Switzerland considers allowing the supply of weapons to Ukraine, despite its established principle of military neutrality, Politico reported on Thursday, February 2nd.
The ongoing war in Ukraine prompted lawmakers in Bern to rethink what Swiss neutrality means and how to get around constitutional provisions that prohibit taking part in outside conflicts, including direct and indirect exportation of Swiss-made arms and ammunition to warring nations. The legality of re-exporting weapons—permitting another country to distribute Swiss-made weapons—is the pressing question facing lawmakers today.
Swiss politicians from across the spectrum push for changes in the legislation to allow more flexible rules when it comes to arming Ukraine. Existing re-export limitations mean that no other countries can aid Ukraine with weapons purchased from Switzerland; Bern refused to let Germany, Spain, and Denmark do so earlier, for instance. This position raised concerns in many European countries eager to help Ukraine, since large parts of their stockpiles come from Switzerland, one the world’s biggest arms producers.
“We are neutral and will remain so,” said liberal MP Thierry Burkart, one of those championing legislative change. “But in the current situation we are in fact preventing our Western partners from supporting Ukraine.” As the leader of the Free Democratic Party, it was Burkart who put forward a motion last summer that would allow arms exports to Ukraine by countries “that share Swiss values” without Bern’s explicit permission.
The conservative president of the security committee discussing the initiative remains more reserved regarding the issue. Citing existing legal frameworks, Werner Salzmann said he would back the legislative change only if certain conditions are met. To ensure the constitutional provisions remain intact, Werner proposed amending the law to allow re-exports, but only five years after the weapons have been delivered to the allied countries.
For Ukraine, however, the difference between five and five hundred years might not matter. Last month, Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko urged Switzerland to review its position. “When it comes to human rights, to life and death, to war and peace, you cannot be neutral,” he said.
A Changing Tradition
Switzerland has pursued a policy of neutrality for five centuries and has been recognized as a neutral power by the international community at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Very few countries were successful in establishing lasting neutrality; none for as long.
But after a period of peace on the European continent, the war in Ukraine is fundamentally changing how certain countries think about their security. Finland, for example, was quick to depart from the path of ‘Finlandization’ when it announced this year that it will scrap neutrality in favor of joining NATO.
In the case of Switzerland, however, the issue is more multifaceted. Neutrality, accompanied by a strong tradition of militarism, has long been embedded into the national culture and is seen as the most important constitutional safeguard for defending the federation’s lasting integrity.
In the past, Swiss neutrality not only meant keeping out of conflicts and military alliances but also provisioned that the country would treat all outside warring factions equally—providing a meeting ground to opposing forces or legal protection to political refugees, as well as making sure its economic relations remained balanced. For instance, Switzerland was criticized for maintaining the same trade balance with both Axis and Allied powers during WWII, even selling weapons to both sides and opening the Swiss banks for the safe keeping of Nazi financial assets. But as far as the Constitution was concerned, this was all in the books under Swiss neutrality.
But there is one difference between WWII and the current war in Ukraine. Whereas Nazi Germany was an immediate neighbor of Switzerland and thus warranted a more careful approach to avoid invasion, Russia is a relatively distant menace. This is why Bern was quick to let go of the economic aspect of its historical neutrality and announced last February that it would join the EU’s sanctions against Russia, while also freezing the Swiss-stored assets of the Russian oligarchy.
To supply weapons to a foreign country and thus directly support its war efforts would be a historical step for Switzerland that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.
Circumventing the Constitution
Swiss lawmakers have put forward several initiatives to circumvent the existing re-export limitations. One of the motions proposed to completely revoke the clauses preventing re-export, if the weapons are to be sent to conflict zones where international law is being violated according to the UN General Assembly. However, such an amendment would require a six-month referendum deadline, and several MPs would like to see the legislation changed sooner than that.
Another parliamentary initiative (dubbed ‘Lex Ukraine’ or law of Ukraine) aims to provide a more urgent solution by allowing the temporary re-export of Swiss-made weapons if these are “linked to the Russo-Ukrainian war.” If approved by both chambers, the provisional legislation would enter into force immediately, albeit with a three-year time limit. According to lawmakers, this initiative would solve the problem in the short run, while the UN amendment would serve as a long-term political instrument.
Lex Ukraine, however, has little chance of being approved, as several parties already indicated that they will vote against it. According to some, Lex Ukraine would practically mean direct weapon supplies to Ukraine, which is incompatible with the constitution. “If we deliver to Ukraine, then we have to deliver to Russia,” Salzmann said, adding that “I don’t think it has a chance.”