Switzerland has always prided itself on being able to establish a place among larger countries because of its successful economy, historical neutrality and moral positions, including Geneva’s being host to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Human Rights Council. The comparative advantage of Switzerland, particularly international Geneva, as a unique platform for discussions such as the Reagan-Gorbachev summit during the Cold War or the Syrian peace talks have enhanced the Swiss image in human rights/humanitarian issues as a country that punches above its weight
But three recent controversies have challenged this identity: the refusal to sign a treaty banning the future use of nuclear weapons; a decision concerning selling arms to countries in conflict; and a global compact seeking to govern international migration. While a justification for each of the decisions can be made, they raise questions about the future of the country’s carefully crafted identity.
On November 1, 2018, the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. One hundred twenty-two states reaffirmed their support of the Treaty, but Switzerland was not one of them, nor was it one of the countries which signed the treaty.
The purpose of the Treaty is clear and would appear to be consistent with Swiss policies: “Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to: Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; Transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or indirectly; Receive the transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices directly or indirectly.”
In August, the Federal Council said it is not in favor of signing the Treaty, a decision that was strongly criticized by the President of the Swiss International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN – winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize). “The Swiss position on this question has an international implication,” said Annette Willi. “As a Swiss citizen, on must ask the question to know if we are in the process of living the end of the great humanitarian tradition of our country,” she added. In late October, the foreign affairs committee of the Swiss Council of States also voted against Swiss adherence to the Treaty, a further rejection of Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition by another federal organ.
A controversy over selling arms to countries in conflict has done nothing to improve Switzerland’s image. In June, Switzerland announced that it would allow the sale of arms to countries in the grip of an “internal armed conflict,” under certain conditions. The Swiss government said that “war materials” could be sold, but only if they were not used during an internal conflict. However, it added, “it should now be possible to grant export authorization if there is no reason to believe that the war materiel to be exported will be used in an internal armed conflict.” The exemption “would not apply to countries plagued by civil war, like Yemen or Syria today,” the government said. Amid an outcry, the government has changed its position.
Keeping in mind that although Switzerland is a neutral country, RUAG, the biggest arms manufacturer in Switzerland, had its highest ever business turnover in 2017 – CHF 1955 mio. Tension between business and values is never simple.
Amnesty International said of this tension: “Amnesty International Switzerland welcomes the recent decision of the Swiss government to stop the announced change of the national export control system, which would have allowed sales of Swiss arms to countries in armed conflict. This decision comes late and only after huge public pressure. The arms industry and the government were obviously taken by surprise by the strong opposition in the public, in the parliament, and by the widespread feeling in the population that the short-sighted business interests by the arms industry should not prime over the humanitarian values of Switzerland.”
Finally, the Swiss ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Jürg Lauber, has been co-facilitator of a United Nations Migration Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Amid the horrors of recent mass migration catastrophes, Ambassador Lauber has worked with Juan Jose Gomez Camacho, Mexico’s ambassador to the UN, since 2016 to try to improve the treatment of migrants and to diminish destabilizing receiving countries.
In October, the Federal Council approved the United Nations Global Compact for Migration. The Council said that that the Compact corresponds to Switzerland’s interests in migration and its commitment to strengthen global migration governance. As Ambassador Lauber said of the importance of the Compact: “This text puts migration firmly on the global agenda. It will be a point of reference for years to come and induce real change on the ground. I view the successful conclusion of our negotiation as a strong commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation.”
Although the Compact is 'soft' law, meaning that it is politically but not legally binding, there is currently hesitancy in Bern to sign the document. The Commission of Political Institutions of the National Council voted 15 to 9 to recommend to the Federal Council not to sign the document at an international conference in Morocco in December. The Commission of Political Institutions of the Council of States also voted against on November 9. The Commission for Foreign Affairs of the Council of States has given a different verdict.
For the Federal Council, under considerable pressure from the Swiss People’s Party, the situation is not evident politically. In addition to the parliament’s lack of a clear position, the government’s hesitation appears to discredit the work of its ambassador to the United Nations and his work as co-facilitator. Although states such as the United States, Hungary and Austria have already said they will not sign the Compact, a refusal by Switzerland to sign will be perceived as a Swiss affront to the United Nations and a refutation of its ambassador in New York.
Three controversies, three difficult decisions. What is clear in each situation is that the historic human rights/humanitarian tradition of Switzerland is now being contested in Bern. And that the moral position of Switzerland that has been a foundation of its punching above its weight is being eroded.