Armed neutrality

Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Switzerland and neutrality are synonymous but that does not mean the Swiss have no military might. The Swiss Army trains for self-defence and internal security.

This content was published on November 29, 2016 - 14:52

Editorial note: this information was current as of June 2017 and is no longer being updated.

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In principle, the Swiss cannot enter military alliances unless they are attacked. They must not take sides in international conflicts and cannot give right of transit to foreign forces.

For Switzerland, neutrality implies armed neutrality, which explains why the country has always strived to maintain its defence at a respectable level, and why military service remains compulsory for male citizens under the constitution.

With the ending of the Cold War, neutrality is no longer the imperative it was for small nations. The interdependence of the modern world makes a pure and orthodox neutrality increasingly difficult.

Neutrality plus

The self-imposed constraint of standing aside from the political world has modified attitudes toward neutrality in Switzerland. The country has been a member of the UN since 2002, although it has, in fact, fully participated in the activities of the specialised agencies such as UNESCO, WHO, FAO, ILO, UNICEF and others, for decades.

A nationwide vote was needed to join the world body and some 55% voted in favour. Switzerland is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, but there are no plans to join the military alliance, as this would compromise neutrality.

UN membership has been hailed as a major step forward into the concert of nations but, in fact, Switzerland has continually supported international peace efforts since the Second World War, while stopping short of joining UN peacekeeping forces.

Today, 32 Swiss nationalsExternal link are serving in peace support operations as military observers and staff officers in the following countries: 15 Swiss officers in the Middle East, 4 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2 in South Sudan, 6 in Mali, 3 in Kashmir and 2 in the Western Sahara.

The country has been involved in truce supervision work following the Korean War. Today, five Swiss and five Swedish officers are on duty for the NNSC (Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in Korea) and are stationed in Panmunjom, immediately south of the north-south demarcation Line. Their main task consists of monitoring the armistice, although only on the southern side of the border since 1995. 

Swiss election observers have been sent to Africa and eastern Europe. A 235-strong Swiss army company (SwisscoyExternal link) has been stationed since 1999 in Kosovo in support of international peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans. 

Switzerland was an early member of the Council of Europe, and more recently of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Former Swiss President Didier Burkhalter presided over OSCE in 2014.

Guns and militia

The Swiss ArmyExternal link largely is a non-career militia. Switzerland has compulsory military service for male citizens, though this and indeed the role of the army altogether have recently been called into question. Nevertheless, joining up and passing through the “recruit school” has been a rite of passage for generations of young Swiss men.

After their basic training, they have to maintain their skills by spending several weeks in the army each year. Young soldiers in uniform, often carrying weapons, are a frequent sight in Swiss towns and cities, and the sound of gunfire is common in the otherwise peaceful Swiss landscape when they are on manoeuvres.

Soldiers take their guns home with them. There has been controversy about this in recent years due to the frequent role of army weapons in murders of spouses and suicides. At a nationwide vote in February 2011 the Swiss rejected an initiative aimed at creating a central gun registry, a strict licensing system for the use of firearms, a ban on the purchase of automatic weapons and a ban on keeping army-issue guns at home.

In 2015 both the Senate and the House of Representatives rejected a government proposal to require cantonal registration of firearms purchased before 2008. Ammunition, however, is kept separately.

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