Parliament has decided to ease the export of war materiel, saying the Swiss arms industry has suffered from strict regulations introduced five years ago. Humanitarian groups and centre-left politicians say they are appalled by the move.
The motion was passed with 94 votes against 93 and six parliamentarians abstaining. In a rare exception, the speaker of the House took part in the vote and made the difference.
The decision means that Swiss weapons exports are only banned to countries where there is a major risk that the arms are used to commit human rights violations. In all other cases it’s up to the government to decide on a case-by-case basis.
Under the regulations introduced in 2008 such exports to countries known for their serious and systematic human rights abuses are automatically outlawed.
During Thursday's debate supporters argued the Swiss security and defence industry was hit by a slump in orders and risked losing out against other European competitors.
About 10,000 jobs are directly or indirectly affected in Switzerland, according to Raymond Clottu, member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party. He said restrictive exports regulations were damaging for industry.
“Banning Swiss arms exports would not bring peace on earth, but would gradually undermine the Swiss armament industry as the production and know-how would be lost and go elsewhere,” he said.
Walter Müller of the centre-right Radicals added it made no sense blocking the export of air defence systems to a country like Saudi Arabia, as such systems could not be used to commit basic human rights offences.
Exports of war materiel dropped to CHF461.2 million last year from CH700.4 million in 2012, according to data from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.
It was the second slump in a row, after a record CH872.7 million in 2011.
However, arms exports have increased from CHF379 million ten years ago.
Neighbouring Germany, France as well as the US are the biggerst buyers of Swiss arms.
The sale of weapons has made up between 0.17% and 0.42% of total Swiss exports over the past decade.
Critics say the statistics do not cover the sale of dual use goods, such as small arms and ammunition which can also be used for civilian purposes and so called “special military materiel”.
Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann argued Swiss arms exports were in decline and regulations stricter than in other neutral European countries.
He said the reforms were justified to avoid discrimination of countries that buy Swiss weapons to take part in missions by the United Nations, or to poor countries which had a right to self-defence against organised crime or terrorists.
Schneider-Ammann rejected allegations that Switzerland was jeopardising its image as a champion of humanitarian law.
“Human rights issues have the utmost importance and the 'Golden Rule' of Amnesty International applies,” he said. The standard states that government must prevent arms transfers where there is a substantial risk they are likely to be used for serious difficult violations of international human rights.
Schneider-Ammann came in for criticism from parliamentarians on the political left and centre, who said during the short debate that Switzerland’s credibility and good reputation was at stake if it watered down its regulations.
Social Democratic parliamentarian Pierre-Alain Fridez said the proposed reforms allowed for exports to countries which violate human rights or which are a powder keg, such as Pakistan or Egypt.
“This is inacceptable, it’s a step backwards,” he said.
The centrist Liberal Greens said the parliamentary decision was “bringing shame” on the country, while the youth chapter of the Greens described it as “betrayal of Swiss values”.
Business before ethics
In the same vein, Alain Bovard of the Swiss section of Amnesty International was appalled.
“It is a scandal for Switzerland to put economic interests before human rights,” he said.
For the development aid organisation Alliance Sud, Switzerland’s reputation and humanitarian tradition is at risk. The decision shows that Switzerland is after a lucrative slice of Saudi Arabia imports of war material, instead of contributing to a solution to global crises, it said in a statement.
“The parliamentary chambers protect jobs in an insignificant sector of the industry, which makes up just 0.33% of all exports,” Alliance Sud said.
Swissmem, the association of the mechanical and electricity engineering industry which includes the defence industry sector, welcomed Thursday’s parliamentary endorsement.
It ensures that the Swiss defence and security industry is on a level playing field with, for instance, Sweden or Austria on the global market, said spokesman Ivo Zimmermann.
“A final decision on a request for weapons exports remains with the government,” he said to reassure critics.
He said the cabinet would most certainly examine carefully if a deal was acceptable. “Thus the risk of a violation of human rights can be minimised.”
By Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch