The Russian invasion of Ukraine raises questions about the role and interpretation of Swiss neutrality. For several weeks now, readers of swissinfo.ch from all over the world have been exchanging views on this topic in ten languages.
This content was published on April 14, 2022 – 12:40 PM
“What does the word ‘neutrality’ mean?” asks a Swiss user from Japan as an introduction to her contribution. “Neutrality means not taking sides in a war. That is why economic sanctions are also a form of war for me. We stopped being ‘neutral’ and joined Ukraine,” she said.
It is contradicted by another Japanese user: “In the ancient wars of domination, neutrality made sense. But today we have to take a stand between a state that suppresses human rights and a free and democratic country,” writes Aka Hoppy.
Users of swissinfo.ch are actively participating in the debate about the future of democracy, and not just in Japan. Since mid-March, we’ve posted about a hundred contributions in ten different languages and seen a lot of responses.
Many Swiss also participate in the discussion about neutrality. “Switzerland must remain strictly neutral at all times,” writes a francophone commentator, adding: “Neutrality is the foundation on which our country’s power and way of life are built.” “Tiktok2021” expresses itself less categorically: “Swiss neutrality is indeed often seen in ‘western’ countries as a pretext to satisfy its mercantilist desires. As Switzerland, we must therefore think about how our neutrality can be used for the good of humanity in the future.”
A new “non-state” definition of neutrality
This is exactly the thought the English language user “Nick Kyriazi” had. He writes: “I propose to redefine neutrality as follows: the government does not take a position”. Then it is up to “individuals and companies to decide for themselves which side they are on. For example, I wonder if I should still buy Apple products because I don’t like the idea of supporting the Chinese government in its crackdown on Hong Kong and the Uyghurs.
During the first weeks, many users from Ukraine and Russia also supported the debate about the neutrality of swissinfo.ch. No wonder, given that the term “neutrality” has been used repeatedly in negotiations between the two countries to end Russian aggression. In an interview with independent representatives of Russian media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said any peace agreement with a “neutral” Ukraine should be subject to ratification by the country’s citizens in a referendum.
However, he did not specify what such neutrality might look like. There are many variants of neutrality and it will not be easy to find one that meets the conflicting needs of Kiev and Moscow. On April 7, Volodymyr Zelensky said in the Jerusalem Post: “We cannot talk about the ‘Switzerland of the future’ about Ukraine. It is likely that our state will look like this for a long time to come.”
Significant obstacles to a “sustainable” solution
Eric Golson researches trade wars at the British University of Surrey. From his point of view, the Ukrainian president’s declarations of intent on neutrality policy certainly make sense, but “to maintain long-term neutrality in terms of domestic politics, a strong civil society is needed, as well as only strong and credible state institutions”. And these institutions are now being brutally destroyed in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Added to this is the international dimension, emphasizes Eric Golson, who wrote his thesis on the neutrality of Switzerland, Sweden and Spain during the Second World War. According to the British expert, a referendum in Ukraine on this subject would certainly give more credibility to ‘neutrality’.
This is also the view of Swiss political scientist Pascal Lottaz, assistant professor of neutrality studies at the Waseda Institute of Advanced Studies: own population”.
“Neutrality to atrocities?”
The interpretation of neutrality is also controversial in Switzerland. After the Confederation imposed sanctions on Russia, the conservative right launched the idea of a popular initiative to enshrine in the Constitution what has been called “complete neutrality.” Such an initiative would prevent the Federal Council from resuming economic sanctions in the future. So far, Switzerland has applied “differentiated neutrality”, allowing for measures like those in Ukraine’s current case.
The liberal think tank Avenir Suisse is in favor of a more open interpretation of ‘neutrality’. “Neither would we see a violation of the neutrality principles enshrined in the Hague Conventions in even closer cooperation with NATO and the EU,” said Lukas Rühli, who wrote a new security policy study for Avenir Suisse. “It can be assumed that in a future marked by an enhanced bipolarity between liberal democracies and state capitalist autocracies, Switzerland will interpret its neutrality policy more in favor of the countries of its own value circle.”
After the announcement of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, an Italian user of swissinfo.ch summarized the situation as follows: “How can we remain neutral about these atrocities?”
In accordance with JTI standards
More: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative