Reflections on some characteristics of Swiss neutrality

by Ivo Rens*, Honorary Professor Law Faculty University of Geneva

Switzerland’s neutrality is by no means limited to its non-participation in the two world conflicts of the 20th century. It predates this period, having been established in the 17th century and recognised by the Peace of Westphalia.
  This neutrality was indeed violated by revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, indicating its fragility, but it was reaffirmed and enforced by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Perhaps it should be pointed out that Swiss neutrality has always been armed neutrality, even if this precision no longer has the significance it had until the Second World War.
  In an initial period from 1815 to 1918, this neutrality was essentially passive. Switzerland did not interfere in international affairs, but naturally strove to maintain good neighbourly relations with its immediate neighbours and even with other states.
  “During this period from 1872 (the date of the famous Alabama arbitration in Geneva between the USA and Great Britain) to the beginning of the First World War, international arbitration experienced a heyday, which is also illustrated by the peace conferences in The Hague in 1899 and 1907 (Hague Conventions). Thanks to the experience it had gained during the Old Confederation, Switzerland was then entrusted with arbitration mandates almost continuously.”1
  Parallel to this development, two first intergovernmental organisations with universal aspirations emerged in Switzerland in the 19th century: The International Telegraph Union was founded in Geneva in 1865 and the General Postal Union, today’s Universal Postal Union, in Berne in 1874. But perhaps most significantly, the International Committee of the Red Cross (deliberate inversion of the Swiss flag) was founded in Geneva in 1863, on the initiative of Henry Dunant from Geneva, author of Un souvenir de Solferino, a book published in 1862 and dedicated to the humanitarian catastrophe of the battle of the same name. When, on 26 January 1871, the Swiss Confederation agreed to give refuge to the 87,000 exhausted and destitute men of General Bourbaki’s army after the French defeat in the conflict with Prussia, it seemed to give its neutrality a humanitarian interpretation in line with that which had guided the birth of the Red Cross and which was to prevail in more recent periods of Swiss neutrality.
  In the second period from 1914 to 1945, Swiss neutrality was strongly influenced by the efforts that led to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, which Switzerland immediately joined. Incidentally, Article 435 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles recognised Switzerland’s neutrality “for the preservation of peace”. It is no coincidence that Geneva was chosen as the seat of the League of Nations, the ILO, the WHO and several other international organisations, for example the oldest international political organisation, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which was founded in 1889 and established itself in Geneva in 1921.2 At the request of the parties concerned, Switzerland, Swiss nationals or the International Red Cross intervened in many international disputes. In addition, disputes between Greeks and Turks were settled in two Swiss cities, Lausanne in 1923 and Montreux in 1936, particularly in relation to shipping through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus.
  In a third period after the Second World War – although Switzerland did not join the UN until 2002 – the European headquarters of the UN was established in Geneva, in the palace that had been built for the League of Nations, and thus in the city that was home to the headquarters of several organisations of the UN system and others.
  The Swiss government (the Federal Council) tried to give Swiss neutrality a much more active course by not only initiating mediation or arbitration in international disputes, but also by offering its good offices, for example facilitating contacts between conflicting parties or even acting as a “facilitator” of such contacts. This explains why a Swiss city, Geneva, was chosen as the venue for several important international conferences.
  Two examples: In 1954, in the midst of the Cold War, the so-called Asia Conference took place in Geneva, attended for the first time by the People’s Republic of China, with which Switzerland had maintained diplomatic relations since 1950. The Geneva Accords emerged from this conference, sealing the fate of Korea and Vietnam and putting an end to years of war in these two countries. In 1955, Geneva also hosted the “Atoms for Peace” exhibition, which offered a peaceful outlet to the hitherto purely military activity, but unfortunately without taking into account the catastrophic risks and harmful ecological consequences of nuclear energy. Swiss territory also hosted the meetings between the Algerian insurgents and the French leaders in 1961 and 1962, who sealed their agreement across Lake Geneva in Evian in 1962.3
  “Another tailor-made area is the representation of foreign interests (protecting power mandates). Here Switzerland tries to maintain contacts as far as possible between two states that have broken off their diplomatic relations. Its first experiences in this field date back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871; they were to expand during the First World War and reach an unsurpassed level during the Second World War with the mutual representation of 35 states resulting in 200 mandates. Although the number of protecting power mandates declined rapidly after the cessation of hostilities, it was to increase again with the emergence of new international tensions (46 mandates from 1946 to 1964). The Representation of American Interests in Cuba (since 1961) and the Mutual Representation of American Interests in Cuba (since 1991) were still in force in 1998. Particularly important were the mandate exercised from 1982 (Falklands War) to 1990 for Great Britain (representing its interests in Argentina) and the mandate exercised since 1980 for the USA in Iran following the taking hostage of members of the American embassy in Tehran.”4
  In international relations, Switzerland occupies a unique role in the world due to its perpetual neutrality and its commitment to peace. This is due to the perseverance it has shown throughout its history with regard to its sovereignty. If Switzerland were to accept to submit its disputes with its giant neighbour, by which it is surrounded, to the Court of Justice of the European Union, which the latter urges it to do,5 both its neutrality and its sovereignty would be destroyed. For in such a case, its autonomy vis-à-vis Brussels would be comparable to that of Hong Kong vis-à-vis Beijing.  •

* Professor Dr Ivo Rens, retired honorary professor of the University of Geneva, was a full professor at the University of Geneva until his retirement. He taught at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and at the Sorbonne in Paris, in addition to other international teaching assignments. In the 1960s, he was advisor on constitutional issues to the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak, one of the fathers of a united Europe.

1 Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse, Eintrag «Gute Dienste»,(Good Offices), Version of 1 July 2014
2 The Inter-Parliamentary Union was involved in the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 1899. This court exists in The Hague alongside the International Court of Justice, which was established by the United Nations Charter in 1945 to replace the Permanent Court of International Justice
3 Mettan, Guy. Genève, Ville de paix. De la conférence de 1954 sur l'Indochine à la coopération internationale, Editions Slatkine, Geneva 2004
4 Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse, op. cit.
5 Cf. in particular Article 10 of the draft Framework Agreement between the EU and the Swiss Confederation and Article 9 of Protocol III on Arbitration, which make the Court of Justice of the European Union the court of final instance in all disputes..

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