Switzerland has turned down two requests by Germany to reexport Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine. The move has triggered a debate about Switzerland’s principle of neutrality.
https://www.dw.com-Switzerland prides itself on its neutrality
Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), which has the last word on granting and signing off on licences for arms exports, confirmed that German authorities had made the approach. It’s believed the ammunition in question was for a German-made infantry vehicle.
“Both of Germany’s inquiries as to whether the ammunition received from Switzerland may be passed on to Ukraine were answered in the negative with reference to Swiss neutrality and the mandatory rejection criteria of the Swiss war material act,” SECO media spokesman Michael Wüthrich told DW via email.
Strict rules for arms exports
For the exports of any kind of war material, Switzerland generally requires a so-called non-reexport declaration from the recipient country which mandates that the country in question refrains from passing on the war material without Switzerland’s prior consent. This is an internationally recognized practice.
Export licences are not granted if the recipient country is involved in an internal or international armed conflict.
“Ukraine is involved in such a conflict with Russia. Therefore, since a war material export from Switzerland to Ukraine would not be eligible for an export licence, a lifting of the non-re-export obligation of the German Armed Forces in order to allow a transfer of previously received ammunition of Swiss origin to Ukraine is also ruled out,” said Wüthrich.
The principle of neutrality
Switzerland’s neutrality is a key pillar of its foreign and security policy. It means that the alpine country can’t get involved in a war between two other countries, and that it cannot provide direct of indirect military support to any of the parties in the conflict.
Domestic law in Switzerland pertaining to arms exports and foreign policy principles is based on the Swiss War Material Act which “controls the manufacture and transfer of war material and related technology, while at the same time maintaining an industrial capacity adapted to the requirements of its national defense.”
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In this specific case both international obligations and Swiss foreign policy principles would be compromised.
“Since it would be Swiss-manufactured munition that would be reexported to Ukraine, from a legal perspective, the government decision is justified,” Jean-Marc Rickli, head of Global and Emerging Risks at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, told DW. Given Switzerland’s neutrality, “agreeing on the export would be a violation of international law as well as Swiss domestic law.”
The decision is not shared by Gerhard Pfister, the president of the center-right Center party. He said on Twitter that the government could invoke article 184.3 of the Constitution to bypass this legislation if the interests of a state are superior. In this instance, it would refer to helping a European democratic state to defend itself.
Laurent Goetschel, professor of political science at Basel University and director of swisspeace, a practice-oriented peace research institute, says the proximity of the war makes Switzerland’s neutrality status all the more important.
“The closer the war is the more relevant neutrality is from its historical and security conception. The only exception is when one of the warring parties is acting on behalf of the UN Security Council. That party would then not be seen as a war party in the traditional sense but acting as a world policeman,” he told DW.
Switzerland’s permanent neutrality principle appears to run counter to some of the arms exports it has signed off on in the past, notably to Saudi Arabia, which is involved in the war in Yemen against the Houthis. This prompted the Swiss government in 2015 to initially stop its exports. In the following years, however, up until 2019, the government took a looser approach to allowing arms exports.
However, Rickli says there’s an important distinction to made here.
“Neutrality only applies in the event of an interstate war. In the case of Yemen, it’s different because the origin of the war is internal and the Yemeni government asked Saudi Arabia to come and help them against the Houthis so it doesn’t fall strictly under the law of neutrality.”
Knocking on NATO’s door?
The war in Ukraine has triggered substantial paradigm shifts, not least Germany’s Zeitenwende (“turning point”) which saw the country’s previous foreign policy turned on its head with the commitment to bolster defense spending and splashing out €100 billion ($107 billion) for the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces.
In Sweden and Finland, both steeped in the principle of neutrality, the change is arguably even more tangible. Spurred on by public opinion, the two Nordic states could be joining NATO sooner rather than later.
In Switzerland, that debate has been mostly non-existent. Lately, there has been some movement from politicians from both left-wing and right-wing parties who are calling for enhanced cooperation with NATO.
However, there’s little to suggest that Switzerland has any intention of joining the alliance.
“The geostrategic situation is very different. Switzerland and Austria are surrounded by NATO members. Also, neutrality in Switzerland has a security policy function, but also an identity function. In Switzerland, you have different languages, different religions. Therefore, what binds together the Swiss is a political identity that revolves around direct democracy, federalism, and neutrality,” said Rickli.
In a nutshell, Switzerland would have to give up its principle of perpetual neutrality if it wanted to join NATO.
Rickli says that while the public and political mood has been influenced by the war in Ukraine, it’s imperceptible compared to what is happening in Sweden and Finland.
“From an identity perspective, the popularity of neutrality is still very high. From a security policy perspective, the debate is starting to change, but not to the extent that it is changing in Finland or Sweden.”
Edited by: Andreas Illmer