Switzerland has been a neutral country since 1815, but this doesn’t mean the country lacks military might. The Swiss army is in constant training to ensure the goals of self-defence and internal security.
Neutrality is part and parcel of Swiss identity. It was recognised in 1815 by the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna. For the architects of the Swiss constitution of 1848, neutrality was a tool for maintaining the country’s independence.
In 1907, the Hague Conventions set out in writing the rights and duties of neutral states for the first time. In exchange for the inviolability of their territory, such countries were bound to stay out of wars, to treat all belligerents equally and not to supply them with arms or troops.
Neutral states must also be able to defend themselves, which explains why Switzerland has always striven to keep its armed forces at a respectable level.
Switzerland has a militia army with a limited number of professional soldiers. Under the constitution, military service is compulsory for male citizens, whereas it is optional for women.
After receiving basic training, soldiers have to keep up their skills by attending refresher courses for several weeks each year. It is therefore not uncommon to see young soldiers in uniform, often carrying weapons, in Swiss towns and cities and on trains. They may also take their guns home with them, which regularly gives rise to controversy, owing to the frequent role of army weapons in murders and suicides.
Men who refuse to perform military service for reasons of conscience may opt for civilian duties. They must then carry out community work for a period one-and-a-half times longer than military service.
Switzerland’s neutrality does not prevent it from being part of many international organisations. And while the country cannot join the NATO military alliance, it does cooperate with it, notably through the Partnership for Peace programme.
In 1920, Switzerland joined the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, and succeeded in imposing Geneva as the site of the body’s headquarters. In the wake of the First World War, Switzerland was keen to forge a global mission for itself using its diplomatic and humanitarian expertise.
However, the Second World War and the Cold War reinforced the idea that, in order to remain completely neutral, Switzerland should not sign up to any international alliances. Switzerland did not join the United Nations until 2002, more than 50 years after the organisation was founded. It will sit on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member in 2023/24.
Nevertheless, over the years Switzerland has continued to strengthen its representation within international bodies. It is thus a member of UNESCO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), among others. Geneva is also now the seat of many international organisations.
Promoting peace and human rights has remained a priority for Swiss foreign policy. The country takes part in civilian and military peacekeeping missions led by international organisations. It sends experts to different countries to support peace processes or to supervise the holding of elections. Switzerland also regularly offers its good offices, supports conflict parties in seeking solutions and acts as a mediator.
The limits of neutrality
From the outset, Switzerland's neutrality has been much debated and questioned. During the Second World War, Switzerland breached this principle on numerous occasions, for instance by supplying war materiel and goods to the belligerents. It has also been strongly criticised for refusing to take in Jewish refugees and for keeping Holocaust victims' money in its banks until the late 1990s. Another example is a controversy about Switzerland's stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Moreover, Switzerland manufactures weapons and exports them to various countries, a fact that many people consider incompatible with its neutrality and its desire to promote peace.
Each new proposal for cooperation with or membership of an international organisation sparks renewed debate on the definition and role of Swiss neutrality. However, in a globalised world made up of interdependent states, this principle seems less important and more difficult to delineate today.
Yet the Swiss population remains strongly attached to it. In a 2019 survey, over 95% of respondents reported a wish to preserve neutrality, and said they believed it was an integral part of Swiss identity.
Translated from French by Julia Bassam/urs, dos
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