Neutrality is a precious commodity – let us keep it

Swiss neutrality law and policy must not be allowed to sink into the din of war

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

In Current Concerns of 10 and 24 May, it has already been reported that the Swiss Federal Council had jettisoned the neutrality policy it had built up over centuries virtually overnight and decided on the 1:1 adoption of EU sanctions against the Russian state as well as against private assets. In doing so, the Federal Council has “caused a lot of damage”, said Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer in a newspaper interview.

The “damage” continues to expand. In the meantime, we are already talking about “closer cooperation” with NATO beyond the Partnership for Peace (PfP) (demanded by FDP President Thierry Burkart, in agreement with Viola Amherd, Head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport, DDPS, as well as about arms deliveries to the war state Ukraine.

Clear legal situation

Everyone, at least in NATO countries, has understood that Switzerland, as a neutral country, is not allowed to sell weapons directly to a warring party. Currently, however, Germany and Denmark have asked the Federal Council whether they are allowed to deliver war material purchased in Switzerland to Ukraine. The legal situation is clear: they are not. This is because, firstly, the law of neutrality requires that Switzerland would have to treat Russia in the same way as Ukraine in the event of a request, and secondly, Switzerland has a strict War Material Act (WMA). Not only does it prohibit the direct export of military equipment to warring countries, but Switzerland also requires a declaration by the government concerned that war material will not be re-exported (KMG Art. 18 para. 1). Denmark and Germany signed such declarations at the time. On the basis of Swiss law, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) rejected Germany’s application in April and Denmark’s in May.

Pressure from NATO-foreign countries is one thing …

As the editors of the “Tages-Anzeiger” found out from a “confidential Federal Council paper” (!), in Davos, in addition to NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, a number of defence ministers tried to persuade the head of the DDPS, Federal Councillor Viola Amherd, not to be so strict with Swiss legislation. Even US Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen H. Hicks paid her respects.1 One sometimes wonders why an increasing number of Western countries are appointing women without any military experience as ministers of defence – perhaps we have the answer here: It is probably relatively easy for officers and chiefs of staff in their own country as well as for NATO generals to “get their ideas across”, to put it diplomatically, to people such as a former advocate and member of the board of Migros Valais with zero days of service in the Swiss army.

 … the docility of the DDPS is another

In any case, the NATO representatives were successful with Federal Councillor Amherd: on 3 June, the DDPS on its own initiative gave the green light for another request by Germany, namely the export of former Swiss battle tanks which Switzerland “no longer needed” (Did we really no longer need them?) and had therefore sold back to the German manufacturer Rheinmetall 11 years ago. The approval of the “transfer of surplus material from former or current stocks of the Armed Forces” did not fall under the War Material Act and lay within the sole competence of the DDPS, the Department said in its media release of 3 June 2022. Well, from a legal point of view, that does make some sense: Switzerland probably had to be happy that Rheinmetall bought back the “surplus” tanks at a discount (at the expense of Swiss taxpayers and the security of the population), so they couldn’t impose any more conditions.
  At the same time, the DDPS rejected a second request from the Polish government to buy decommissioned tanks from the Swiss army, because such a deal would have to be approved by parliament and the procedure in Switzerland would take some time.
  The real bombshell, however, is the third decision of the head of the DDPS and her entourage to hand over to Great Britain multi-role weapons of the type NLAW ordered from Saab in Sweden, which were to have been delivered to Switzerland in 2022/23. Following the delivery of similar weapons to Ukraine, the UK wants to increase its own stocks. At the request of London, the DDPS is now generously “letting Great Britain go first”, and we will wait until the end of 2024 for the deliveries to which we are legitimately entitled. The DDPS vividly describes what such weapons can be used for by the Ukrainians in the Donbass: they “serve to engage enemy tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APC’s) and other vehicles at medium and long ranges, as well as to breach fortified enemy positions or buildings to enable friendly forces to penetrate”.2
  Such processes in Switzerland – which is neutral by law! – must deeply repulse and alarm every humanly feeling contemporary: The unspeakable profiteering in the Western “world of values”, a shifting around of lethal weapons with the highest prospects of profit – like on a Monopoly board – which literally goes over corpses, over tens of thousands of corpses! And this is where Switzerland is supposed to join in and take part?

Not all Federal Councillors falter

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), which rejected the German and Danish requests mentioned at the beginning, is part of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER), headed by Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin. He did not let himself be put off by his Council colleague’s pandering to the opinion-makers at the WEF, nor by the insistence of the German and Danish governments on a licence for the re-export of tank ammunition and wheeled armoured infantry fighting vehicles respectively, but sought the support of his colleagues in the Federal Council. German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck told the Bundesrat at the WEF that Germany had also ruled out arms exports to warring countries before the Russian attack on Ukraine. He and his party, the Greens, have now changed their mind: “We have to measure our own stance against reality”, says Habeck.3 In fact, the party cadres of the German Greens measure their stance “against reality” insofar as they adapt it to the mainstream every now and then.
  On 3 June, the Federal Council as a whole confirmed the SECO’s decisions in no uncertain terms, despite all attempts at pressure: “According to the War Material Act, exports of war material are to be rejected if the country of destination is involved in an international armed conflict. Russia and Ukraine are in such a conflict. Since exports from Switzerland to Ukraine cannot be approved on the basis of the neutrality principle and the War Material Act, approval for the transfer of Swiss war material by Germany and Denmark to Ukraine is also not possible.”4 In the same decision, however, the Federal Council approved the applications of two Swiss companies that wanted to supply individual parts and assemblies to defence companies in Germany and Italy. According to Federal Council practice, this is possible up to a certain proportion of the end product. So, a bit of compromise policy after all ...

Own team against Switzerland: attempted dismantling of the state system from within

It doesn’t knock it out of the park: The small state of Switzerland can better cope with the insolence of a Kathleen H. Hicks from the USA or a Robert Habeck from our northern neighbour if our own team remembers that we have a unique counter-model to defend. Unfortunately, the Swiss mainstream media and some top politicians are not fulfilling this task in any way. The good news is that there are also politicians who insist on respecting neutrality and the law.

Some examples of the dismantling clique

  • Councillor of States Thierry Burkart, President of the Free Democratic Party, wants to write into the War Material Act (KMG) that the re-export of Swiss war material should be permitted by “democratic constitutional states”. The same politician also calls for “closer cooperation with NATO”. This fits together well: By “democratic states under the rule of law” Burkart means the EU/NATO states, which could then resupply Swiss weapons to all wars of the USA and its satellites.
  • Tamedia editor-in-chief Arthur Rutishauser: In his opinion, Switzerland’s deal with the UK and the Saab company “can hardly be reconciled with what is commonly understood by neutrality.” He is right about that – but instead of insisting on compliance with the neutrality requirement, he points to the expectation of “friendly nations” that Switzerland “declares solidarity with Europe, at least in part”. This is why Rutishauser sympathises with Burkart’s amendment to the KMG, although he admits: “Of course, such an arrangement would run the risk of circumventing the Swiss Arms Export Law, but at least this would not be actively controlled by Switzerland, as in the case of the [Saab-ordered] anti-tank weapons.”5 Words fail the reader!
  • Tiana Moser, parliamentary group leader of the Green Liberals, demands a change of course from the Federal Council because, after all, it is not a question of direct arms exports but of weapons that Switzerland has already sold to “friendly democracies”: “These weapons would be passed on to a country that is defending itself against an aggressor”.6

Some politicians of the “Centre Party”, to which Federal Councillor Viola Amherd also belongs, are particularly eager to gnaw away at the neutral and direct-democratic Swiss model – in the hope of gaining a few voter percentages?

  • Centre member of the Council of States Pirmin Bischof, President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Council of States: “The Federal Council should now take action and correct its practice.” (SRF News of 1 June 2022)

Without a legal basis? No, by means of emergency law!

  • This is what centre party president Gerhard Pfister said: He called the blocking of arms deliveries “indecent” and tweeted already on 24 April: “BR [Federal Council] has in my opinion competence to allow [Germany] to deliver to [Ukraine] if in national interest. (Art. 1 para 2 Embargo Act). The latter seems to me to be given here, if [Switzerland] helps a European democracy to defend itself. BR is responsible for this failure to help [Ukraine].” (

Counter-attack by neutrality-preserving and pacifist Swiss forces

The “Federal Law on War Material” was revised or rather tightened only a few months ago, on 1 October 2021, as an indirect counter-proposal to the popular initiative “Against arms exports to civil war countries”. The Federal Council had included a clause in the draft with which it wanted to give itself the authority to “deviate from the licensing criteria in exceptional circumstances in order to safeguard the country’s foreign or security policy interests.” The Council of States deleted this clause, not only with the votes of the SP (Social Democratic Party) and the Greens, but also, strangely enough, with the large majority of the Centre party as the tipping point. The National Council, which initially wanted to cling to the exceptional regulation, finally gave in to allow the popular initiative to be withdrawn. Result: The exceptional competence that Gerhard Pfister wants to give the Federal Council today was rejected by both Councils on 1 October 2021, which means that the tightened War Material Act was adopted. In the National Council, by the way, with 27 of 30 centre votes, including the vote of Pfister himself.7
  Even if the memory of some centre politicians is apparently very short, there is still hope. For Pfister’s parliamentary group “does not follow its leader unconditionally”, according to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 3 June. The Swiss Greens are obviously made of different stuff than their German colleagues: In addition to the SVP (Swiss Popular Party), which has always stood up for the adherence of neutrality, the president of the Green Party, Balthasar Glättli, also warns against a change of direction with regard to arms exports: “The previous practice is broadly supported. The Federal Council must not simply abandon it behind the scenes without consulting parliament.”8 And the Zurich SP National Councillor Min Li Marti stated on 27 April that the supply of war material to warring countries “violates the War Material Act and the law of neutrality”. If, in view of the war in Ukraine, Swiss neutrality is to be called into question, “then this would have to be discussed in principle, it is not a matter of exceptional provisions, but concerns the core of neutrality”.9
  Here the circle closes, because this corresponds analogously to the statement of SVP National Councillor Franz Grüter in an interview with Current Concerns: “The neutrality question goes so deep into the DNA of our country that we have to have the discussion – we have to have it! So much has happened, with the sanctions that have been taken, with the efforts to join NATO or move closer to it, with membership of the UN Security Council. But I think we need to have this discussion when the dust has settled a little, when we can talk about these issues from a certain distance.”10  •

1 Gafner, Beni; Knellwolf, Thomas. “Geheimpapier zu Kriegsmaterial-Export. Nach Druck aus dem Ausland ermöglicht der Bundesrat Waffenlieferungen” (Secret paper on war material export. After pressure from abroad, the Federal Council allows arms deliveries). In: Tages-Anzeiger of 3 June 2022
2 “Entscheide zu Material aus früheren und aktuellen Beständen der Armee” (Decisions on material from previous and current armed forces stocks). Media release of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport of 3 June 2022.
3 Meier, Dominik. “Waffen für die Ukraine. Schweiz blockiert Panzer für Ukraine” (Weapons for Ukraine. Switzerland blocks tanks for Ukraine). SRF News of 1 June 2022
4 “Ukraine: Bundesrat hat verschiedene Kriegsmaterial-Geschäfte beurteilt” (Ukraine: Federal Council has assessed various war material transactions). Federal Council media release of 3 June 2022
5 Rutishauser, Arthur. “Leitartikel zum Ukraine-Krieg. Die Schweiz muss ihre Haltung zu Waffenlieferungen ändern” (Editorial on the Ukraine war. Switzerland must change its stance on arms deliveries). In: Sonntagszeitung of 5 June 2022
6 Meier, Dominik. “Waffen für die Ukraine. Schweiz blockiert Panzer für Ukraine” (Weapons for Ukraine. Switzerland blocks tanks for Ukraine). SRF News of 1 June 2022
8 Meier, Dominik. “Waffen für die Ukraine. Schweiz blockiert Panzer für Ukraine” (Weapons for Ukraine. Switzerland blocks tanks for Ukraine). SRF News of 1 June 2022
9 Pereiro, Miguel. “Ukraine Krieg: Breite Allianz gegen Schweizer Waffenlieferungen”.  (Ukraine war: broad alliance against Swiss arms deliveries). In: of 27 April 2022
10 “Let us return to the importance of neutrality. Interview with National Councillor Franz Grüter, President of the Foreign Policy Committee of the National Council”. In: Current Concerns of 24 May 2022

Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin counters

mw. The head of the Department of Economic Affairs, Guy Parmelin, is certainly not to blame for the un-neutrality-related wavering within the Federal Council. He also seems to oppose economic sanctions. Current example: Question by the currently very active Centre president Gerhard Pfister on 7 June in the National Council regarding the Eurochem company in Zug, in which a Russian citizen has a stake: “Is the Federal Council working on making it no longer possible to circumvent sanctions via close family members?”
  Answer Guy Parmelin: “The Zug-based company Eurochem must comply with Swiss measures and has undertaken to do so. Thus, it is prohibited from making assets or economic resources available to Mr Andrey Melnichenko, either directly or indirectly, for example through his wife.” Parmelin referred, as he should, to the rule of law: “In Switzerland, the family members of a sanctioned person are not automatically subjected to the same measures directed against their relatives.” And he drew attention to the self-goal that we Europeans are shooting with the anti-Russian sanctions: “Eurochem is one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of fertilisers. To prohibit the company from continuing its business, even though it is in line with Swiss sanctions, would further undermine the global food supply. This is in no way in Switzerland’s interest.” At least someone is saying it!

Source: “Question Pfister Gerhard. 22.7352 War in Ukraine. Circumvention of sanctions”.
Question Time on 7 June 2022 in the National Council

(Translation Current Concerns)

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