The End of Swiss Neutrality

The country is campaigning for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, but taking on that role will clash with some fundamental tenets of Swiss foreign policy.

A Swiss soldier stands at attention in front of a Swiss flag in Bern, Switzerland, on Sept. 8, 2010.
A Swiss soldier stands at attention in front of a Swiss flag in Bern, Switzerland, on Sept. 8, 2010. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Late last October, Switzerland officially launched its first-ever election campaign for a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council. As part of the virtual event, the Swiss mission in New York City sent goody bags to delegations from the other countries that will ultimately vote to decide if Switzerland should sit on the council. The centerpiece amid chocolate and Swiss cheese samples: a kit to make a Swiss culinary delicacy, a cheesy raclette.

Switzerland’s cheese and chocolate diplomacy is in full swing at the United Nations ahead of the June 2022 vote, but it is actually running unopposed. There are two seats available for Western countries for the 2023-2024 period, and the only other country running is Malta. Nevertheless, the campaign—which was allocated some $28 million by the government—has kicked up controversy. “It’s a very interesting situation at the moment,” said Angela Müller, the vice president of Switzerland’s U.N. Association, “because we have this clean-slate situation with Malta, but the actual opposition is coming from inside.”

For some in Switzerland, they believe that taking a seat on the world’s highest security body—one that has the power to take military action to restore peace if it deems necessary—could harm the country’s unique international reputation as a neutral power and the prized diplomatic role that comes with it.

One of those critics is Paul Widmer, a retired Swiss diplomat who was posted in Berlin, Amman, Zagreb, Washington, and at the U.N. in New York. “Our neutrality has become an international trademark,” he said. “Through a constant policy of neutrality, Switzerland has acquired high credibility in foreign policy.” Switzerland is regularly asked to represent countries where they do not have diplomatic relations, for example, between the United States and Iran and Russia and Georgia. The peak of such diplomacy was during World War II, when Switzerland had 200 mandates in about 35 countries. Indeed, as Widmer put it, the country’s neutrality “is the reason why many states bestow Switzerland with international mandates—be it as a protecting power, be it as a go-between, or a mediator.”

Switzerland’s neutrality is in both the country’s DNA and its legal system. Internationally, it was enshrined in the 1815 Congress of Vienna and under the 1907 Law of Neutrality. Nationally, it is also mentioned in the Swiss Constitution. However, the specifics of the country’s neutrality policy have evolved in the last few decades, especially after Switzerland became a full-fledged U.N. member state in the early 2000s. “We managed to stay out of two world wars,” Pascale Baeriswyl, Switzerland’s ambassador to the U.N., said in December. Because the country hasn’t been involved in an armed conflict for nearly two centuries, she continued, Swiss neutrality has become something of a nation myth. Moreover, “in a country as diverse as Switzerland, the popular support for neutrality is good for national cohesion. The concept is, however, understood in very different ways. So, when it comes to working in international organizations, we must take our cues from neutrality law—we can’t rely on myths.”

Even though Geneva is the European capital of the United Nations, it stayed away from U.N. membership until a 2002 popular vote. Since then, Switzerland has taken part in most of the U.N. body’s activities, including the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and the Economic and Social Council. And although neutrality is still at the heart of Switzerland’s decision-making, it does take a stance at the United Nations through votes, especially when it comes to human rights violations. Now, after almost 20 years at the U.N., Baeriswyl believes, the natural next step is a seat on the Security Council. “It has always been clear that if we wanted to be a member of the United Nations, we wanted to be a member in all the organs,” she said.

Switzerland’s seven-member Federal Council officially decided to run for a council seat in 2011, following consultation with the country’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committees, which saw it as a natural follow-on to U.N. membership. Concerns over neutrality have been ripe for debate since then. In 2015, for example, the Federal Council even published a report on possible situations that could jeopardize Switzerland’s neutrality, concluding that it could stay on the council and in the clear. After all, the report noted, other neutral countries—such as Austria, Sweden (to some extent), and Costa Rica—have successfully done so, in particular by abstaining from votes regarding the use of force. However, as one diplomat from another neutral country pointed out, each of these countries has its own definition of neutrality. For Costa Rica, for example, it means nonmilitarization. For Switzerland, its armed neutrality. Amnesty International has even criticized Switzerland for its ongoing arms sales to human rights violators such as Bangladesh, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

So far, Switzerland’s campaign for a seat has survived every parliamentary motion to reverse the country’s decision to run, and the race is pretty much a fait accompli. However, politically, the matter could become more complicated once Switzerland actually finds itself in the council chambers. Today’s divisions in the Security Council remind some diplomats of the Cold War era, and navigating big powers while not taking a side could be more challenging than ever. “What would be the role of Switzerland if the Security Council is asked by the United States to strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran? Should it vote in favor (and displease Iran), should it vote against (and displease the U.S.), or should it abstain (and weaken the decision-making of the Security Council)?” Widmer asked.

Last summer, the Trump administration decided to attempt to unilaterally trigger a snapback mechanism that would restore U.N. sanctions against Iran that were in place prior to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The move left the council scrambling since Washington had already left the JCPOA. Washington’s proposal was mostly either ignored by council members or rebutted through letters and statements, but it has added more tension to the relationship between Washington and its European allies. If Switzerland had been on the council at the time—even if it had attempted to stay neutral—Widmer argued, it would not have been exempt from a difficult political choice: displease Washington or lose its status as go-between for the United States and Iran.

Baeriswyl, though, is convinced that Switzerland could deal with similar matters on the council without hurting its relationship on one side or another. “Neutrality has never been neutral when it comes to law. It has never been neutral when we have made a commitment,” she explained. “It is neutral in terms of we do not take sides in a conflict, except for humanitarian law and international law. That is also true when it comes to the JCPOA.” When it came to the Security Council and the JCPOA, she said, “there was a huge unity, and I would expect Switzerland not to be an exception to that.”

Even if Switzerland doesn’t have much convincing to do with fellow member states because it is running unopposed, the public relations efforts continue. It may take more than raclette and chocolate to convince every canton in the diverse country, but despite some pushback, the “benefits [of being on the council] outweigh the risks,” Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis concluded in June.

It is a rite of passage for any U.N. member state to sit on the council and indicates real engagement internationally. But only time will tell if the risks were worth the reward.

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in politics and foreign affairs.

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