the dictatorship as a whole.
Besides this very important mission, Sieber of course, also sees to the economic, financial, and cultural, relations between Switzerland and the Philippines, as well looks after the safety and security of an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Swiss nationals living in the country.
When not attending to diplomatic matters, however, he likes to explore the country on long drives, both north and south of the Philippines.
Unlike most Filipinos, the ambassador can boast of a taking a 12-day road trip with his sister all the way Dumaguete via RoRo (“Roll on, Roll Off”), which took him through the provinces of Mindoro, Panay and into Negros. Then they drove back up to Cebu, Leyte and Samar.
He also recently went up north with his friends, driving to Baler, then going across the Sierra Madre, Banawe and Benguet, before heading on to Tabuk, and ending up on the Abra-Kalinga Road to Vigan.
“My wife thinks I’m a terribly aggressive driver, and she doesn’t like me to drive. I must say I drive a bit too fast,” he laughingly confessed. “So when I went with her and our daughters to Marinduque, we took a commercial flight.”
Clearly in love with the Philippines and its culture, Ambassador Sieber ended his interview with The Manila Times with a wish. That his posting would be somewhere nearby, within what he describes to be “a very dynamic Asian region.”