Switzerland is a country that cannot be treated neutrally

Switzerland’s neutrality: myth or reality?

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of the greatest moral trials, have remained neutral” – this quote, often attributed to Dante Alighieri, was recalled more than once during the last century. It has lost none of its relevance today.

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Source: myswiss.ru

Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Turkmenistan, Ireland, all of them in one way or another, consider themselves neutral countries. Each individual case of the establishment of neutrality of these countries is unique. In the historical perspective, all of them had to face the same choice that other states have faced from time to time in the international arena. In particular, given their raison d’être, states were at a crossroads – they should either resort to “bandwagoning” (i.e., forming an alliance “with the source of danger”) or to “balancing” (i.e., uniting with others “against the threatening state”). Neutral states, however, chose to do neither. So how can neutrality be explained in such geopolitical terms?

Armed and secure.

Neutrality in international relations comes in two types – military and permanent. The provisions of military neutrality (as well as the general concept of neutrality policy) were first formulated and legally established in the Hague Convention of 1907. It not only defines the general rights and duties of “neutral powers and individuals” in case of war on land and sea, but also indicates that the use of force by a neutral state to defend its neutral status cannot be regarded as a hostile act. This explains, for example, Switzerland’s own army (described in public space as “one of the strongest in the world”), a military budget of more than $5 billion, and the new concept of “armed neutrality. Otherwise, this type of neutrality is called “temporary” because it applies only to the period of military operations.

Permanent neutrality, in contrast to wartime neutrality, which is firmly established in international law, is more of a conceptual construct. Permanent neutrality can be seen as an institution by virtue of which a state remains neutral both in wartime (in accordance with the 1907 Convention) and in peacetime (on the basis of a political declaration and recognition of its status by other countries). In other words, the status of a permanent “neutral” depends solely on the political will of the state and is formally declared for an indefinite period of time, both in peacetime and in wartime. Recognition of the status of neutrality is confirmed by a multilateral treaty, which spells out the rights and duties of the neutral state and other states in peacetime and wartime; in exceptional cases, recognition can take place by tacit consent or by so-called facta concludentia.

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Swiss neutrality

Switzerland’s neutral status was legally secured and guaranteed by provisions of the Congress of Vienna as early as 1815, making the Helvetic Federation the country with the longest permanent neutral status. This status – with the exception of self-defense – prohibits any use of Swiss armed forces against another country. Moreover, the Helvetians are obliged to refrain from entering into any agreements or military alliances, and to avoid any action which might lead to their involvement in military conflicts. They must not enter into any political or economic structures whose principles of operation in the event of war would impede the effective fulfillment of the obligations arising from the status of neutrality.

Neutrality was reflected in the Swiss Constitution in 1848 and has since helped to keep the state out of the devastating European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, one of the “wonders” of the two twentieth-century world wars was Swiss neutrality, whose primary goal was to preserve territorial integrity.

As one American ambassador to Switzerland wrote in the 1913-1920s, the military response of a neutral country in World War I was reduced to general mobilization “just in case” and “cautious surveillance of scout columns on the border towers.” It is also interesting that Switzerland joined the League of Nations at the end of the war, but only after the London Declaration of 1920. The League formally recognized Switzerland’s unique neutral status and its incompatibility with collective action.

In order to maintain its neutral status at the outset of the Second World War, Switzerland effectively repudiated the German air force, thereby refusing to allow German armed forces to transit its territory. In this respect it “played better” than Sweden, whose neutrality came into conflict with German interests and which had to make some concessions afterwards. Whether geographical location, a combat-ready army, a change of plans by the Nazi leadership, or a combination of all these factors predetermined the non-aggression against Switzerland, it is difficult to say for sure. What is clear, however, is that neither the German armed forces nor the armed forces of the anti-Hitler coalition countries entered neutral Swiss soil.

During the Cold War, due to the expansion of globalization processes, the increased focus on interstate cooperation and the non-military nature of the bloc confrontation, the neutrality of states receded into the background.

It should be noted, however, that legally enshrined provisions on neutrality cannot require neutral countries to follow any ideological or “moral neutrality. During the Cold War, Switzerland cannot be called such an ideologically neutral state. It turns out that Swiss society, while maintaining a “neutral face” in the public space, was morally supportive and culturally oriented towards the West, sharing with it liberal traditions, democratic systems of government, as well as the principles of private property and a market economy.

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Switzerland: direct democracy, federalism, neutrality

The combination of the three concepts (democracy, federalism and neutrality) allows us to instantly understand that we are talking about Switzerland. Over the past two centuries, these unique Swiss institutions have formed the basis of the Helvetic identity, which, as the difficult history of the past century shows, they have no intention of abandoning. While the ranks of states with a similar political system and system of government are still being swollen, there are very few countries that are ready to “boast” of neutrality at the present time.

Historical experience has made it clear to scholars that the Swiss policy of neutrality can and should be seen primarily as a reaction against the threatened domination by other larger and more powerful states. Coming “from above,” Switzerland’s “neutralization” has been a great success, as it has been transformed into a long-term neutrality, which has given the Swiss confederation a new kind of international legitimacy.

Switzerland is originally a “small country” created from a multitude of small provinces with different linguistic and historical backgrounds. The small size of the territory, coupled with a diverse and contrasting population of French-, German- and Italian-speaking peoples who have neither a common history of origin nor a common identity, certainly does not play into the hands of the stability and, most importantly, the neutrality of the country. But the Helvetic Republic has correctly decided to transform neutrality into the national identity of the Swiss. Neutrality is now not only an effective way of defending one’s territory against invasion, but also a tool for rallying disparate nations. Going back to history, it is clear why. For example, during the First World War, most of the German-speaking Swiss supported Germany, while the French-speaking population was mostly sympathetic to the French. If Switzerland had sided with one of the powers, it probably would not have survived into the 21st century within its current borders. It turns out that the Swiss see maintaining their neutrality as preserving their identity and, for fear of losing their unique self, are in no hurry to join various international organizations. Hence the lack of membership in the EU and NATO, but close ties with them: Switzerland, for example, has been a member of the Partnership for Peace program since 1996. It is interesting that throughout its history, and for all its “Europeanness,” the republic has never held a referendum on EU membership. In 1992, however, the Swiss did vote in favor of joining the European Economic Area. But in the end they never joined.

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Switzerland’s accession to the UN in 2002: a threat to neutrality?

It would be wrong to say that Switzerland is not involved at all in institutional cooperation with countries: history knows not only the case of its accession to the League of Nations (although Switzerland withdrew from it in 1938).

In 2002, after more than 50 years of reflection, Switzerland finally joined the UN. All these years, under the impression of the failure of the League of Nations and the Cold War, as Hofer writes, Switzerland refused membership, citing the incompatibility of its neutrality with membership in the Organization. What has changed?

The approach to neutrality has changed. The Swiss’ longstanding commitment to neutrality has earned them credibility and a reputation as an impartial and reliable partner. Even before joining the UN, Switzerland participated in international peacekeeping missions, provided mediation services to represent the interests of warring parties, and became a “home” for many international organizations, such as the League of Nations, WHO, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this connection the leadership of the republic saw for itself a new perspective and an opportunity to participate more consistently in international life – through full cooperation with the world community in conflict resolution at the level of the international Organization. There was, however, one “but”. After joining the UN, all member states, according to the Charter, are obliged to comply with the decisions of the UN Security Council. This means that Switzerland, as a full-fledged participant, also assumes such obligations: from imposing economic sanctions to the use of force.

Sanctions and neutrality – a loveless marriage?

The debate over the finality of Switzerland’s neutral status in the event of sanctions has haunted the state throughout the last century. This issue has gained increased interest and particular relevance in connection with Russia’s special military operation (SSO) on the territory of Ukraine. Sharp statements about the loss of Swiss neutrality, including by the Russian Foreign Ministry, have attracted the attention of the international community and rocked the public in the country itself. But is Bern’s 200-year neutrality really disappearing?

It should be taken into account that neutrality has not only a legal but also a political dimension, which, it should be noted, is not regulated in any way. While the legal aspect of neutrality is reflected in a set of rules enshrined in the 1907 Convention, the rest of it is an institution of a purely political nature: it has no basis in public international law (as in the case of military neutrality) or in any multilateral treaty or general law (as in the case of permanent neutrality). This kind of “neutrality” is an expression of a unilateral and sovereign political decision by a State, which, by the same token, can change the direction of its policy.

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History does not lie – Swiss neutrality has indeed evolved back-and-forth. As a member of the League of Nations, Switzerland imposed sanctions against Italy because of the Italian-Ethiopian war of 1935-1936, then it adhered to a more “strict” version of neutrality, deciding to leave the Organization on the eve of a new large-scale conflict. After 1945, Switzerland abandoned its sanctions policy altogether. It did not impose the restrictive measures recommended by the UN Security Council in Resolutions 216 (1965) and 217 (1965) against Rhodesia, but only froze imports from the country. Later, however, sanctions were imposed against Iraq under Resolution 661 (1990). After joining the UN in 2002, the approach to sanctions policy was changed again – now Switzerland is obliged to impose sanctions when the Security Council so decides. A year later, the Swiss Federal Assembly passed the so-called Embargo Act, according to which the Confederation can take enforcement measures to ensure compliance with international law, in particular human rights law, adopted by the UN, the OSCE or Switzerland’s main trading partners, i.e. the EU. This law does not oblige us to follow sanctions solidarity, but it definitely loosens the hands for such a policy. Interestingly, however, in connection with the events in Crimea in 2014. Switzerland, contrary to its capabilities, did not impose sanctions against Russia “to punish” the ongoing course that was proposed by the European Union. For its part, it limited itself to measures to prevent the circumvention of sanctions on its territory.

Everything flows, everything changes: The “reset” of neutrality

Surprisingly, even though the Hague Convention was key to the codification of the law of neutrality, it does not itself attempt to provide a clear definition of neutrality. This allows neutrality to be seen, as former State Secretary of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs I. Rossier aptly put it, as “a living concept that adapts to circumstances. Swiss history is rich in such examples.

To say that Switzerland is an example of “classical” neutrality is not necessary. However, it would also be wrong to deny its existence. The situation in Ukraine has become a kind of litmus test for Switzerland’s position on this issue: the republic continues to introduce European packages of anti-Russian sanctions, while the state itself constantly debates about neutrality and revises its current legislation.

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The main challenge now facing Switzerland is to recognize the failure of its old concept, introduce new provisions to meet current circumstances, and at the same time stay within the legal framework of Swiss neutrality. So far, this has been a dubious success.

For example, Switzerland still seems to be guided by Article 2 of the 1907 Hague Convention, which recognizes the inviolability of the territory of neutral states and prohibits the movement of troops or convoys carrying munitions for belligerents through neutral territory. However, it uses this provision in its own way: the Confederation blocks the re-export of Swiss-made ammunition, armored vehicles and tanks to Ukraine by Germany and Denmark, but does not exclude the possibility that some parts and components of weapons manufactured in their territory may still be transited to the Ukrainian military.

At the same time, the republic did not respond positively to NATO’s request to station wounded AFU fighters in the country for treatment, but agreed to host civilians – sick and wounded women, children, and the elderly.

The political leadership of the country has repeatedly defended the concept of neutrality, although with a changed starting point. President I. Cassis introduced the concept of “cooperative neutrality,” justifying the innovation by saying that “to be neutral means to cooperate with other states while following Swiss principles. This term is not expected to be clarified, at least until September – the Swiss government is due to publish a report that will outline the country’s future approach to its neutrality policy. Perhaps we should also expect a change in the Swiss position in terms of “good offices,” since the mediation game is not working out for Switzerland right now, to put it mildly.

Time is of the essence. The geopolitical landscape is being transformed in a truly radical way, radically changing views and principles that until recently seemed immutable. Under the present circumstances, Swiss neutrality is undergoing a serious test, but not of its durability, but of its loyalty to its traditions and values persistently promoted in the world. The process of revision of the 200-year-old neutrality in order to be able to impose sanctions independently has started – such a bill has already been submitted to the parliament of the country in mid-June. The main thing now is to be patient and wait for the results.

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