Is Switzerland right to prevent the delivery of ammunition to Ukraine? | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), which has the final say on the granting and signing of arms export licenses, has confirmed that the German authorities have taken the step. It is believed that the ammunition in question was intended for a German-made infantry vehicle.

“Germany’s two inquiries as to whether ammunition received from Switzerland can be passed on to Ukraine were answered in the negative with reference to Swiss neutrality and the mandatory rejection criteria of the Swiss War Material Act. “SECO spokesman Michael Wüthrich told DW via email.

Strict rules for arms exports

For exports of all types of war material, Switzerland generally requires a so-called declaration of non-re-export from the recipient country, which obliges the country in question to refrain from transmitting war material without the prior consent of Switzerland. It is an internationally recognized practice.

Export licenses are not granted if the recipient country is involved in an internal or international armed conflict.

“Ukraine is involved in such a conflict with Russia. Therefore, since an export of war material from Switzerland to Ukraine would not be eligible for an export license, a waiver of the The non-re-export obligation of the German armed forces in order to allow a transfer of ammunition of Swiss origin previously received to Ukraine is also excluded,” Wüthrich said.

The principle of neutrality

Switzerland’s neutrality is an essential pillar of its foreign and security policy. This means that the Alpine country cannot be involved in a war between two other countries, nor can it provide direct or indirect military support to any of the parties to the conflict.

Swiss domestic law on arms exports and foreign policy principles is based on the Swiss War Materials Act, which “controls the manufacture and transfer of war material and related technology, while maintaining a industry adapted to the needs of its national territory. defense.”

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In this specific case, both international obligations and the principles of Swiss foreign policy would be compromised.

“Since it would be Swiss-made ammunition that would be re-exported to Ukraine, from a legal point of view, the government’s decision is justified,” Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global and emerging risks at the Center, told DW. of Geneva’s security policy. Given Switzerland’s neutrality, “agreeing to export would be a violation of international law as well as Swiss domestic law”.

The decision is not shared by Gerhard Pfister, the president of the Center-right party. He said on Twitter that the government could invoke Section 184.3 of the Constitution to circumvent such legislation if a state’s interests are overriding. In this case, it would be a question of helping a democratic European state to defend itself.

Laurent Goetschel, professor of political science at the University of Basel and director of swisspeace, a practice-oriented peace research institute, says the proximity of war makes Switzerland’s neutrality status all the more important. .

“The closer the war, the more relevant neutrality is by historical and security design. The only exception is when one of the warring parties is acting on behalf of the UN Security Council. That party would then not be considered as a war party in the traditional sense but acting as a policeman of the world,” he told DW.

Switzerland’s principle of permanent neutrality appears to run counter to some of the arms exports it has approved in the past, notably to Saudi Arabia, which is embroiled in Yemen’s war against the Houthis. This prompted the Swiss government in 2015 to initially halt its exports. In subsequent years, however, until 2019, the government adopted a more flexible approach to allowing arms exports.

However, Rickli says there is an important distinction to be made here.

“Neutrality only applies in case of inter-state war. In the case of Yemen, it is different because the origin of the war is internal and the Yemeni government has asked Saudi Arabia to come and help them against the Houthis so that it does not strictly fall under the law of neutrality.”

A graph showing Swiss exports of war material

Knocking on NATO’s door?

The war in Ukraine triggered major paradigm shifts, including that of Germany Zeitenwende (“turning point”) which saw the country’s previous foreign policy shaken up with a commitment to boost defense spending and disburse 100 billion euros ($107 billion) for the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces.

In Sweden and Finland, both rooted in the principle of neutrality, the change is arguably even more tangible. Driven by public opinion, the two Nordic states could join NATO sooner rather than later.

In Switzerland, this debate was practically non-existent. Lately, there has been some movement from politicians from left and right parties calling for closer cooperation with NATO.

However, there is no indication that Switzerland intends to join the alliance.

“The geostrategic situation is very different. Switzerland and Austria are surrounded by NATO members. Also, neutrality in Switzerland has a security policy function, but also an identity function. In Switzerland, you have different languages, different religions. Switzerland is a political identity that revolves around direct democracy, federalism and neutrality,” said Rickli.

In short, Switzerland would have to give up its principle of perpetual neutrality if it wanted to join NATO.

Rickli says that even if the public and political mood has been influenced by the war in Ukraine, it is imperceptible compared to what is happening in Sweden and Finland.

“From an identity point of view, the popularity of neutrality is still very high. From a security policy point of view, the debate is starting to change, but not to the extent that it changes in Finland or Sweden.”