Battle over army's role unites left and right

Will Switzerland's peacekeepers be fully armed on international missions?

Swiss voters are going to the polls this weekend to decide on changes to the army's role. The two proposals would allow Swiss soldiers to be fully armed when taking part in international peacekeeping missions, and permit Switzerland to take part in military training exercises with other countries.

This content was published on June 8, 2001 minutes

Latest opinion polls indicate that the gap between the proposals' supporters and opponents is narrowing, but those advocating a "yes" vote remain in the majority.

Although neither proposal would be controversial in most other European countries, in Switzerland they have come in for fierce opposition from both left- and right-wing circles.

In neutral Switzerland the role of the army has until recently been strictly confined to defending Swiss borders against invasion. Every Swiss man must serve in the army, but the idea of any Swiss soldier serving - let alone dying - outside Switzerland was regarded as unthinkable.

But ever since the Cold War ended over 10 years ago, an invasion of Switzerland by an enemy force has looked increasingly unlikely. Many of Switzerland's senior army officers would like a new, more flexible role for their troops, and make no secret of their interest in taking part in international peacekeeping missions.

Swiss troops in Kosovo

A small Swiss company is already serving with KFor troops in Kosovo but, because current Swiss law does not allow them to be armed, they have to be protected by Austrian forces. It's a situation the Swiss army does not like, and one which the Swiss defence department would like to change.

"We should not be a burden on others when we take part in these missions," Christian Catrina, deputy director of security and defence policy at the defence department, told swissinfo.

"We should be able to make a small but useful contribution to peacekeeping. And our soldiers should be able to fulfil their mandate, so they need to be armed. It's a perfectly sensible step, and I'm surprised by all the controversy over it.'

Catrina maintains that Swiss participation in military training exercises is also simply a matter of common sense. "We need good training, and nowadays, getting good training means international cooperation with other armed forces. It keeps us up to date."

Switzerland Without an Army

But the argument that the two new proposals are merely pragmatic steps suited to the modern world has not convinced opponents. Nico Lutz of the anti-militarist Switzerland Without an Army Group says that Switzerland should contribute more towards peace, but in different ways.

"These proposals are designed solely to suit what the military wants," says Lutz. "They've got nothing whatever to do with contributing to peace. I do think Switzerland should contribute more internationally, but the real gap is not in military matters, but in civilian conflict resolution efforts. Look at Kosovo - in autumn 1998 they could not find enough OSCE observers to go there, if they had they might have saved a lot of bloodshed. But in summer 1999 it was no problem to find 50,000 soldiers."

While Lutz and others like him on the left of the Swiss political spectrum would like to get rid of the Swiss army altogether, and focus on a non-military Swiss contribution to international conflict resolution efforts, right-wing groups in Switzerland maintain that the Swiss army should remain strong - but serve only within Swiss borders.

Thomas Fuchs of the Swiss People's Party believes Swiss troops - armed or not - have no business abroad.

"Switzerland is a special type of neutral country; our army is only a defensive one, and Swiss troops have absolutely nothing do abroad, their role is here, not helping out in other countries," he told swissinfo.

"Swiss men dying abroad"

Fuchs makes no apology for the much criticised poster campaign organised by right-wing opponents of the new legislation, which juxtaposed military cemeteries and Swiss flags, and implied that Swiss soldiers would soon be dying in foreign countries.

"The only reason people didn't like those posters was because they knew it could happen," says Fuchs. "And the thought of Swiss young men dying abroad made them uncomfortable."

Caught in the middle of all the high emotion over the proposed new laws are Swiss soldiers themselves. Taking part in a peacekeeping operation would be a voluntary option for them, no one would be forced to go.

Captain Martin Studer, does not support Fuchs' views on the role of the Swiss army. "That point of view is just too restrictive nowadays," says Studer. "You can't view Switzerland in isolation anymore. It's our duty to help out where there are problems, and if we don't, then maybe we will become part of the problem."

Studer, a specialist in nuclear and chemical weapons defence who has already had some international training, welcomes the proposal to increase cooperation with foreign armed forces.

"I think it's useful," he says. "in my experience you can learn a lot from the way other countries do things."

Studer's colleague, army doctor Christian Reize, is also supportive of the new legislation.

"I have to be honest and say that I would prefer to stay in Switzerland," admits Reize. "But there are others who do really want to take part in peacekeeping missions. So we should remember that sometimes these missions are dangerous, and our soldiers should be able to carry weapons for their own self-defence."

The vote has also raised fears that increased military involvement outside Swiss borders could compromise Swiss neutrality.

Christian Catrina accepts that neutrality remains a very important concept to many Swiss, and knows that a vote in favour of the legislation is by no means guaranteed.

"It's deeply entrenched in many Swiss minds that this country is something very special, and of course we cannot make foreign or defence policy without the will of the people. But that does not mean we can forget about peacekeeping. It is quite simply our duty to take part, to help people in need, and to show solidarity with the international community when it mounts a peacekeeping operation in regions which are also relevant to us."

by Imogen Foulkes

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