Switzerland asks for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, how has Swiss neutrality changed?

Switzerland asks for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, how has Swiss neutrality changed?

Switzerland is applying for a seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The elections for membership in the period 2023/2024 will take place in June 2022. With a virtual event held in New York, to which the President of the Confederation, Simonetta Sommaruga, and Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis participated with a speech each, the candidacy is entering the final stage.

Switzerland officially presented its candidacy for the UN Security Council as early as 2011. After the election of its direct predecessor within the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) regional group for the period 2021/2022, it is now starting for Switzerland, the final phase of the candidacy. Which, with the slogan “A Plus for Peace”, was virtually presented to representatives of all UN missions on the evening of 29 October in New York. On Friday 30 Oct., the President of the Confederation and Federal Councillor Cassis informed the media in Bern about the event and the state of implementation of the candidacy. A seat on the Security Council will enable Switzerland to commit itself to its foreign policy objectives and to demonstrate its capabilities for peace and security.

President Sommaruga and Federal Councillor Cassis originally planned a trip to New York. Due to the restrictive measures on entry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event took place exclusively in a virtual manner. In her video speech, the President of the Confederation highlighted the strengths of the Swiss political system. “We are looking for consensual solutions both in our domestic and foreign policy. The only way to create consensus is dialogue.” Cassis underlined, highlighting the positive contribution that Switzerland would like to make to the Security Council. “We have a reputation for being reliable partners with a long tradition of promoting peace.” He added, also reiterating Switzerland’s commitment to the rule of law, democracy, peace, and security. When it comes to running for important UN bodies, it is customary for candidate states to present themselves appropriately to the electoral body.

Who would have thought that the highly reserved Switzerland, which entered the United Nations only in 2002, thanks to a referendum in which a little more than half of the voters agreed, had in the meantime gained such momentum as to demand a seat in the UN Security Council? The non-permanent seat coveted by Bern is one of the two vacating for the two years 2023-2024, and the Swiss government is exercising discrete lobbying to win it. However, this ambition for observers would clash with Swiss neutrality. 

The United Nations Security Council has to take positions in the ongoing conflicts. For a State being neutral means keeping out of armed conflict. Swiss neutrality dates back de facto to 1516, when one year after the battle of Marignano, the last armed conflict fought by the troops of the Confederation of the XIII and, which ended with a bitter defeat by the French army. Switzerland signed with king Francis I of France a peace treaty destined to make a school. Considered posterior as the birth certificate of Swiss neutrality, this treaty provided, among other things, for a court of arbitrators chosen by both parties to settle any future disputes. Thanks to this pact, Switzerland managed to keep a low profile in foreign policy for over two centuries. Only in 1798, with the country’s occupation by the French army, the old Confederation was forced to temporarily abandon its neutrality.

Officially, Swiss neutrality was recognized for the first time by the great European powers in the Treaty of Paris of November 20, 1815. On that occasion, Austria, Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia, and Russia undertook to respect Switzerland’s will not to interfere in future military operations and, at the same time, guaranteed territorial inviolability. Neutrality is a principle of international law. The rights and obligations, linked to a neutral country status, first written codification dates back to the 1907 Hague Conventions. Among the obligations, in addition to non-belligerence during a conflict and self-defense, also among the rights stands the inviolability of its territory. Neutrality is not one of the aims of the state in the Swiss Constitution but is mentioned in the list of duties of the National Assembly.

Throughout history, Swiss neutrality has taken on different forms and connotations. Faced with international conflicts, the Confederation cannot avoid questioning itself on the behavior to adopt and on the meaning to attribute from time to time to the concept of active and armed neutrality. At the end of the First World War, Switzerland joined the League of Nations and was also willing to adopt economic sanctions.

When the Second World War then broke out, to consolidate its neutrality, the country decreed the general mobilization of the army, thus sending a strong and clear signal to the potential aggressors who, in the event of an attack, would defend the own territory.

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