Big question mark on Federal Council foreign policy programme

What has neutral Switzerland got to do on the UN Security Council?

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

In his speech on 26 June 2020 in Geneva on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations’ Charter, Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis confirmed Switzerland’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council for the years 2023/24, a candidacy long hatched and nurtured in Federal Bern.1 As early as 2011 the Federal Council decided, despite serious reservations on many sides, to officially submit Switzerland’s candidature for a non-permanent mandate on the Security Council. Over the years, a number of initiatives were launched in parliament to counter this submission, but unfortunately all of them were rejected by the majority of both Councils.
Today, the Federal Council’s goal has disastrously come within reach: namely to obtain a seat in the UN Security Council, this instrument of power which, contrary to the principle of equal rights for all states, is authorised to legitimise coercive measures against member states, including war missions, “for the maintenance or restoration of world peace” (Articles 39-43 of the Charter). Professor Hans Köchler has repeatedly written on this issue in Current Concerns. His valuable contributions have been published as a book by Zeit-Fragen in 2019.2
For the great powers, the Security Council may in practice be an instrument to try to avert a world conflagration with their veto. For Switzerland, on the other hand, a seat on the Security Council ought to be rejected because it would contradict the principle of neutrality, an indispensable part of the Swiss concept of government.

Switzerland only joined the UN as a full member in 2002 – and not because the Swiss were against positive activities within the UN framework. On the contrary, Switzerland has actively supported the UN since its foundation, with the establishment and maintenance of international Geneva, the UN’s most important seat next to New York, and with major personnel and financial contributions to the United Nations’ numerous social, humanitarian and cultural sub-organisations. Instead of the CHF 20 million a year that Switzerland would have had to pay as a member at the end of the 1980s, it was then contributing around CHF 170 million a year to the UN and its sub-organisations.3 Although the majority of the population approved of these activities, the voters rejected accession to the UN with a massive “no” vote of over 75 per cent of the votes and from all cantons in the referendum of 16 March 1986. Finally, in the vote of 3 March 2002, a not exactly overwhelming majority of 54.6 per cent of the Swiss voted yes to joining the UN (with a wafer-thin cantonal majority of 12 to 11). What was the reason?

The 1986 referendum:
Swiss neutrality as the main reason against joining the UN

In the Federal Council’s 1986 voting booklet, the “Action Committee against Accession to the UN” argued in plain language: “The main reason that makes accession to the UN impossible for us is its incompatibility with our permanent and armed neutrality. The Charter stipulates that members must take economic, transport and diplomatic measures, i. e. sanctions, against individual states in accordance with the Security Council’s decision. Even neutral Switzerland would be forced to implement such sanctions against other states. This would be a clear, blatant violation of neutrality, because the unilateral declaration of our neutrality which the Federal Council is to make according to the draft has no legal significance and would not exempt us from the obligation to impose sanctions.” And further: “We would have to follow the Security Council’s will, which is not ours, and that duty is in open contradiction to the constitutional article according to which the first purpose of the Confederation is the ‘assertion of the independence of our fatherland against the outside’.” (Voting booklet, p. 6)
The 1986 referendum proposal contained the following provision: “Before accession, the Federal Council will make a solemn declaration in which it expressly confirms that Switzerland will maintain its permanent and armed neutrality.
So much for the recent history of Swiss neutrality policy. Even at that time, the stone of contention was the Security Council, even though a seat for Switzerland on this body was not an issue. What is striking is the unity with which the voters defended themselves against Federal Bern’s imposition.

Swiss commitment to a more peaceful world in the Security Council?

Today we live in a different era. There are Swiss who have almost got used to the fact that, by exposing them to a constant stream of questionable messages, their “representatives of the people” mean to lure them away from meaningful, historically grown principles of the state and nudge them into a supposedly better and fairer world.
It was in this spirit that on 26 June in Geneva, Federal Councillor Cassis attempted to whitewash the Swiss candidacy for the UN Security Council in an almost grotesque way: “Cet engagement en faveur d’un monde plus juste, plus pacifique et, donc, plus vivable est la base de notre candidature à un siège au Conseil de Sécurité des Nations Unies pour les 2023 à 2024. Voici dévoilé le slogan de notre candidature: ‘La Suisse. Un Plus pour la Paix - Switzerland. A plus for peace.’” In English: “This commitment to a fairer, more peaceful and therefore more liveable world is the basis for our candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2023 to 2024. In the Security Council, we want to be a Plus for Peace. So here is the slogan of our candidacy: ‘Switzerland.’ A Plus for Peace.’”4
In this fantasy sketched by the Swiss head of the FDFA (Foreign Minister) no-one who has read Professor Köchler’s book or even only the relevant articles in Chapter VII of the UN Charter (see box) will recognise the Security Council, that body dominated by the great powers.

Small states have hardly any influence in the Security Council – they can take more suitable measures

According to Article 23 of the UN Charter, the Security Council consists of 15 members of the United Nations. China, France, Russia, Great Britain and the USA are permanent members; the ten non-permanent members are elected by the UN General Assembly for a two-year term each. Paragraph 1 of Art. 23 prescribes “an appropriate geographical distribution of seats.” In practice, they are allocated as follows: Africa 3 seats, Asia/Pacific 2 seats, Latin America 2 seats, Eastern Europe 1 seat, Western Europe and others 2 seats. For the two Western European seats, Malta is the only other country besides Switzerland to apply for 2023/2024.
The undemocratic voting procedure in the Security Council has been explained in detail several times by Professor Köchler. Here is just a brief explanation: According to Article 27 of the UN Charter, each member has one vote. In all important matters, the approval of nine of the 15 members is required. In order for a decision to come about, the approval of the five permanent member states is necessary, i.e. each of them can block a decision by voting against it (veto right). How did George Orwell characterise such conditions in his “Animal Farm?” “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” It should be added that the veto right of the great powers can prove to be quite useful in some dangerous situations in order to avoid a direct war between individual great powers. However, the small neutral state of Switzerland – and most other states – do not play in this league.
In a Radio SRF broadcast on 24 April 2019, it was confirmed that it is very difficult for non-permanent members to exert influence in the UN Security Council. According to a study by the International Peace Institute, however, in 2017/2018 for example Sweden made progress possible in the Security Council “in the humanitarian field – especially with regard to access for aid agencies in Syria.”5
But surely we do not need a representative on the Security Council for this! In the humanitarian field, Switzerland has for a long time had far more suitable means of cooperation with other states and international organisations: in particular the ICRC and the Good Offices, but also the SDC (Agency for Development Cooperation of the Swiss Confederation), and Swiss commitment in numerous UN organisations such as UNDP (UN Development Programme), OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) as well as in the OSCE.

Votes from Parliament:
Mandate in Security Council diametrically opposed to the Confederation’s principle of neutrality

In its reports and statements, the Federal Council relentlessly asserts that a Security Council mandate is compatible with the law of neutrality and Switzerland’s neutrality policy. In its report of 5 June 2015, it states, among other things, that only a small part of the Security Council’s decisions contain coercive measures [in accordance with Article 42/43 of the UN Charter]. Moreover, the coercive measures taken rarely concern an armed conflict between states, but mostly internal conflicts to which the principle of neutrality was not applicable. Furthermore, coercive measures to which the Security Council gives the go-ahead were not acts of war in the sense of the law of neutrality, because the Security Council does not act as a party to the conflict, but “acts on the basis of a mandate from all member states which have entrusted it with the maintenance and restoration of peace as guardian of the international order.”6
Here, the Federal Council is confusing the law of neutrality and neutrality policy: if Switzerland takes sides in a domestic conflict, this does in fact not violate the law of neutrality in its narrower sense, but it does violate the neutrality policy that Switzerland is obliged to follow (see box on the law and policy of neutrality). How will you explain this subtle difference to the other party when Switzerland takes the one party’s side in a domestic conflict and also wants to provide humanitarian aid in the country concerned! And explain to the suffering civilian population, on whom the Security Council is imposing economic sanctions, that Switzerland is supporting these sanctions in order to “restore peace” ... Such hair-splitting by the Federal Council is fundamentally contrary to the spirit and purpose of Swiss neutrality. Is it really worth it – just to be in the photos of the UN power circles?
Neither does it help if the Federal Council, in its 2015 report on page 20, cites other neutral states such as Austria, Ireland or Finland, which have also been on the Security Council: From this, they say, it can be concluded that the credibility of neutrality would not be damaged in this way. Objection! Each individual state must decide this question for itself on its own responsibility, on the basis of its own understanding of neutrality, its history and the anchoring of the principle of neutrality in the population. Austria, Ireland and Finland are members of the EU and are subject to its “Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)”. This is a very different starting point from that of Switzerland.
Like others before it, the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) parliamentary group’s recent motion for Switzerland to renounce its candidacy was justified primarily on the basis of the principle of neutrality: “Those who sit on the Security Council can no longer claim a neutral position for themselves. The purpose of the seat is to help shape world policy on war and peace, otherwise participation in the Security Council is pointless. The [...] intention to seek membership is diametrically opposed to the age-old principle of neutrality of the Swiss Confederation.”7 Like previous attempts, this motion was unfortunately rejected by the National Council on 12 March of this year, by 127 votes to 52.
Encouragingly, one member each of the FDP (Free Democrats) and CVP (Christian People’s Party) also agreed to the renunciation of candidacy. Twelve members of the National Council, eleven of them from the CVP, abstained from voting: because they recognised the incompatibility of the Security Council seat with Switzerland’s neutrality, but did not want to agree to a motion filed by the SVP?
One of those who abstained is National Councillor and CVP party president Gerhard Pfister (Zug). A year and a half ago, he issued a remarkable media release on behalf of his party, which read, among other things, “Switzerland has been a member of the UN since 2002, which makes it possible in principle to participate in the Security Council. But does it also make sense to join this body? If a state violates international peace, the Security Council can order binding and, in the case of serious violations, even military measures. Switzerland would have to decide and take sides on all issues to be assessed. Particularly at a time when conflicts are on the increase, when geopolitical shifts threaten, it is important for Switzerland to reflect on its strengths. Switzerland cannot contribute much in the UN Security Council because the permanent members block important decisions by their veto anyway, and because Switzerland would have to abstain time and again due to its impartiality. Why not use energy and money for Switzerland’s strength? Let us continue to provide our good offices in the other UN organisations. Let us commit ourselves to international Geneva. Let us commit ourselves to the objectives of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the OECD and many other multilateral organisations. The Federal Council would do well to reconsider its application for a seat on the UN Security Council.”8 

“Should Switzerland become an active member of the UN Security Council, it will no longer be neutral.
If it is silent, on the other hand, it does not belong there”9

One of those who, on the basis of the Swiss principle of neutrality, persistently opposes a Swiss mandate in the Security Council, is long-standing Ambassador Dr Paul Widmer.10 As early as 2015, under the title “Switzerland does not belong in the UN Security Council”, he took a firm stand on the candidacy, which the Federal Council had declared to be compatible with neutrality in its above-mentioned report to Parliament on 6 June 2015.11
In this article Widmer uses the example of the military mission against Libya to illustrate the ignoble situations in which Switzerland could find itself with a mandate in the Security Council: “Ten states voted in favour, five – China and Russia as permanent members, Germany, India and Brazil as non-permanent members - abstained. No one vetoed, no one voted against.”
Widmer continues: “Let us suppose Switzerland had been on the Security Council in 2011. How would it have acted? It could have voted against the no-fly zone. But it would certainly not have done so. Nor is it appropriate that a neutral should be the only one to try and prevent a UN project. Second option: it would have voted with the majority to support military action. That too would have been unreasonable for a neutral state, when even a NATO country like Germany abstained. Third possibility: it would have abstained. That would have been the most likely course. But for that we need not join the Security Council.
Whichever way you look at it, Switzerland on the Security Council would either by its frequent abstentions further weaken an already weak leadership body in delicate matters or otherwise endanger its own neutrality by taking sides.”

External neutrality:
“The respect of neutrality by the international community is worth more than the restrictions imposed.”

In another newspaper commentary Paul Widmer points out that Switzerland’s political elite did not think much of neutrality after the end of the Cold War: “It was thought that it had been useful during the period of East-West confrontation, but that it no longer had a place in the new Europe. The Federal Council wanted to lead Switzerland into the EU and sought proximity to NATO.
For this reason they felt that neutrality was a millstone around the Swiss neck. This disdain was reflected in the 1993 neutrality report. In this interpretation, in peacetime almost everything is compatible with neutrality – except full membership of a military alliance. Neutrality has been reduced to the minimum required by law. That is very little indeed. Neutrality policy, on the other hand, has faded away.”12
In light of this, Widmer warns: “Respect for neutrality by the community of states is worth more than the restrictions imposed”. Because ultimately it depends on what the other states think of our policy: “An excessively permissive interpretation threatens to damage our credibility. So why go to the Security Council? [...] For a little prestige? That is a high price to pay. Switzerland would probably lose more than it gains.”13

Neutrality within:
“Neutrality is very strongly anchored in the Swiss population”

Quite unlike the political elite, the overwhelming majority of the Swiss population persists in its insistence on neutrality. In surveys, 90 to 95 per cent of those surveyed are in favour of maintaining it. With a touch of irony, Paul Widmer explains this area of tension as follows: “There is a contradiction between external power and internal freedom. Where citizens have little say in foreign policy matters, those responsible for foreign policy can act quickly and confidently. Autocrats are best at this. Where citizens have extensive political rights, the reverse is true. Direct democracies are the worst. There, the people want to have everything put before them. For most of the Swiss the starting position is clear. They want comprehensive political rights and a state system that is as free as possible. Foreign policy is of secondary importance to them. The political elites, on the other hand, have a hard time with this. Time and again, they take a stab at expanding the scope for foreign policy at the expense of neutrality. And this will continue to be the case in the future.”14
Fortunately, in Switzerland the citizens usually have the last word – but not on the question of whether Switzerland wants to run for the UN Security Council. By agreeing to join the UN in 2002, we have bought the pig in a poke – a possible seat on the Security Council. Anyone who voted against joining the UN for reasons of neutrality (for example the writer) had listened very carefully to Federal Councillor Joseph Deiss, who already at that time uttered his wish for: “... perhaps even a seat on the Security Council”. But our politicians can still pull the emergency brake. The decision of the UN General Assembly will not be made until June 2022.      •

1  Speech by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 2020 in Geneva
2  Köchler, Hans. Schweizer Vorträge – Texte zu Völkerrecht und Weltordnung. (The Swiss Lectures) Verlag Zeit-Fragen 2019. ISBN 978-3-909234-23-3 3
3  Referendum of 16 March 1986, Federal Council’s voting booklet, p. 4
4  Speech by Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 2020 in Geneva
5  Gsteiger, Fredy. “Umstrittene Kandidatur. Die Schweiz als Brückenbauerin im Uno-Sicherheitsrat?” (Controversial candidacy. Switzerland as a bridge-builder on the UN Security Council?); in: Radio SRF. Echo der Zeit of 24 April 2019
6  “Switzerland’s candidature for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in the period 2023-2024”. Federal Council Report of 5 June 2015 (in fulfilment of the postulate of the Foreign Affairs Committees FAC-N 13.3005 of 15 January 2013), p. 19
7  Motion 18.4123 “Verzicht auf eine Kandidatur für den Uno-Sicherheitsrat” (Renunciation of candidacy for the UN Security Council), submitted by the parliamentary group of the Swiss People’s Party to the National Council on 29 November 2018
8  “Regarding … UN Security Council.” Christian People’s Party (CVP) press release of 10 August 2018. Author: Gerhard Pfister, Zug, President of the Swiss CVP, National Council
9  Widmer, Paul. “Why don’t we let Malta go first into the Security Council.” NZZ am Sonntag, 16 September 2018
10 Dr phil. Paul Widmer studied history, philosophy and political science. He was Swiss ambassador for many years and teaches international relations at the University of St. Gallen. Paul Widmer is the author of “Schweizer Außenpolitik und Diplomatie” (Swiss foreign policy and diplomacy), NZZ-Verlag 2014 (new edition), reviewed in Current Concerns No 17, 7 August 2019 under the title “Neutrality as a guideline, direct democracy as a basis”.
11 Widmer, Paul. “Die Schweiz gehört nicht in den Uno-Sicherheitsrat” (Switzerland does not belong on the UN Security Council). Guest commentary; in: NZZ of 1 July 2015
12 Widmer, Paul. “Auf geht es, in den Sicherheitsrat der Uno!” (Here we go, to the UN Security Council!); in: NZZ am Sonntag, 3 April 2016
13 Widmer, Paul. “Die Schweiz gehört nicht in den Uno-Sicherheitsrat” (Switzerland does not belong on the UN Security Council). Guest commentary; in: NZZ of 1 July 2015
14 Widmer, Paul. “Auf geht es, in den Sicherheitsrat der Uno!” (Here we go, to the UN Security Council!); in: NZZ am Sonntag, 3 April 2016

Law of neutrality and neutrality policy

mw. “The law of neutrality defines the rights and duties of a neutral state.” The legal basis is primarily the “Hague Convention on the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in the Event of a Land War” of 18 October 1907. The most important duties of a neutral state are: Non-participation in wars and in military alliances, selfdefence, equal treatment of the warring parties with regard to the export of war material, non-allocation of territory to the warring parties.
    “The policy of neutrality ensures the effectiveness and credibility of neutrality. It is based on law, national interests, the international situation, tradition and history.”

Source: “Die Neutralität der Schweiz” (The neutrality of Switzerland). An information brochure of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection
and Sports DDPS; in cooperation with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA. 4th revised edition.

Powers of the UN Security Council under the Charter of the United Nations of 26 June 1945

Chapter VII: Action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression

Article 39
The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Article 41
The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.

Article 42
Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

Article 43
(1) All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.

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