Government’s stance on nuclear ban under scrutiny

This photo shows a computer simulation of the Avangard hypersonic vehicle being released from booster rockets. Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted about his country's prospective nuclear weapons, saying they are years and even decades ahead of foreign designs. Keystone

Switzerland has decided not to sign a treaty banning nuclear arms saying it puts at risk the country’s approach to disarmament and security policies. But disarmament expert Marc Finaud questions the government’s arguments.

This content was published on August 17, 2018 - 12:32
Frédéric Burnand, Geneva,

Switzerland was one of 122 states to adopt the United Nations treaty in July 2017. As a result the government asked a working group to consider the pros and cons of ratifying the document.

“During the negotiations Switzerland noted numerous issues requiring clarification. Since then, an interdepartmental working group headed by the Foreign Ministry has concluded that, from today's perspective, for Switzerland the arguments against an accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) outweigh the potential opportunities of an accession,” according to a government statementExternal link published on Wednesday.

“The report is very detailed. All aspects of the treaty have been covered, be it legal, humanitarian, military, political and economic,” says Marc Finaud, expert at the Geneva Centre for Nuclear PolicyExternal link. “This shows how serious the different ministries in the Swiss government have taken their task.”

Under pressure?

However, Finaud questions the economic arguments, saying they “suggest there are Swiss financial investments in some companies producing nuclear weapons”. He says, that in actual fact, the ban has led to a movement opposing investments of pension funds and banks in companies involved in the production of nuclear arms.

Besides economic considerations, the governmental working group also laid out its argument that Switzerland’s accession to the treaty could harm its relations with NATO.

“In the extreme case of self-defence against an armed attack, Switzerland would probably cooperate with other states or alliances, not least with nuclear weapon states or their allies. In this context, reliance on nuclear deterrence would not be excluded but narrowly confined by its obligations under international law. As a party to the TPNW, Switzerland would reduce its freedom of action and abandon the option of explicitly placing itself under a nuclear umbrella within the framework of such alliances,” the report of the working groupExternal link says.

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Finaud questions this reasoning. He believes that, reading between the lines, there has been pressure on the government which caved in as a result.

“To say that adhesion to the TPNW would prevent Switzerland from giving up its neutrality in case of an attack at least merits a public debate about Swiss neutrality,” he says.

The government also argues that the treaty can’t be applied if the nuclear powers and some of their allies don’t ratify it.

“Switzerland has signed and ratified all international disarmament accords until now. On the other hand, none of them have ratified by all the UN member states. It’s not true that this treaty loses its importance if certain countries oppose it,” Finaud says.

He is also sceptical about the strategic importance of the deterring impact of nuclear weapons cited by the Swiss government.

“The argument of deterrence, brought by countries such as France, is a bit like trusting in the ineffective Maginot defence line in the Second World War. At the moment the whole nuclear arsenal is being upgraded.”

This is one of the reasons why many countries and organisation, including the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) support the TPNW.

“They are convinced that both the concept of deterrence and possession of nuclear arms violate international law. As long as there’s no ban in force, there is no incentive to get rid of nuclear weapons,” Finaud says.

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