What exactly is Swiss neutrality? This article offers a brief history and summary of the laws, norms and characteristics of Swiss neutrality.
How is Swiss neutrality defined?
Broadly, it is defined in international laws (part V of The Hague Convention), which Switzerland has ratified, and by Switzerland itself based on its own internal policies.
What is the history behind Swiss neutrality?
Switzerland is a religiously and linguistically diverse nation. Before 1900, taking sides against foreign powers could have torn the nation apart along confessional and linguistic-cultural lines. Choosing neutrality protected the Swiss Confederation.
In 1910, Switzerland ratified the 1907 Hague Conventions. The only international agreements that regulate neutrality, these rules require neutral states not to participate in any international armed conflict or militarily favour warring parties with troops, arms or by making its territory available to foreign forces. The rules grant neutral states the inviolability of their territory, the right to self-defence and prohibit warring parties from transporting troops, ammunition or food convoys across their territory by land, sea or air.
In 1920, following the First World War, Switzerland joined the League of Nations as a neutral country. It was exempt from participating in military actions, but could take part in economic sanctions.
In 1938, at a time of increasing global political tensions, Switzerland decided to refrain from even economic sanctions and reaffirmed its full neutrality.
In 1945, emerging from the the Second World War with its neutrality intact, Switzerland adopted a very strict and narrow approach to neutrality and refrained from joining international organisations with a political character. The League of Nations was dissolved and the United Nations (UN) was born, but Switzerland decided not to join the new international body. However, it did join the Council of Europe in 1963 and the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, now the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in 1975.
In 1993, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Switzerland published a white paper setting out a new definition of its neutrality. This document remains authoritative today.
In 2002, after a majority (54.6%) voted in favour of UN membership, Switzerland joined the organisation. The Swiss declaration of UN accession states that “Switzerland is a neutral state whose status is enshrined in international law” and that it “remains neutral even as a member of the UN”.
In 2011, Switzerland submitted its candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2023–24. The Federal Council has said that it views a Security Council mandate as compatible with Switzerland’s neutrality law and policy.
1. Swiss neutrality is based on armed neutrality
Switzerland’s neutrality means it will use its armed forces in self-defence to defend its independence and territorial integrity but not to enforce interests beyond self-defence.
Limits on the use of armed force are the defining characteristic of Swiss neutrality. Switzerland’s neutrality is incompatible with membership of any organisation that contains obligations for members to engage in armed conflict. For example, it cannot join a military alliance such as NATO, which provides for mutual assistance in the event of war. NATO membership is out of the question for Switzerland.
2. Switzerland’s neutrality is not defined in the constitution
Switzerland’s Federal Constitution does not define Swiss neutrality. Instead it states that the preservation of neutrality is the task of the Federal Council and Parliament. This is set out in articles 173 and 185 of Switzerland’s constitution.
The document that does the most to define Swiss neutrality is the 1993 white paper.
3. Switzerland’s neutrality is permanent but remains optional
In contrast to a state that declares itself temporarily neutral in relation to a specific armed conflict, Switzerland has declared itself permanently neutral.
The concept of permanent armed neutrality was internationally recognised at the Congress of Vienna in March 1815 in a declaration accepted by Russia, England, Prussia, Austria and France. Eight months later, the same nations signed the Treaty of Paris in November 1815, recognising Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality and guaranteeing the inviolability of Swiss territory. This was the first time Switzerland’s neutrality had been recognised under international law.
However, Switzerland is under no obligation to remain neutral. It could abandon its neutrality at any time if it considered it necessary to safeguard its national interests. Switzerland’s adherence to international neutrality treaties could be overturned by the Federal Assembly or Swiss voters. But there is currently no reason to suggest that would happen.
4. Neutrality does not restrict Switzerland’s diplomatic and economic relations
Neutrality only applies to international armed conflicts between states. International neutrality law does not restrict diplomatic and economic relations. Diplomatic and economic relations with warring parties may continue, provided they do not amount to military support.
Neutrality does not mean impartiality or neutrality of opinion. Switzerland is free to stand up for its fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
In addition, neutrality also has no bearing on migration and refugee movements. Swiss neutrality also allows humanitarian aid to countries involved in an international armed conflict.
5. Neutrality has wide support in Switzerland
In a poll run in 2021, 96% agreed that Switzerland should maintain its neutrality. Only 18% agreed that Switzerland should take a clear stand for one side or the other in military conflicts abroad. In addition, a majority were also comfortable making a distinction between political and military neutrality. 57% agreed that Switzerland should take a clear stand for one side or the other in political conflicts abroad, but remain neutral in military conflicts.
However, significant differences of opinion exist regarding how far Swiss neutrality should extend beyond armed neutrality. In the 2002 referendum on Switzerland’s UN membership, only half of Switzerland’s 26 cantons had majorities in favour of the move. Majorities of voters of were against it in the cantons of Uri, Schwytz, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Glarus, Schaffhausen, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, St. Gallen, Graubunden, Aargau, Thurgau and Ticino. Just one more (full) canton against Swiss UN accession would have changed the result1. Those in favour of extending neutrality beyond armed neutrality typically argue that economic and political actions against aggressors increase the risk of an armed response, which is contrary to the objectives of neutrality.
Switzerland is one of a number of neutral nations. In Europe, Finland, Malta, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Sweden and Vatican City are also neutral. But each of these nations has its own definition of neutrality. Austria, for example, has its neutrality written in to its constitution.
1To succeed, Referenda in Switzerland must achieve approval from a majority of voters and a majority of cantons, something known as a double majority. A further quirk is that the half cantons (Nidwalden, Obwalden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Basel-City, Basel-Landschaft) have only half the weight of the others when tallying cantonal majorities.
Government explanation of Swiss neutrality (in English)