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The tip of Swiss neutrality

At the end of October, Switzerland officially launched its first election campaign for a temporary seat on the United States Security Council. As part of the virtual event, the Swiss mission in New York City sent delegates from other countries goody bags who will ultimately vote to decide whether Switzerland should sit on the council. The centerpiece in the midst of chocolate and Swiss cheese samples: a kit for a Swiss culinary delicacy, a cheesy raclette.

Swiss cheese and chocolate diplomacy is in full swing at the United Nations before the vote in June 2022, but is actually running unhindered. There are two seats available for Western countries for the 2023-2024 period, and the only other country running is Malta. Even so, the campaign, which received around $ 28 million from the government, has sparked controversy. "It's a very interesting situation at the moment," said Angela Müller, Vice-President of the Swiss Association of the United States, "because we have a clean situation with Malta, but the real opposition comes from within."

For some in Switzerland, they believe that having a seat in the world's highest security organization – one with the power to take military action to restore peace when deemed necessary – reinforces the country's unique international reputation as a neutral power and as a valued diplomat could harm role that comes with it.

One such critic is Paul Widmer, a retired Swiss diplomat who worked in Berlin, Amman, Zagreb, Washington and at the U.N. was stationed in New York. "Our neutrality has become an international trademark," he said. "Thanks to a constant policy of neutrality, Switzerland has achieved a high level of credibility in foreign policy." Switzerland is regularly asked to represent countries in which it has no diplomatic relations, for example between the United States and Iran and Russia and Georgia. The climax of such diplomacy was in World War II, when Switzerland had 200 mandates in around 35 countries. Indeed, as Widmer put it, the country's neutrality is "the reason why many states give Switzerland international mandates – be it as a protecting power, be it as a mediator or as a mediator."

The neutrality of Switzerland is in the DNA of the country as well as in its legal system. It was anchored internationally at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and under the Neutrality Act of 1907. It is also mentioned nationally in the Swiss constitution. However, the specifics of the country's neutrality policy have evolved over the past few decades, especially after Switzerland became a full member state of the United States in the early 2000s. "We managed to stay out of two world wars," said Pascale Baeriswyl, Swiss ambassador to the United States, in December. Since the country has not been involved in an armed conflict for almost two centuries, Swiss neutrality has become a national myth. In addition, “in a country as diverse as Switzerland, popular support for neutrality is good for national cohesion. However, the concept is understood in very different ways. So when we work in international organizations, we have to follow the law of neutrality – we cannot rely on myths. "

Although Geneva is the European capital of the United Nations, it stayed away from membership in the United States until a referendum in 2002. Since then, Switzerland has participated in most of the activities of the U.N. body, including the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, and the Economic and Social Council. And although neutrality is still at the center of decision-making in Switzerland, it takes a position at the United Nations through votes, in particular on human rights violations. Now, after nearly 20 years in the United States, Baeriswyl believes, the next natural step is a seat on the Security Council. "It was always clear that if we wanted to be a member of the United Nations, we wanted to be a member of all organs," she said.

After consulting the parliamentary committees for foreign affairs in Switzerland, the seven-member Federal Council officially decided in 2011 to apply for a seat on the council. This was a natural consequence of membership in the United States. Concerns about neutrality had since been ripe for debate. In 2015, the Federal Council even published a report on possible situations that could endanger Switzerland's neutrality and came to the conclusion that it could remain in the Council and remain clear. After all, according to the report, other neutral countries – such as Austria, Sweden (partially) and Costa Rica – have done so successfully, in particular by abstaining from votes on the use of force. However, as a diplomat from another neutral country pointed out, each of these countries has its own definition of neutrality. For Costa Rica, for example, this means non-militarization. Armed neutrality for Switzerland. Amnesty International has even criticized Switzerland for its continued arms sales to human rights abusers such as Bangladesh, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

So far, Switzerland's campaign for a seat has weathered any parliamentary motion to reverse the country's decision to run, and the race is pretty much an accomplished fact. Politically, however, the matter could become more complicated if Switzerland is actually in the council chambers. Today's sections in the Security Council remind some diplomats of the Cold War era, and navigating major powers without a party may be more difficult than ever. “What role would Switzerland play if the United States asked the Security Council to strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran? Should it vote for (and displease Iran), should it vote against (and displease the US), or should it abstain (and weaken Security Council decision-making)? “Asked Widmer.

Last summer, the Trump administration decided to unilaterally trigger a snapback mechanism to restore the United States' sanctions against Iran that existed prior to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), were introduced. The move confused the council as Washington had already left the JCPOA. Washington's proposal has largely either been ignored by council members or refuted by letters and statements, but it has made the relationship between Washington and its European allies even more exciting. If Switzerland had been on the Council at this point – even if it had tried to remain neutral – Widmer would not have been exempt from a difficult political decision: Washington displeased or Iran would lose its status as mediator for the United States and the United States.

However, Baeriswyl is convinced that Switzerland could deal with similar matters in the Council without affecting their relationship on one side or the other. “Neutrality was never neutral in relation to the law. It was never neutral when we made a commitment, ”she explained. “It is neutral that we do not take sides in a conflict, except in humanitarian and international law. This also applies to the JCPOA. “Regarding the Security Council and the JCPOA, she said:" There was a great unity and I would expect Switzerland to be no exception. "

Even if Switzerland does not have much convincing to do with other member states because it runs unhindered, the PR efforts will continue. It may take more than raclette and chocolate to convince every canton in this diverse country, but despite some setbacks, the “advantages (of being on the council) outweigh the risks”, concluded Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in June.

It is a rite of passage for any member state in the United States to sit on the Council and indicates a real international commitment. But only time will tell if the risks were worth the reward.

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