Cornelio Sommaruga

Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga, Former President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Cornelio Sommaruga (born December 29, 1932 in Rome) is a Swiss humanitarian, lawyer and diplomat who is best known for serving as President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from 1987 to 1999.

Today, he chairs the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) in Geneva. He is also active on a number of boards, such as the International Union Against Cancer. Currently he is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Foundation For the Future, and the honorary President of Initiatives of Change International.

Dr. Sommaruga entered the Swiss diplomatic corps after working two years in the banking sector. He served as a diplomat in The Hague, Rome, Geneva and Bern.

From 1968 to 1973, he was the deputy of the Swiss delegation to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the senior representative to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE), where he further developed his diplomatic and negotiating skills.

From 1973 to 1975, he served as the deputy to the Secretary General of EFTA in Geneva. From there, he returned to Bern where he held senior posts at the Office of Foreign Affairs of the Swiss government, as Ambassador, Delegate for Trade Agreements. From 1984 to 1987, he was Undersecretary of State at the Office of Foreign Economic Affairs, a job he left when he was nominated to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1986.

Dr. Sommaruga served as President of the ICRC from 1987 to 1999, succeeding Alexandre Hay. During his tenure, the budget and the international activities of the Committee increased considerably. He maintained the neutrality of the ICRC while keeping close ties to all governments of States signatories of the Geneva conventions. One of his initiatives was to propose in 1992 the introduction of an additional symbol representing the Red Cross movement, alongside the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which would be “devoid of any national, religious or political connotation [and] would be available to States and National Societies unable to adopt either of the existing emblems”. After 15 years of negotiations this emblem was finally made official as the Red Crystal at the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in 2006.

Sommaruga was the founding President of Initiatives of Change International in 2002, and he continues to serve on a number of charitable and corporate boards.

He went to grammar and high school in Italy and attended university in Zurich, Switzerland, where he obtained a doctorate in law in 1957. It was only during this period that he learned German, one of the four national languages of Switzerland. He later attended the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva from which he received a diploma in 1961. Dr. Sommaruga holds seven honorary doctorates.

Cornelio Sommaruga married Ornella Marzorati in 1957 and they have six children. His son is the politician Carlo Sommaruga.

Dr. Sommaruga contributed five hours of his life story to Legacy. Click here to watch Dr. Sommaruga’s testimonial.