Peace on Earth…

Reflections on the Essence of Swiss Neutrality

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

On 30 October 2020 Federal councillors Sommaruga und Cassis announced Switzerlan’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat in the UNO security council. As Simonetta Sommaruga put it, the body was in need of members who knew how to build bridges. Former Federal councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey has recently published a book with the title “Die Neutralität. Zwischen Mythos und Vorbild” (ISBN 978-3-03810-493-3) (Neutrality. Between myth and model.) It is food for thought and worth reading, but some of its controversial claims should not go unchallenged. It offers a deep insight into the essence of neutrality but is meant to pave Switzerlands’s way into the security council.

In this article I will outline my first impression about the book. I argue that Switzerland has other frameworks at her disposal in which to promote peace, which are much better than a security council seat ever could be.
  Neutrality is deeply rooted in the population. Every year Zürich university (ETH) conducts a survey which invariably confirms more than 90% support of the population in favour of and for the maintenance of neutrality. Together with direct democracy and federalism, neutrality stands at the core of Swiss identity and raison d’être.
  Distinctions are made between neutrality laws and neutrality politics. Neutrality laws consist of a limited body of treaties such as the Hague convention of 1907 which is relevant mainly in wartime (the neutral party must not take sides, must deny troops passing though or war planes flying over its territory, while trade is allowed with all parties). Neutrality politics on the other hand governs state politics in general. Swiss neutrality politics has assumed various shapes and appearances throughout history. After the First world war Switzerland was a member of the League of Nations and supported economic sanctions against countries violating international law, which created difficult situations – especially regarding Italy after their attack on Ethiopia (a.k.a. Abessinia at the time).
  After the Second World War the federal council endorsed “integrative neutrality”. Switzerland avoided taking sides in conflicts both politically and economically, which was the reason why the United Nations were not joined before 2002.  Calmy-Rey mocks this strategy saying that Switzerland had put herself into a “straightjacket” and had voluntarily restricted her range of activites. But was that really the case? After all the UNO had established their second most important headquearters at Geneva, in the non-member state of Switzerland. This has created numerous opportunities. Prior to their joining the UNO Switzerland actively collaborated in all UN sub-organizations and contributed financially, above average. This version of neutrality proved beneficiary in many instances and was highly appreciated. The International Committee of the Red Cross have their headquarters in Switzerland, too. They are committed to neutrality in their work. Sometimes this approach has provoked criticism, though. For instance, when Switzerland did not support sanctions against South Africa because of their apartheid policies.

“Active und pragmatic  politics of neutrality”

The attitude in the Swiss federal council changed in the 1990ies, coinciding with the emerging goal to join the European union. CalmyRey coins the term “active and pragmatic politics of neutrality” to describe this new orientation. Since then and until now Switzerland has often participated in international sanctions and has endorsed coercive measures which Western states have taken – for instance recently against Russia. Calmy-Rey mentions the Kosovo several times. As minister for foreign affairs she had been responsible to a large extent for Switzerland being one of the first countries to officially recognise the Kosovo as a state immediately after NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia, although the Serbian region lacked important preconditions to become a state (and still does). The situation is still far from stable and the Kosovo even further from being a prosperous country. Almost 20 years later soldiers from various countries including Switzerland are still stationed in Kosovo to prevent armed conflict from flaring up again. Calmy-Rey writes that the extra-ordinary human rights situation had justified the immediate recognition as a state. NATO had justified their war against Serbia with human rights violations and “genocide” and had built their propaganda, which accompanies every war, mainly on these arguments. The wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya were justified with human rights violations, too. This created some strange situations. One party in such a conflict (such as in Syria) may easily get tempted to fake human rights violations such as poison gas attacks and blame them on the enemy (i.e. False flag operations) – with the goal to get NATO or US bombers involved. Human rights violations as reasons to go to war are always problematic. More often than not, wars cause much graver human rights violations as compared with the ones they allegedly help to prevent. The underlying reasons of human rights violations are usually lacking political solutions and insufficient commitment to find them. This is exactly the point where Swiss neutrality politics could get involved and Switzerland become a bridge builder. In my point of view, there are better opportunities outside the UN security council to promote peace. For-instance, the Good services of Switzerland helped achieve the peace of Evian in 1962. Calmy-Rey offers many historical examples dating as far back as the 19th century. It is astonishing though, that in her book she misses out on the human bridge which Switzerland built for France and Algeria in 1962 which eventually helped the peace of Evian to get signed. This treaty put an end to one of the worst wars after 1945, which is comparable to the Vietnam war in many aspects. This outstanding achievement of the diplomats at the Political Departement (today Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, FDFA) was so crucial that it should be discussed in detail here.

Ending the Algeria war – a great challenge for the Good services of Switzerland

Algeria was the biggest and oldest colony of France but formally constituted a part of France. More than one million French people had settled there. The war of independence started in 1954. The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) was supported by Tunisia and Morocco, both of which had already become independent countries. France had deployed around half a million soldiers continuously in Algeria. Until 1962 about 1,7 million French military personnel had served in this war theatre – apart from professional soldiers the Foreign Legion and also many young Frenchmen drafted for military service. This big war was under heated debate especially in France. One reason that General Charles de Gaulle was elected again for prime minister in 1958 and for president in 1959 was his promise to end the war and grant independence to Algeria. For 8 January 1961 de Gaulle scheduled a peoples’ referendum. His policies were supported by 75% of the voters in France. But the referendum didn’t settle the issue. The peace process was disrupted massively. Only days later, on 20 January, the Organisation armée secrète (Secret Armed Organisation, OAS) was founded in Madrid which was joined by many French settlers and several high-ranking officers of the French military sympathised with the OAS. They went underground and started to commit attacks in order to topple the peace process. On 21 April the OAS staged a coup in Algiers including four French army generals who positioned themselves against Algerian independence and de Gaulle’s peace plans. The coup failed but the situation remained highly dangerous. Open negotiations for peace were hardly possible. Both de Gaulle and the FLN approached Switzerland to help and provide Good services. In a first step the goal was to organise direct one-on-one talks.
  These talks were held – in view of the dangerous situation in a highly clandestine setting. Today the reports are declassified and may be read at ( and 10392; 10413 and 10389; 10307 and 398). Especially the 50 pages report of minister Olivier Long are worth studying: he and Gianrico Bucher, both staff members at the Swiss Political Department, had discretely prepared and organised the meetings. The war parties were to meet inofficially in Luzern, at first in a private setting. With George Pompidou (later to become French president) de Gaulle had appointed one of his most trusted collaborators as head of the negotiation team. Pompidou was working in private business at the time. The talks took place in the Hotel Schweizerhof. Algerians and French met after breakfast, spent the whole day together and discussed until late at night. Long and Bucher were sitting in the adjacent room and made sure nothing suspicious could be noticed outside which could prompt violent attacks from the OAS against the beginning peace talks. However, after a few days Long und Bucher found the situation too risky and transferred the negotiations to Neuenburg. This illustrates: quite often the Good services mean that talks in a neutral environment are organised and to keep them secure.

Signing the peace in Evian – the aim was achieved

After the second round of talks the concept of formal peace negotiations had been agreed upon: they were to take place in Evian, on the French side of Lake Geneva. The first phase of the negotiations, still secret, dealt with a truce. Before official negotiations were to start, the armed conflict in Algeria had to stop first. Only at this stage the media were to get involved – a highly sophisticated endeavour. Understandably, the Algerian delegation preferred not to stay on French soil. They resided in Switzerland in the Lausanne region and travelled every day with military helicopters or, on days with bad weather, with speedboats via Lake Geneva. But even on the Swiss side the Algerians didn’t feel safe. An entire batallion was mustered by the Siwss army for their protection. In addition, the Algerians changed their residence every day to make sure the press didn’t find out about their whereabouts. The costs of this huge military style operation were covered in full by the Swiss taxpayer. The conference of Evian became a success and ended with the Evian peace accord. Algeria gained their independence. Bucher and Long wrote their report for the departement (which is accessable at In hindsight one may agree that the extremely cautious approach and highly professional conduct of the two staff members of the political department had been right. Only weeks after the peace had been signed assassins’ bullets only narrowly missed Charles de Gaulle in his limousine. The Good services of Switzerland had helped to end one of the most brutal wars of recent times and to achieve a stable peace. Without policies of strict neutrality this would not have been possible.

The Evian peace accord helps Switzerland in their European politics

The Good services and the agreement of Evian strengthened the position of Switzerland in the international community, who may have been impressed how this had been possible to achieve. Switzerland was officially invited to the Elysée palace. Federal councillor Wahlen, chairman of the political departement, visited de Gaulle, who thanked him for the Good servies of Switzerland (see the protocol of the meeting at Wahlen used the opportunity to present the problems Switzerland faced at the time regarding the European Economic Area to de Gaulle. Switzerland had been paid a visit by US undersecretary of state George Ball. He informed them about a meeting between US president Kennedy and the British prime minister McMillan. Ball confronted the federal councillors Wahlen and Schaffner with the “wish” or rather the plan of the USA to have the European Free Trade Association dissolved. A memorandum (see outlines Ball’s statements during the visit. The NATO members of the recently founded the European Free Trade Association, EFTA, especially the UK, were to join the European Economic Area. The neutral countries such as Switzerland were to sign association agreements with the EEA. Similar to today’s association treaties with the EU this was meant to include political co-operation. Councillor Wahlen informed de Gaulle about Switzerland´s concerns: “Other reasons for us not to join the European Area […] are constitutional problems. Our constitution of direct democracy doesn’t allow us to transfer competences which belong to the people, our Sovereign in the fullest sense of the word,  to another community.” 
  De Gaulle replied: “France understands your wish to find a way to come to terms with the European Economic Area and this will not be easy to achieve. Rest assured though, that France will not create further difficulties.”


The politics of neutrality played a crucial role for the EU politics of Switzerland back then. The two secretaries of state Bucher and Long performed an excellent job when they organized everything in a highly professional manner without ever reading their names in the newspaper. They would have been worthier recipients of the Nobel peace prize as compared with some of the recent laureates. We face troubled times right now in which world peace seems to be far away. Real peace treaties have become rare exceptions. The efforts of the Federal council of 1962 and the two diplomatic staff members should be discussed in textbooks of state diplomacy today. This kind of neutrality politics was a true contribution to world peace.    •

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