Foreign Policy

The top of Swiss neutrality

At the end of October, Switzerland officially launched its first election campaign for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council. As part of the virtual event, the Swiss Mission in New York City sent delegates from other countries goody bags who will ultimately vote to decide whether Switzerland should sit on the council. The centerpiece in the midst of chocolate and Swiss cheese samples: a kit for a Swiss culinary delicacy, a cheesy raclette.

Swiss cheese and chocolate diplomacy is in full swing at the United Nations before the vote in June 2022, but is actually running unhindered. There are two seats available for Western countries for the 2023-2024 period, and the only other country running is Malta. Even so, the campaign, which received around $ 28 million from the government, has sparked controversy. “It’s a very interesting situation at the moment,” said Angela Müller, Vice President of the Swiss UN Association, “because we have a clean situation with Malta, but the real opposition comes from within.”

For some in Switzerland, they believe that having a seat in the world’s highest security organization – one with the power to take military action to restore peace when deemed necessary – reinforces the country’s unique international reputation as a neutral power and as a valued diplomat could harm role that comes with it.

One of these critics is Paul Widmer, a retired Swiss diplomat who was stationed in Berlin, Amman, Zagreb, Washington and at the United Nations in New York. “Our neutrality has become an international trademark,” he said. “Thanks to a constant policy of neutrality, Switzerland has achieved a high level of credibility in foreign policy.” Switzerland is regularly asked to represent countries in which it does not have diplomatic relations, for example between the United States and Iran and Russia and Georgia. The climax of such diplomacy was in World War II, when Switzerland had 200 mandates in around 35 countries. Indeed, as Widmer put it, the country’s neutrality is “the reason why many states give Switzerland international mandates – be it as a protecting power, be it as a mediator or as a mediator.”

The neutrality of Switzerland is in the DNA of the country as well as in its legal system. It was anchored internationally at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and under the Neutrality Act of 1907. It is also mentioned nationally in the Swiss constitution. However, the special features of the country’s neutrality policy have developed further in recent decades, especially after Switzerland became a fully fledged UN member state in the early 2000s. “We managed to stay out of two world wars,” said Pascale Baeriswyl, Swiss ambassador to the United Nations, in December. Because the country has not been involved in an armed conflict for almost two centuries, Swiss neutrality has become a national myth. In addition, “in a country as diverse as Switzerland, popular support for neutrality is good for national cohesion. However, the concept is understood in very different ways. So when we work in international organizations, we have to follow the law of neutrality – we cannot rely on myths. “

Although Geneva is the European capital of the United Nations, it stayed away from UN membership until a referendum in 2002. Since then, Switzerland has participated in most of the UN body’s activities, including the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council. And although neutrality is still at the center of decision-making in Switzerland, it takes a position at the United Nations through votes, especially in the case of human rights violations. Now, after nearly 20 years at the United Nations, Baeriswyl believes, the next natural step is a seat on the Security Council. “It was always clear that if we wanted to be a member of the United Nations, we wanted to be a member of all organs,” she said.

In 2011, after consulting the country’s parliamentary committees for foreign affairs, the seven-member Swiss Federal Council officially decided to apply for a seat on the council. Concerns about neutrality had since been ripe for debate. In 2015, the Federal Council even published a report on possible situations that could jeopardize Switzerland’s neutrality and came to the conclusion that it could remain in the Council and in the clear. The report finally found that other neutral countries – such as Austria, Sweden (partially) and Costa Rica – have done so successfully, in particular by abstaining from voting on the use of force. However, as a diplomat from another neutral country pointed out, each of these countries has its own definition of neutrality. For Costa Rica, for example, this means non-militarization. Armed neutrality for Switzerland. Amnesty International has even criticized Switzerland for its continued arms sales to human rights abusers such as Bangladesh, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

So far, Switzerland’s campaign for a seat has weathered any parliamentary motion to reverse the country’s decision to run, and the race is pretty much an accomplished fact. Politically, however, the matter could become more complicated if Switzerland is actually in the council chambers. Today’s departments in the Security Council are reminding some diplomats of the Cold War era, and navigating non-party powers may be more difficult than ever. “What role would Switzerland play if the United States asked the Security Council to strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran? Should it vote for (and displease Iran), should it vote against (and displease the US), or should it abstain (and weaken Security Council decision-making)? “Asked Widmer.

Last summer, the Trump administration decided to unilaterally trigger a snapback mechanism to restore the UN sanctions against Iran that existed before the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The move confused the council as Washington had already left the JCPOA. Washington’s proposal has largely either been ignored by councilors or refuted by letters and statements, but it has strengthened the relationship between Washington and its European allies. If Switzerland had been on the Council at this point – even if it had tried to remain neutral – Widmer would not have been exempt from a difficult political decision: Washington displeased or Iran would lose its status as mediator for the United States and the United States.

However, Baeriswyl is convinced that Switzerland could deal with similar matters in the Council without affecting their relationship on one side or the other. “Neutrality was never neutral in relation to the law. It was never neutral when we made a commitment, ”she explained. “It is neutral that we do not take sides in a conflict, except in humanitarian and international law. This also applies to the JCPOA. “Regarding the Security Council and the JCPOA, she said:” There was a great unity and I would expect Switzerland to be no exception. “

Even if Switzerland does not have much to do with convincing other member states because it runs unhindered, the PR efforts will continue. It may take more than raclette and chocolate to convince every canton in this diverse country, but despite some setbacks, the “advantages [of being on the council] outweigh the risks, ”concluded Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in June.

It is a rite of passage for every UN member state to sit on the Council and it shows real international commitment. But only time will tell if the risks were worth the reward.

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