Neutrality demands constant updating. For example: When Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis met his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz, did Cassis take sides in the Israel-Palestine stalemate? When rumors float in Israeli newspapers that they discussed an alternative to the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA), did Cassis cross the neutral red line by favoring Israel’s position?
Courts are also supposed to be neutral and beyond politics. In a recent interview with Jean-Jacques Bourdin on a French radio station, Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Islamologue under indictment for rape and sexual violence, said that there is a conspiracy against him and that he hopes that the judicial system would be impartial and neutral in judging him. The Finnish lawyer Martti Koskenniemi wrote that “international law is intrinsically political;” Ramadan is questioning whether the domestic French courts can be apolitical in his case.
Can states be neutral? Can domestic courts be neutral?
Cassis’ meeting with the Israeli Foreign Minister cannot be considered a non-neutral act. After all, foreign ministers regularly meet with other foreign ministers. Moreover, as a representative of a neutral country, one would assume that Cassis would not have discussed taking sides in the UNRWA scandal considering that a formal examination of accusations against its Swiss Commissioner General, Pierre Krähenbühl, have not been concluded. An internal audit found certain irregularities, as revealed by Al Jazeera and AFP. The audit was submitted to the UN Secretary-General in December. For the moment, there have been no definitive conclusions. Despite that, Cassis announced that Switzerland would temporarily freeze its funding.
The case of Tariq Ramadan also raises questions about neutrality. That he was received by Mr. Bourdin gave him the possibility to give his version of the facts. The popular radio host made clear in the beginning of the interview that was serving the interest of the public in giving Mr. Ramadan a chance to present his point of view.
Present his point of view to whom? As Ramadan said, he has already been subjected to judgments in the press as well as spending several months in prison. Popular judgment, in his opinion, had already condemned him. Ramadan argued that even before a trial he had been condemned by the general public without a fair hearing including the right of response. And, he raised questions about whether in his case the French judicial system had been neutral and would be neutral.
What does neutrality mean today? Have we gotten to the point, like Koskenniemi’s comment on international law, that everything is political? Can there no longer be neutral judgments? With 24/7 news cycles, popular judgments have become instantaneous such that the relationship between popular opinion and legal opinion have become tenuous. With accelerated time, Rush to Judgment has become more than just a 1966 critique of the Warren Commission's Inquiry into the Murders of President John F. Kennedy, Officer J.D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald by Mark Lane.
How can there be neutrality if everyone has an opinion that cannot be changed?
We are also more and more sceptical about what we read and hear. Who really killed John F. Kennedy? Do we really know everything about September 11? Whatever judgments we make may be quick, but they are often mixed with uncertainty about how the facts were presented.
Ignazio Cassis may have crossed the neutral red line. Certainly, his freezing of UNRWA’s funding was quickly done and without any final determination by the United Nations or supported by other countries. But what he and his counterpart discussed about UNRWA’s future remains only rumors.
And Tariq Ramadan may be guilty of all he has been charged with. But I will wait for the results of his trial and determine, based on public knowledge, whether he is guilty or not. Innocent until proven guilty should not be overturned by 24/7 news cycles. Neutrality 2019 is far from the formal establishment of Swiss neutrality by the Treaty of Paris in 1815. But that does not mean that the idea of neutrality, whether in diplomacy or individual cases, should be discarded. It just means that neutrality must be continually analysed and updated.