Last update on January 08, 2020

“I am Switzerland?” Taking an in-depth look at Swiss neutrality.

Neutrality and isolationism

The advice of Switzerland’s popular saint, Nicholas of Flüe (1417-87), “Don’t get involved in other people’s affairs” has been the hallmark of Swiss policy for nearly 500 years. The country has in effect been neutral since 1515, a status formally recognised and guaranteed by the great powers of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

Swiss neutrality thus has deeper roots than any of Europe’s other major neutral states: Sweden (1815), Eire (1921), Finland (1948) and Austria (1955).

Neutrality is defined as non-participation in a war between other states. The rights and duties of neutral countries in time of war were laid down by the international community in 1907. In times of peace neutral states define their own rules, but take it for granted that they should stay outside military blocs, like NATO.

The status of neutrality has not only protected Switzerland from war, but has helped prevent the country from being torn apart when its different language communities might have been tempted to side with different belligerents in cases of conflict.

Since the end of the Cold War Switzerland has had to redefine its understanding of neutrality. It signed up to NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1996, stressing that it was motivated by the desire to promote peace and security and reserving the right to withdraw if it believed its neutrality was threatened.

The despatch of unarmed Swiss volunteers to Kosovo as part of peace keeping troops there after the 1999 war kept alive the debate over whether neutrality can be combined with an international role.

A referendum in June 2001 approved two key changes to the army’s role. One allows Swiss soldiers to be fully armed when taking part in international peacekeeping missions, and the other permits them to take part in military training exercises with other countries. However, the bitter campaign showed the country was deeply divided on the issues, and the margin of victory was only two per cent.

The first armed Swiss peacekeepers arrived in Kosovo in October 2002.

“We got to talking about Switzerland, the second world war and our neutrality… ‘I don’t know anything about politics,’ said our host, ‘but there’s something not right. New Zealand went voluntarily to the aid of the mother country, England, to save Europe from destruction. Switzerland was there in the middle. What happened? My two boys were killed, one at Al Alamein, and one in Italy, on your doorstep, 12,000 miles from home. And now you have come from the middle of Europe to work in our dairy and on my farm, where my two sons should be working. There’s something not right about that.’ Later, whenever talk in Switzerland got round to our neutrality, I always remembered this scene, and I can still hear the New Zealander saying: ‘There’s something not right about that.'” — Heinz Helbling (1928 – ) Swiss dairyman in New Zealand, 1951-54

Role as mediator

Switzerland’s neutrality allows the country to act as a mediator. Its diplomats often represent the interests of countries which have no relations with each other. Thus for example it looks after US interests in Cuba and Iran, and Cuba’s interests in the US.

Switzerland offers a neutral ground to host sensitive conferences and meetings. For example, the first meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan (1985) or between Clinton and Syria’s President Assad (2000) took place in Geneva. Switzerland has also been the venue for peace talks between various governments and rebel groups – for example from Indonesia, Spain and Sri Lanka – and for talks on a settlement for the divided island of Cyprus. Switzerland has been involved in international efforts to bring about a dialogue between the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels since 2001.

The Swiss foreign ministry has set up its own “Expert Pool for Civilian Peacebuilding” (SEP) whose members work discreetly in a number of countries as facilitators bringing together opposing factions. Among the conflicts where these experts have given help and advice was the long civil war between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, which ended in agreement in 2005.

Geneva functions as the “international capital of Switzerland” and houses around 200 international organizations and diplomatic missions from about 170 countries. It is the European headquarters of the United Nations and headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.