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Switzerland: How to take sides and still be neutral


‘YOU’RE either with us or against us.’ So goes the message, notably employed by President George W Bush after 9/11 at the start of his anti-terrorism campaign. Every situation is polarised into Good v Evil, coercing everyone to take sides, and failure to join the team effort is to be deemed The Enemy.  

Just look at Putin. Having ‘broken international law’ by bombing Ukraine, he is the bogeyman, the Emmanuel Goldstein hate figure, and by association we must now hate all things Russian. The superficiality of the resulting outpourings is breathtaking. Everything must be banned – sportsmen, vodka, ballet dancers. Munich Philharmonic conductor Valery Gergiev has had to be sacked. Even Russian blue cats have been politicised.  

Where does this leave the nation that chooses not to be drawn into the quarrels of others? How credible is the concept of political neutrality in today’s complex, interconnected, globalised world? It seems it’s all just a matter of interpretation.  

The Russian authorities have drawn up a list of ‘enemy nations’ including the EU, US and UK. This is likely to have a minimal additional impact, but what is interesting is that the list also includes Switzerland, the world’s best-known politically neutral nation. Its neutrality is as famous as its chocolate and its watches.  

The authenticity of Swiss neutrality is being questioned following its decision to join in the EU’s sanctions effort. For President Putin, these sanctions are a declaration of war, and even in the West, eyebrows have been raised.  

The international press claims it has sounded the death knell for Switzerland’s neutral traditions, while even at home in the Bundesrat, the Right-wing Swiss People’s Party MP Roger Köppel said that the government had ‘buckled’, and did not ‘have the strength to uphold the principle of neutrality’. President Ignazio Cassis has dismissed these claims, saying: ‘Switzerland is not at war with Russia.’  

International law professor Oliver Diggelmann of Zürich University also supports Switzerland’s legitimate neutrality. He says neutral states are obliged not to participate in armed conflict and not to support a conflict party with arms, but this does not require them to do nothing. In his view the Swiss government has recognised that not fully sanctioning such a blatant violation would make Switzerland an indirect accomplice of the aggressor. Its actions are economic, not military.  

 Even its delay in imposing sanctions was the correct response for a neutral nation, he said. ‘An immediate and unseen adoption of EU sanctions would have resulted in Switzerland being perceived by Russia as part of the EU and Nato bloc. Switzerland’s Federal Council proved that neutrality is not a matter of the heart, but a matter of the mind.’  

Splitting hairs, anyone? Angels dancing on the head of a pin?                     

Political neutrality requires maintaining a neutral stance towards warring parties for the duration of a conflict. It may involve humanitarian assistance, as well as an army for defence purposes. International recognition is upheld by the Second Hague Convention of 1907. 

Neutrality concurs with the Swiss tradition of protectionist economic policies, and also works well with the Swiss belief in self-sufficiency, independence and direct democracy. The country strongly believes in self-defence, and spends around 1 per cent of gross domestic product on its military capability, including compulsory national service. It also has the second-highest gun ownership in the world.  

All this is threatened by the creeping globalisation of the 21st century. So far, Switzerland has resisted joining the surrounding political blocs. Its bilateral agreements with the EU remain a thorn in its side.  

Only recently, after many months of talks and negotiations, Switzerland, to the EU’s displeasure, decided for the time being to retain this type of connection, rather than accept demands for closer union. 

The Swiss population agreed to accession to the United Nations only in 2002. Now it is a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, a move some consider threatens its neutrality. But State Secretary Livia Leu argues it is entirely compatible. 

Around two-thirds of Swiss people support their country’s active UN involvement, and the fact that the Security Council mandate is to maintain peace and security confirms this. The rationale behind this is that multilateral organisations are more necessary now than ever. Many of them even have their headquarters in Switzerland.  

Ms Leu admits that conflicts worldwide have not decreased, with more states in conflict situations than at any time in the last 30 years. So much for the pacifying influence of globally representative organisations. In spite of this, she maintains that in making any contribution to peace and security, ‘we can’t do it alone’.  

Switzerland has also continued to distance itself from Nato, specifically because of Article 5 of the organisation’s treaty, the principle that an attack on one member is viewed as an attack on all. Instead, it maintains its own principle of ‘armed neutrality, allowing the defence of the nation against invasion, but not engaging in military conflict elsewhere’. At the same time, the country retains strong ties with Nato through its Partnership for Peace programme. 

The Swiss Federal Department for Foreign Affairs (FDFA) claims this provides an institutional framework for dialogue on security policy issues with other countries. It also helps prepare Swiss armed forces for their participation in peacekeeping missions abroad, under the command of Nato, the EU or the UN.  

There’s evidently plenty of latitude here, enabling Switzerland to determine its neutrality stance on the basis of each situation. The Russian incursion in Ukraine is deemed to constitute a gross violation of the basic norms of law, and is based on military logic, so the FDFA considers this gives Switzerland little room for manoeuvre.  

‘We are facing a Russian military attack on a sovereign democratic state, an escalation without precedent in Europe since World War Two,’ it says. Nato involvement in Yugoslavia and Kosovo in the 1990s seems to have gone unnoticed. In practice, finding an acceptable compromise solution usually gets done discreetly. And this brings us into the realms of interpretation.  

According to Professor Diggelmann, Switzerland’s commitment to neutrality, though centuries old, retains scope for the gradual evolution of the legal principle. ‘The concept of neutrality was never a concept with entirely clear-cut elements carved in stone. It is an instrument which needs to be adjusted from time to time.’  

Diggelman introduces the idea of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements, which happily allows for considerable discretion in implementation.  At a time when the ‘more important than ever’ supra-national organisations are bent on discouraging independent action on the part of nation states – and, even in the case of the EU, the very existence of such independent entities – Switzerland faces continual challenges to this most fundamental of its national policies.  

President Cassis also avails himself of this differentiation. We uphold Swiss neutrality in the strict sense of the term, he claims, by not favouring any warring party militarily. But ‘neutrality in the broader sense includes all measures it takes to protect the credibility and effectiveness of its neutrality.’ 

He goes on: ‘The EU sanctions had to be examined with regard to their compatibility with our obligations under the law of neutrality. They were determined to be indeed compatible. The neutrality policy is not about legal obligations, but about the credibility of Swiss neutrality in the community of states.’  

In other words, a convoluted way of stating that adopting the EU sanctions doesn’t compromise our neutrality, because we say so. This is understandable, and even forgivable, from a small, proudly independent state surrounded by the persistent encroachments of globalisation.  

Clearly, the whole of the West is now subjected to a de facto world government, orchestrating political developments behind the scenes, with one of its primary objectives to erase old-fashioned national sovereignty.  

Pragmatism applied to enable survival. Too little for the Left, too much for the Right, but all in all, a working compromise. Other ‘nations’ – whether small or now declining – could well take note. They could do a lot worse.  

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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