Ukraine war tests neutral Switzerland's arms rules

The war in Ukraine is stirring debate in one of Europe's last neutral states. Switzerland is certainly not looking to scrap neutrality, it’s just not sure what it actually means.

Ukraine war tests neutral Switzerland's arms rules (photo: DW)
Ukraine war tests neutral Switzerland's arms rules (photo: DW)
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DW

The right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) didn't get very far with a bid to stop Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy from addressing the lower house of the Swiss parliament on Thursday.

"Ukraine is trying to directly influence parliamentary decision-making on the supply of weapons and ammunition," Swiss parliamentarian Thomas Aeschi wrote on Twitter last month. "Our neutrality is being violated!"

The motion to halt Zelenskyy's video address, spearheaded by Aeschi, was swatted aside this week. Switzerland may adhere to a centuries-old doctrine of military neutrality, but it has expressed opposition to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Some liberal politicians have been calling to loosen up neutrality: or at least Switzerland's strict rules about Swiss-made weapons being re-exported by third countries to parties in a conflict. So far, unsuccessfully: a parliamentary motion to allow Swiss allies to send Swiss-made arms to Kyiv was rejected earlier this month, citing both national and international law. Germany, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands had made the request to send Swiss-made arms to Ukraine.

Guns no, sanctions yes

While arms re-exports remained taboo, sanctions did not. Within days of the start of Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Bern joined Western countries in slapping unprecedented economic sanctions on Moscow — disrupting Switzerland's long-standing reputation as a financial hub for wealthy Russians. Signing on to the punitive measures was deemed to be in line with international and Swiss laws on neutrality, but they weren't passed entirely without controversy in Swiss politics.

Former SVP leader and Swiss executive branch member Christoph Blocher called for a referendum on anchoring neutrality deeper in the constitution. Going along with EU sanctions was akin to being part of the war, he told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last March.

The history of a 'rubber' doctrine

For historian Marco Jorio, such a narrow interpretation of the policy is misguided. "The Swiss People's Party are neutrality fetishists. This highly ideological understanding of neutrality has very little to do with the core of neutrality," Jorio, whose book "Switzerland and its neutrality: A 400-year history" came out in April, told DW.

For him, the doctrine is more flexible than is commonly believed and primarily exists to serve the interests of the 8.8 million people of Switzerland. A small, strategically located nation straddled between large European powers, Switzerland first went neutral in the 17th century, but the policy was formally entrenched in its present form in the Hague Convention of 1907, Jorio explained, though it has gone through many iterations over the years. "It's like rubber," the Swiss historian quipped.

Nuances of Swiss neutrality

While in everyday parlance, neutrality means impartiality — in other words, not taking sides — its definition under international law is much narrower.

"In essence, the core duty of a neutral state is to refrain from supporting, through military means, warring parties in an international armed conflict," academic Paul Seger, the current Swiss ambassador to Germany, wrote in 2014. Crucially, their legal duties and rights only apply when there is actually a war between two countries, Seger explained.

No one would accuse Switzerland of being pacifist or even of staying out of global affairs. It has a serious army powered by obligatory military service for young Swiss men. The Alpine state's arms manufacturers are a significant global exporter, selling to states like Germany, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

While Switzerland's World War II neutrality earned it reproach from European neighbors that defeated Nazi Germany, in more recent times, Bern garnered prestige as a trusted broker between belligerents. A high point was the 1985 Geneva summit of US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, their first meeting and a pivotal moment in the final days of the Cold War.

By contrast, a less glorious moment was opting out of international sanctions on the apartheid-era white minority government of South Africa as it oppressed the country's Black majority.

A Swiss classic

While neutrality doesn't mean an automatic claim to the moral high ground, the Swiss clearly hold the policy dear as part of their distinctive, often complicated identity. A 2021 study by the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich university found that 96% of Swiss people supported neutrality and that 84% believed it was inseparably linked to the concept of the Swiss state. In a small non-EU country with four national languages surrounded on all sides by members of the EU and (save Austria) NATO, neutrality seems to be something unifying.

At the start of the war in Ukraine, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland were the last neutrals in Europe. While many countries remain neutral or non-aligned in specific conflicts, only a handful are permanently neutral.

Of the two Scandinavian countries, located next to or right by Russia, Finland joined NATO this year, while Sweden's bid is currently being blocked by Turkey and Hungary. None of the others is planning such drastic moves, but debate is certainly afoot in each one.

One hot question

For Switzerland, Jorio doesn't foresee radical change on the horizon. No entry into NATO, for example, nor the possibility the Swiss army could start sending arms. However, the modification of arms re-export rules for private firms is the "hot question" right now, he said. In his view, it would be possible to dial down these domestic rules and remain neutral under international law. The economic sanctions slapped on Russia are arguably more provocative than allowing re-exports, he said.

Two-thirds of Swiss surveyed shortly after the outbreak of the war said they opposed sending Ukraine weapons, although almost as many responded that they supported Bern getting more involved in Ukraine.

Ukraine's Zelenskyy is known for his persuasive speeches, but if he hopes to change the minds of Swiss lawmakers on Thursday, he should probably prepare for an uphill ascent fitting for an Alpine state.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

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