A Swiss law professor once bemoaned to me that he had spent 25 years of his career dealing with one word, “neutrality”. We all know that legally neutrality means that a country will not join armed alliances or fight in wars other than for self-defense. But, politically, for Switzerland neutrality can run the gamut from not allowing airplanes to fly over Swiss airspace on their way to attack another country to promoting human rights and the rule of law, what is called “positive neutrality”.
Switzerland is the oldest neutral country in the world. Its neutrality was established in the Treaty of Paris in 1815 and its perpetual neutrality was recognized by the League of Nations in 1920. But the nature of that neutrality is not always clear. Although Geneva is the seat of the European headquarters of the United Nations, Switzerland did not join the United Nations (UN) until 2002 following a referendum which overturned a 1986 popular vote against membership. For the Swiss, membership in any international organization such as UN or the European Union (EU) immediately raises questions about violating their historic neutrality. Even the possibility for Switzerland to be a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council has again raised the question of the limits of its neutrality within international organizations.
Right now the Swiss are in a quandary about what to do with the sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States against Russia. Since Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it has the freedom to decide whether or not it will also impose sanctions against Russia or even if it will go out of its way to make sure sanctioned individuals and companies do not use Switzerland to circumvent the sanctions. On the one hand, Switzerland is hoping to improve relations with the EU after the February 9 vote to curb immigration. On the other hand, bilateral relations between Switzerland and Russia have become closer in recent years. Switzerland was instrumental in helping Russia join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2012. Switzerland represents Russia in Georgia and Georgia in Moscow. In 2009, the then Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, paid the first visit by a Russian head of state to Switzerland. In addition, in 2014 Switzerland and Russia are celebrating 200 years of diplomatic relations. Adding to the quandary is the fact that the Swiss are Chairman of the OSCE in 2014 and are acting as mediators in the crisis in Ukraine.
What to do about the sanctions? Historically, Switzerland has selectively followed other countries in imposing sanctions. Although not a member of the UN at the time, Switzerland joined UN sanctions against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait. Switzerland has also joined UN economic sanctions imposed on Libya, Sierra Leone, UNITA (Angola), Liberia, and Serbia/Montenegro. The Swiss Government in November 2001 issued an ordinance declaring illegal the terrorist organisation Al-Qaida as well as possible successor or supporting organisations. More than 200 individuals or companies linked to international terrorism have been blacklisted and have their assets frozen.
Currently, Switzerland has decided not to follow the EU or the U.S. with sanctions against Russia. However, by a decree of the Federal Council of April 2, measures were instituted to stop people from using Switzerland to avoid sanctions. As of now, 87 people and 20 companies are forbidden from doing new financial business in Switzerland. In addition, military equipment cannot be sent to Russia or Ukraine.
Two other situations are more delicate. The President of the Russian Duma, Sergueï Narychkine, was invited by the Swiss Parliament to visit on September 23 in the context of the 200 year celebration. The Parliament revoked the invitation citing the importance of neutrality and the tense international situation, saying that the visit, however symbolic, was “not opportune at this moment”. Also, the “Russian Knights" aerobatic display team was uninvited by the defense ministry to participate in an airshow in Payerne due to concerns about events in Ukraine. The Swiss Ministry said: “Even in times of crisis it is important to maintain contacts. Nevertheless, military contacts are of a special nature and in the present circumstances it would be preferable to show restraint."
Switzerland is required to follow UN sanctions but not those of the EU or the United States. Its neutrality allows it to decide on a case by case basis. As can be shown by the two examples above, these decisions are not easy. But then again, as the law professor said after 25 years of experience, neutrality is much more complicated than it appears.