After doctoral studies, Jakob Kellenberger began a diplomatic career, joining the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in 1974. Between 1975 and 1984, he served in diplomatic positions in Madrid, Brussels and London. He then returned to Switzerland to lead the Integration Office, a joint institution of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, responsible for Switzerland's relations with the European Union and the European Free Trade Association. From 1992 to 1999 he was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
On January 2000 he was elected President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and continued in this role until his retirement in 2012. Under his leadership, the scope of the ICRC's operations expanded considerably and the organisation successfully faced challenges resulting from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jakob Kellenberger studied French and Spanish literature as well as linguistics and gained a doctorate in literature from the University of Zurich. He lectured at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Salamanca and was Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in 2013 and 2014. He has published a number of books and articles, in particular on humanitarian law.
He has been awarded several distinguished honors and honorary doctorates.