Swiss neutrality – a first-class peace project

by Dr phil. René Roca, Research Institute for Direct Democracy (

Once again, Swiss neutrality is under intense pressure. This was most recently the case in the early 1990s, after the end of the “Cold War”. At that time, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history”. He referred to Hegel’s philosophy of history, which actually leads to an end in the sense of a final synthesis, where, according to Fukuyama, there are no more world political contradictions, there is only peace and democracy. Fukuyama first published his thesis in the summer of 1989 and was refuted as early as in January 1991, when a coalition of war-willing countries, led by the USA, initiated the First Gulf War. Switzerland’s neutrality policy went into a tailspin, and it finally abandoned its integral neutrality and took part in the economic sanctions against Iraq. Since then, Switzerland has been applied differential neutrality, while the USA has been waging war almost permanently. Now, in view of the Ukraine war, Swiss neutrality is once again in the focus of world politics and is in danger of becoming completely empty of content.

Definition, content and goals

Basically, neutrality means the non-participation of a state in a war of other states. In this sense, examples of neutrality can already be found in the Old Testament, in Greek and Roman antiquity, in the Middle Ages and in early modern times. Switzerland has practised neutrality since the early modern period and has contributed significantly to shaping its content. In retrospect, the history of Swiss neutrality is a success story for the state itself, for Europe and also globally, even if ruptures and contradictions can be identified time and again. The citizens of Switzerland have had to assure themselves of the value of neutrality over and over in the course of time, and in this way they have been able to secure their country’s existence and keep war at bay. Other countries do not always have much sympathy for Swiss neutrality. However, Switzerland’s humanitarian commitment has often noticeably mitigated their criticism. This commitment has been particularly evident in the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and in Switzerland’s Good Offices. The preservation of internal and external peace as well as the common good can be deduced from history as its central goal.

“Sitting still” as the hallmark of the old federal neutrality

Neutrality developed gradually as the Swiss Confederation grew from 1291 onwards. In the course of this development, domestic as well as foreign policy reasons always remained the important driving force. For example, when Basel joined the Confederation in 1501, the new ally was obliged to “sit still” and to mediate in the event of conflicts between the communities, the “places”. The experiences of the Eight Old Places had led to these demands, which furthered peaceful coexistence and constructive cooperation. A foreign policy experience that caused a fundamental turnaround was the defeat in the Battle of Marignano in 1515. This disastrous war led to the consolidation of the federal structure of the Confederation and to the rejection of a purposeful, comprehensive federal expansionist policy. “Sitting still” and mediation, both of which kept the peace in human relations, now became important in foreign policy as well and ultimately led to the first official declaration of neutrality by the “Tagsatzung” (Swiss Diet) in 1674.
  However, many questions were still unresolved, as the actual law of nations had only been developed since the 17th century, above all by Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel, a representative of the Western Swiss School of Natural Law. For instance, the conclusion of defensive alliances was still permissible, and the Confederation was involved in numerous alliances. This led to contradictions, and power-political interests repeatedly paralysed peaceful development. Moreover, the mercenary system, for which Switzerland was famous, did not exactly promote a foreign policy built on trust. Nevertheless, Switzerland’s declared neutrality increasingly brought about the desired unity, and the confessionally divided, multilingual country was able to evolve in relative independence after its sovereignty had been recognised under international law in the Peace of Westphalia (1648). The Confederation then also managed to stay well out of the European wars of faith, conquest and succession of the early modern period. In the course of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), armed neutrality increasingly took shape with the Defensionale of Wil (1647), the first pan-federal military order.

The Congress of Vienna
brings perpetual neutrality in 1815

In the Helvetic Republic from 1798 and under Napoleon’s rule, Switzerland had to surrender its neutrality until 1815. The consequences were devastating: it became a theatre of war, an occupied country, and had to endure military march-throughs. Only after the defeat of Napoleon I did Switzerland become a sovereign country again. Though quarrelling amongst themselves, the delegation of the Confederates at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) for the first time achieved official recognition of Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality and territorial inviolability under international law. The great powers of the time, Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia, guaranteed Switzerland this right, without which a right of intervention on their part could have been derived (2nd Peace of Paris). This obligation, which is still valid internationally today, was owed to the will to establish a kind of “balance” in Europe, but was expressly wished for by Switzerland and not just “graciously granted” to it, as has repeatedly been claimed.
  In 1848, after the Sonderbund War, neutrality was consolidated with the founding of the federal state, although the fathers of the Constitution did not explicitly enshrine it in the Purpose Article of the Federal Constitution, but only in the Competence Articles of the Federal Assembly and the Federal Council. In the following decades, in the course of the formation of nation states (especially Italy and Germany), neutrality was eminently important for Switzerland to assert itself as a multicultural country with several languages. Swiss neutrality was subsequently strengthened by the ban on cantons entering into alliances with foreign countries and the ban on foreign military service (1859). At that time, Switzerland was the only republic in an “ocean of European monarchies” and thus not quite unendangered. However, the growing national consciousness and the willingness to defend the country against attackers guided it well through numerous difficulties. It helped that Switzerland did not simply stand aside and watch during conflicts, but took decisive humanitarian initiatives, such as the evacuation of the civilian population from besieged Strasbourg in 1871 and the reception of the Bourbaki Army, both during the Franco-Prussian War. In addition, Switzerland at that time first suggested a protecting power mandate and independently developed arbitration procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes. The founding of the Red Cross and the first Geneva Convention in 1864 laid the foundation for Switzerland’s sustained humanitarian commitment, which it was able to exercise credibly, not least because of its neutrality.
  Finally, the Hague Conventions of 1907 included establishing the right of neutrality. The first two articles to this are: “The territory of the neutral powers is inviolable”. (Art. 1) and: “It is forbidden to the warring parties to pass troops or columns of ammunition or food through the territory of a neutral power”. (Art. 2) Furthermore, in addition to non-participation in wars, neutrals are prohibited from forming alliances, and apart from individual exceptions, they have the right to maintain economic relations with all warring parties. Of course, Switzerland readjusted its neutrality policy again and again in the maelstrom of world history, but it had to be careful to ensure the predictability and credibility of its permanent armed neutrality.

The two world wars as a test

Overall, the First World War strengthened the integrative power of neutrality and ensured better internal cohesion, which had still been rather fragile at the beginning of the war. In addition, Switzerland expanded its Good Offices, represented the diplomatic interests of other countries with 25 mandates and thus promoted the settlement of disputes between them. Switzerland’s accession to the League of Nations in 1920 changed its neutrality policy decisively: Switzerland was exempted from participating in military sanctions, but not from economic sanctions. Neutrality was now redefined as “differential”. Geneva was able to distinguish itself as the seat of the League of Nations, and Switzerland, rich in experience of its own, advocated in particular the establishment of arbitration proceedings. With the rise of totalitarian systems in the course of the 1930s, the League of Nations found itself in a difficult position. The withdrawal of Japan, Germany and Italy finally persuaded Switzerland to return to an “integral neutrality”, so that it was released from obligations of backing economic sanctions.
  During the Second World War, Switzerland was surrounded by totalitarian powers from 1940 onwards, and its very existence was threatened. The Axis powers’ plans of attack had been worked out, but for various reasons were not put into action. Switzerland was dependent on imports of vital goods, which, according to the law of neutrality, demanded a quid pro quo. The very difficult wartime situation meant that Switzerland did not always implement the law of neutrality to the letter; for example, it did not adequately control transit traffic between Germany and Italy. Another violation of neutrality was the toleration of the American intelligence centre in Bern. However, the warring parties did not always observe the law of neutrality either, and by the end of the war numerous violations had been committed, such as the violation of Swiss airspace by the Allies. The reality of the war clearly showed how difficult it was to on the one hand comply with the law of neutrality and on the other pursue a prudent neutrality policy. What was never at stake for Switzerland was the country’s humanitarian commitment and Good Offices. Never before had this commitment been so great: the ICRC employed 4000 people to look after prisoners of war and to find missing persons, in addition to other tasks. Within the framework of the Good Offices, 1200 people were in charge of 319 individual mandates for 35 countries.

The Cold War and the importance of neutral countries

After the Second World War, the reputation of neutral countries fell into a severe crisis. Similar to today, there were voices that considered the right of neutrality obsolete, as it had been weakened by numerous violations during wartime. However, this crisis of neutrality did not last long, and there were many who soon reassessed the value of neutrality in the Cold War bloc system as high. The non-aligned countries all saw themselves as “neutrals” in the struggle between East and West. The Non-Aligned Movement campaigned for peace and disarmament, and in 1975, this culminated in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, since 1995 OSCE), which Switzerland had played a decisive role in shaping. This cross-bloc conference, which involved 35 states, namely the USA, Canada, the Soviet Union and practically all European states, confirmed “the right to neutrality” for all participating states. With the CSCE, the neutral and non-aligned states were responsible for the policy of détente and successfully assumed a mediating role in the East-West conflict. In the course of this development, it finally became possible to usher in the end of the Cold War.
  For reasons of neutrality, Switzerland kept its distance from the United Nations (UN) and the European Community for a long time. It finally joined the Council of Europe in 1963 and laid the foundation for the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), an economic alliance that was not supranational in character. Within the framework of its foreign policy motto “neutrality and solidarity”, Switzerland intensified its commitment to the Good Offices (including for Cuba and Iran) and established itself as a firmly established prominent player, initiating and organising important disarmament and peace conferences on “neutral ground”.

Erosion after 1989

As mentioned at the beginning, Switzerland returned to a differential neutrality after the end of the Cold War and with the First Gulf War, sanctioned by the UN Security Council, in 1991. In the wars that followed, the country upheld this position. In the 1995 Bosnian war, Switzerland granted transit rights to the warring countries (IFOR/SFOR) and sent peacekeeping troops, and these were later even armed. NATO’s war of aggression against Serbia in 1999, which violated international law, did not lead to Switzerland ending its non-military sanctions against Yugoslavia, but it did not grant NATO transit rights. After the war, Switzerland participated in the peacekeeping force KFOR. In the war against Iraq in 2003, which also violated international law, Switzerland continued its policy of differential neutrality by maintaining economic sanctions against Iraq, although, as in every conflict, it provided humanitarian aid in the crisis region. In 2002, Switzerland joined the UN and tried to maintain its neutrality by means of a separate declaration. Since 1996, Switzerland has been integrated into the “NATO Partnership for Peace” This must be described as very delicate in terms of neutrality policy, and it leads into a grey zone in terms of neutrality law.

With neutrality, pursue an active peace policy again

In order to stop this erosion and to fill neutrality with content again, Switzerland must return to integral neutrality. Swiss neutrality has a tremendously important dimension in times of peace as well as in times of war, because, as the Swiss historian Wolfgang von Wartburg writes: “There must be a place in the world exclusively in the service of peace.” Only in this way can the ICRC and the Good Offices be fully effective, otherwise their credibility will be further diminished, to the chagrin of the civilian population in numerous conflicts. It is true that the law of neutrality obliges only the state and not the economy. However, in order to make neutrality politically credible again, the economy must be integrally involved. For example, a general ban on arms exports should be enforced. In 1972, the Swiss population narrowly failed to accept a popular initiative to this effect (49.7 % ayes; the cantons voted against the proposal). The law enacted a year later, which restricted the export of war material, has been continually watered down in recent decades. Nevertheless, from 1 May 2022, the criteria for arms exports will newly be anchored in law instead of only in the War Material Ordinance. Furthermore, laws against money laundering and illicitly acquired assets of politically exposed persons should be tightened and rigorously enforced. The Swiss economy, especially the export industry, should be as consistent as possible in maintaining and promoting peace. Only in this way would integral neutrality remain credible and be able to unfold its blessings.
  A large majority of the Swiss population supports neutrality, and this will remain the case if the country pursues an unequivocal neutrality policy. It must once again build up a consistent and unsuspicious effort in behalf of world peace and proactively approach countries that engage in belligerent conflicts. This is not about neutrality of opinion, but about a fundamental renunciation of power politics. In this way, Switzerland can preserve its impartiality in foreign policy and best promote universal peace policy. With such new ethics of “sitting still” and mediation, Switzerland would remain a model for other countries that – like Austria in 1955 – would have to enshrine neutrality as a principle. Today, this also applies to Ukraine, which could, with a declaration of neutrality, bring peace and development rather than further war and violence to its region.  •

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