Questions and answers on Switzerland's neutrality

On 28 February 2022, the Federal Council decided to join the EU sanctions against Russia. Questions and answers regarding Switzerland's neutrality in view of this decision.

Four members of the Federal Council sit at a large desk. President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis is talking.

In a press conference on 28 February 2022, President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis and three other federal councillors explained the Federal Council's decision to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. © Keystone

Has the Federal Council abandoned Switzerland's neutrality with its decision of 28 February 2022 to adopt the EU's sanctions against Russia?

No, absolutely not: Switzerland's adoption of the EU sanctions does not alter its neutrality in any way.

Switzerland continues to uphold its neutrality in the strict sense of the term, i.e. the law of neutrality. It does not favour any warring party militarily.

Neutrality in the broader sense is understood to be the policy of neutrality. This includes all measures taken by Switzerland to protect the credibility and effectiveness of its neutrality. The neutrality policy affords a broad scope of action to be able to respond to international developments. Russia's military aggression against Ukraine is a serious violation of the most fundamental norms of international law and is without precedent in recent European history. Within the scope of its political room for manoeuvre, the Federal Council took this into account in its decision to join the EU sanctions.

What issues related to neutrality had to be clarified in the run-up to this decision?

The EU sanctions packages had to be examined with regard to their compatibility with our obligations under the law of neutrality. They were determined to be indeed compatible. With respect to our neutrality policy, it was important to examine whether adopting the EU sanctions would affect the credibility of Swiss neutrality. Russia's gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law was the yardstick for these deliberations. The Federal Council concluded that Switzerland's credibility as a neutral state will not be compromised. Switzerland had been working actively both at the bilateral and multilateral level to help prevent the conflict and been advocating for the use of the instruments of diplomacy.

Does neutrality have to be fundamentally reconceptualised in light of the war in Ukraine?

Neutrality is not set in stone; on the contrary, it is an instrument of foreign, security and also economic policy that must be adapted to the prevailing political climate. The Federal Council has in the past regularly examined and adapted its understanding of neutrality; for example, it did so through the neutrality report of 1993. The war in Ukraine is challenging the existing international and, above all, European security order.

Federal Council held discussion on neutrality on 7 September 2022. The Federal Council believes that the policy of neutrality, as defined and implemented since the report on neutrality of 29 November 1993, remains valid. The decisions the Federal Council has taken since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, such as the adoption of EU sanctions against Russia, are compatible with Switzerland's policy of neutrality. This policy provides the Swiss government with sufficient room for manoeuvre to respond to the events that have been taking place on the European continent since the beginning of the conflict.

There are calls for Switzerland to cooperate more closely with NATO or even to join NATO. Is that compatible with neutrality?

All NATO countries are committed to collective defence; if one member is attacked, the other member states must come to its defence, including the use of armed force. Joining NATO is not compatible with neutrality because of this obligation of mutual defence. However, closer forms of cooperation with NATO and their compatibility with neutrality can and should be examined.

There are calls for Switzerland to allow arms to be shipped in future to democratic states that have been attacked or to allow arms to be shipped via third states. Is this compatible with neutrality?

According to the law of neutrality in force, the principle of equal treatment must be observed in the case of arms exports by private companies. Accordingly, a neutral state cannot ban exports by private companies to one party to the conflict and at the same time allow such exports to the other – not even via third states. The question of whether there should be exceptions to neutrality for arms supplied to democratic states could be the subject of this political debate.

In addition to international law, however, Switzerland's export controls legislation would have to be taken into account and amended if necessary. Swiss legislation contains criteria that can trigger restrictions on arms exports. These apply irrespective of neutrality. Such restrictions concern, for example, stability in the region to which the arms would be exported and the human rights situation. These criteria would also have to be taken into account when determining whether exporting arms to democratic states is permissible.

How would neutrality have to be redefined so that, for example, Switzerland could cooperate more closely with NATO or send arms to war zones?

The aim of neutrality is to safeguard Switzerland's security and independence. Neutrality policy offers a certain amount of leeway because it allows neutrality to be interpreted in the way that will best achieve this aim. The law of neutrality, on the other hand, is part of international law and cannot be changed by Switzerland alone. If Switzerland were to wish to cooperate more closely with NATO in the future or supply weapons to certain countries, it would have to examine how much leeway neutrality policy would allow without violating the law of neutrality. A violation of the law of neutrality would undermine Switzerland's credibility as a neutral state. Or, Switzerland could renounce its status as a neutral state, which it has freely chosen; neutral countries are not obliged by international law to remain neutral. 

Switzerland is supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia but does not want to supply them to Ukraine. Yet isn't Saudi Arabia also a belligerent state in the conflict with Yemen? How is that compatible with neutrality?

The law of neutrality does not apply to the conflict in Yemen, as it is not a war between states but an internal armed conflict. The law of neutrality only grants rights and imposes obligations when states wage war against each other.

There are various efforts in Parliament to redefine neutrality. There are demands that the Swiss people should vote on it. What does the FDFA have to say about this?

The FDFA welcomes the population's great interest in Swiss neutrality. Neutrality is very important for Switzerland. It is an important guiding principle of Swiss foreign policy, and in domestic policy it is an important characteristic of Switzerland's identity. As such, the FDFA is convinced that a fundamental reorientation of Switzerland's understanding of neutrality must be debated openly and transparently.

Codifying, in the constitution or in a law, how neutrality is to be understood has been discussed many times in Swiss history, but has always been rejected, and for good reason: Doing so would deprive us of leeway we need for deploying the instrument of neutrality to safeguard our interests in a way that can be adapted to the given international environment.

Neutrality: law and policy

The law of neutrality is clearly defined in international treaties (in particular in the relevant Hague Conventions of 1907). It obliges neutral states not to militarily favour parties to a conflict in an inter-state war. The law of neutrality lays down specific obligations in this respect, in particular with regard to war material and the use of Swiss territory.

The neutrality policy, on the other hand, is not about legal obligations, but about the credibility of Swiss neutrality in the community of states. Switzerland's neutrality policy is not defined in an international treaty. Switzerland exercises its own discretion and determines its neutrality policy on the basis of the specific circumstances of each individual case.

Where is the difference between what Russia is doing now and what it did in 2014?

Russia already violated international law in 2014. At the time, Russia showed itself willing to find a political solution to the conflict; negotiation processes were defined for this purpose (Minsk Agreement, Trilateral Contact Group, OSCE). Russia's military aggression against Ukraine over the last several weeks constitutes a gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law, including the prohibition of the use of force. Since then, there are negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. However, this ongoing military aggression by Russia goes far beyond that which transpired in 2014.

What does the Federal Council’s decision mean for future conflicts? Will Switzerland always automatically adopt the EU's sanctions from now on?

EU sanctions will still not be adopted automatically: the Federal Council will decide on a case-by-case basis after a comprehensive weighing of interests. It will do so with due consideration of the law and policy of neutrality as well as the implications for Switzerland's foreign policy and international trade.

Incidentally, since the 1990s, Switzerland has adopted a large majority of EU sanctions in whole or partially. The Federal Council's 2017 report on sanctions practices states that since 1998, when sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia in the wake of the Kosovo conflict, Switzerland had for the most part adopted EU sanctions. Since then, Switzerland has adopted sanctions only in part or taken steps to ensure that Switzerland is not used to circumvent them in the cases of Iran, Russia and North Korea.

What impact will this decision have on Switzerland's good offices? Will Switzerland continue to be able to act as a mediator?

Time will tell whether this decision will have an impact on Switzerland's good offices.

Good offices in general and mediation in particular are important components of Swiss foreign policy. Switzerland will continue to be available for this purpose. They are not the raison d'être of Swiss foreign policy and they must never become a fig leaf. As part of its independent foreign policy, Switzerland upholds its interests and values, as enshrined in the Federal Constitution. We stand up for peace, democracy, human rights and international law. There can be no compromise on this.

In the current conflict, Switzerland currently has little room for manoeuvre. We are facing an extensive Russian military aggression on a sovereign, democratic state, an escalation without precedent in Europe since the Second World War. In the current circumstances, it would be unrealistic to expect that Switzerland will be able to play a key role in de-escalating and finding a resolution to the conflict. That said, Switzerland of course explores, if in niches contributions in the area of good offices are possible. But this has to be done discreetly, otherwise there is no prospect of success from the outset.

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