We keep some countries neutral

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While other countries are saying goodbye to traditional neutrality, Switzerland is stubbornly sticking to its special role. But it too has moved away from the traditional concept of neutrality. And it is facing new challenges.

This content was published on March 31, 2021 - 7:56 am
Philip Schaufelberger (illustration)

When the victorious powers granted Switzerland perpetual neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the deal was: Switzerland does not take part in conflicts and does not provide mercenaries; instead, wars are no longer fought on its territory.

In the 20th century, the rather narrowly formulated neutrality law increasingly gave way to a voluntary neutrality policy: In terms of foreign policy, neutral states behave in such a way that other states take their neutrality away from them and believe that they would stay out of it in the event of a war.

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SRF Rundschau from May 25, 1994: Historical neutrality

Numerous previously neutral European states such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway joined NATO, a military defense alliance. According to traditional law of neutrality, this is actually a no go.

Sweden said goodbye to neutrality after the end of the Cold War and when it joined the EU; it now describes itself as an "alliance-free country". At the request of SWI swissinfo.ch, the Swedish Foreign Ministry wrote: "This policy serves us well and contributes to security and stability in our neighborhood." Even joining NATO is no longer a taboo for Sweden. Sweden is building security together with others, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Solidarity is the basis of the Swedish security and defense policy.

Switzerland, too, has moved away from the traditional concept of neutrality and turned to the international community: in 2002 it joined the UN. Since then she has had to understand UN sanctions.

From an international law perspective, the imposition of pure economic sanctions is unproblematic, as it is not a matter of taking a specific position in the context of an armed conflict, writes an Austrian international lawyer in Standpunkt.

Switzerland assumes that the law of neutrality does not apply to military UN operations, because the Security Council ultimately "wants to restore world peace". That is why Switzerland’s UN membership is unproblematic. The Austrian international law expert Peter Hilpold from the University of Innsbruck, on the other hand, says: "Neutrality in the traditional sense is hardly compatible with UN membership and even less with EU membership."

Switzerland is even running for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. According to the government, this is compatible with neutrality because the UN is not a military alliance and coercive measures by the Security Council only very rarely affect interstate wars.

The former Swiss Federal Councilor and Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey also explains in a book why, in her opinion, the candidacy is compatible with neutrality.

The first Swiss ambassador to the UN, Jenö Staehelin, sees the risk of attempting to print.

According to international lawyer Elisabeth Hoffberger-Pippan from the German Institute for International Politics and Security in Berlin, the population is sometimes not aware that EU or UN membership can go hand in hand with a certain dilution of neutrality.

In Austria, when joining the EU, the constitution had to be adapted so that measures can be implemented within the framework of the common foreign and security policy that would actually be incompatible with traditionally understood Austrian neutrality. "On the occasion of the Second Gulf War, Austria allowed overflights because the UN Security Council had authorized the use of force."

Little is known either that Austria and Switzerland are participating in the NATO Partnership for Peace. In principle, this is compatible with Austrian neutrality.

In Switzerland too, public perception and the neutrality policy actually practiced differ.

"Switzerland has clearly not been neutral," says Stefanie Walter, Professor of International Relations and Political Economy at the University of Zurich. "During the Cold War, for example, Switzerland was implicitly on the side of the West. And it also has a position when it comes to human rights."

Some personalities are calling for Switzerland not to remain silent when it comes to human rights violations.

Others are of the opinion that Switzerland can only mediate or bring about peace, even in the case of human rights violations, if it does not position itself beforehand.

UN Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl writes in the position that Switzerland cannot always avoid taking a position on difficult foreign policy issues,and clarifies:

According to Hilpold, neutral states expect special treatment for their neutrality in the 21st century. Or to put it more positively: "You combine neutrality with an offer to provide special services for the international community, as Switzerland does in the humanitarian field or with its 'good offices'."

Walter also considers it a strength of neutral states to be able to act as mediator. Switzerland plays a special role in this: "In contrast to Ireland, Austria and Sweden, Switzerland has decided not to become a member of the European Union," said Walter. This is one of the reasons why Switzerland is perceived as more neutral.

"Because Switzerland does not belong to the EU, this country has an absolutely special role," confirms Hilpold. Switzerland designed neutrality in many ways according to its own ideas and needs. "The international community has at least tacitly accepted these ideas and the related special role of this country on the international stage."

Switzerland is now facing new challenges. While interstate wars have become rare, cyber wars are on the rise. In principle, Swiss neutrality also applies in cyberspace. But there are still many questions unanswered.

According to former ambassador Martin Dahinden, these need to be clarified urgently, because an arms race has begun in cyberspace.