BERN, Switzerland — European capitals are grappling with a new order in which war is no longer theoretical. Yet in the heart of the continent, the Swiss are uneasy about higher ideals.
The debate is about Switzerland’s vaunted legacy of neutrality — and what neutrality even means today.
Switzerland has an arms industry that makes much-needed ammunition for the weapons the Europeans have supplied to Ukraine, as well as some of the Leopard 2 tanks they have promised.
But it also has strict rules about where those weapons can go — a law, in fact, now hotly debated, that prohibits any nation that buys Swiss weapons from sending them to a party involved in a conflict, such as Ukraine.
The war is testing Switzerland’s tolerance to stand aside and serve the world elite on an equal footing, putting the country in a bind of competing interests.
Its arms makers say its inability to export now could make it impossible to maintain critical Western customers.
Oliver Diggelmann, Professor of International Law at the University of Zurich, said of Switzerland: “It wants to export arms to do business. He wants to exercise control over those weapons. And he also wants to be good. This is where our country is stumbling now.”
Switzerland has clung to neutrality for centuries and through two world wars. It is a position supported by 90 percent of its 8.7 million inhabitants. Headquarters of the United Nations and the Red Cross in Geneva, they consider themselves the peacemakers of the world.
But Western nations today view Switzerland’s dithering — over exports and sanctions against Russia, which Western diplomats suspect Switzerland is not doing enough to enforce — as evidence that its motivation is less idealism than business.
Switzerland, whose banks are notorious for their secrecy and have often been accused of laundering money for the world’s kleptocratic class, remains the world’s largest center of offshore wealth. That certainly includes serving Russian oligarchs allied with President Vladimir V. Putin.
From the Middle Ages to the early modern era, the then-impoverished Alpine cantons that make up present-day Switzerland hired mercenaries in wars across Europe. Many made weapons for those armies; the Vatican Swiss Guard is a relic of that era.
Swiss neutrality began to be formalized after the Napoleonic Wars, when the European powers agreed that it could create a buffer between the powers.
It was further codified in the Hague Convention of 1907. The convention required neutral states to refrain from waging war and to maintain an equidistance between warring parties—they could sell arms, for example, but only if they did so for all the sides of a conflict. It also obliges neutral countries to ensure that their territories are not used by warring forces.
This led to what the Swiss call “armed neutrality,” a commitment not just to neutrality, but to maintaining the ability to protect it. The latter is what detractors now argue is under threat.
“Armed neutrality needs soldiers, weapons, equipment and an arms industry,” said Werner Salzmann, a member of the conservative Swiss People’s Party. “Our neutrality has to be armed, otherwise it is useless.” The Swiss defense industry depends on exports, he said, and could not survive without them.
Earlier this year, Switzerland’s pro-business Free Democrats engineered a loophole that most lawmakers seemed to accept: They would allow countries that share Switzerland’s democratic values to re-export Swiss-made weapons.
But recently the Swiss People’s Party, the largest in parliament, rejected the bill, considering it a measure aimed at Ukraine and therefore a violation of neutrality.
Western countries argue that while Switzerland has benefited from being protected by NATO, surrounded by member states, it has now shown no willingness to help those states.
Thierry Burkart, a member of the Free Democrats, said Switzerland could not ignore this frustration. “We are embedded in Western associations — not in the sense of a binding NATO alliance, but because the West is where our values are also shared,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not neutral, but we shouldn’t block aid between Western countries.”
By: ERIKA SOLOMON
BBC-NEWS-SRC: http://www.nytsyn.com/subscribed/stories/6624280, IMPORTING DATE: 2023-03-22 17:50:08
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