What’s the point in a parliamentary declaration on Syria?

A Syrian rescuer with an injured boy during a bomb attack in Eastern Aleppo. sda-ats

The House of Representatives on Monday presented a declaration entitled “Stop the war crimes in Syria”. In this interview with Swiss Public Television (SRF) News, the director of Bern-based peace research institute SwisspeaceExternal link, Laurent Goetschel, says he does not see a contradiction between this resolution and Swiss neutrality.

This content was published on May 28, 2018 - 10:52
SRF News

SRF News: What is the point of a declaration on Syria by the House of Representatives?

Laurent Goetschel: This declaration brings some visibility to parliament on an important foreign policy issue.

SRF News: Is it nothing more than a self-promotion attempt by parliament? 

L.G.: I would not analyse things that way. I think parliament also wants to strengthen support for the Federal Council – that is, the government – in this area. And maybe even it is seeking to encourage the Federal Council to take certain measures. 

Laurent Goetschel is a professor of political science at the University of Basel and director of the Swiss foundation for peace, Swisspeace. His primary research focus is on peace and conflict issues as well as European integration.  

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SRF News: So this declaration is aimed at pushing the Federal Council to do more to put the peace process back on track. Is Switzerland doing too little on the Syria issue?

L.G.: It is difficult enough to imagine what more could be done by a country like Switzerland. It is fully engaged; it is active, in an indirect way, in the humanitarian field via the financial support that it provides, notably to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well as other non-governmental organisations.  

It is also active in the framework of the Geneva Process, where the United Nations has been working for many years to bring together different warring parties around the same table. Until now, all that has only had a small effect, if one considers what is really happening on the ground. But I do not think that we can attribute this situation to a lack of activism in Swiss foreign policy.

"Even if this is largely a symbolic gesture, that doesn't mean that this declaration is without importance."

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SRF News: The declaration is addressed to all warring parties. However, a minority of parliamentarians worried that Switzerland would violate its neutrality. Is that also what you think?

L.G.: I see no problem in terms of Switzerland's neutrality. That is defined as a position in a conflict between two parties. If one of the parties should be privileged, that would not be consistent with the terms of political neutrality. Here, parliament is encouraging Switzerland to take a position on issues concerning war crimes, the protection of human rights and the commitment to the peace process.

SRF News: One party to the conflict is nevertheless mentioned by name in the declaration: the Kurds, who should, according to the declaration, be involved in the peace process. Does Switzerland not risk going beyond its neutrality obligation? 

L.G.: I do not think that this will affect other parties. But one can ask why the Kurds are mentioned, and not other actors. I imagine that is explained by the fact that the problems of the Kurds and Turkey are also present on the Swiss political scene for some time. 

SRF News: The House of Representatives rarely uses the instrument of the parliamentary declaration. The last time was in 2013, when Switzerland was entangled in the tax dispute with the United States. Has such a declaration played a more than symbolic role in the past? 

L.G.: Symbols play an important role in foreign policy. The position of parliament is the expression of its interest in foreign policy issues. Even if this is largely a symbolic gesture, that doesn't mean that this declaration is without importance.

Swiss parliament condemns war crimes in Syria

In its declaration, the House of Representatives firmly condemns war crimes being committed in Syria and urges the Swiss government to act.

The text calls on all external parties to the Syrian conflict to cease immediately their military intervention that violates international law, and pull their troops out of the country. It remains deliberately vague, however, on the nations concerned.

It firmly condemns the numerous instances of cruelty and human rights violations committed in the Syrian war.

The Swiss government is invited to do all in its power to see that the United Nations call a new, immediate ceasefire in Syria and launch a peace process with all parties, including the Kurds.

Foreign minister Ignazio Cassis declined to comment on the declaration, saying it was a parliamentary decision. He nevertheless recalled that the government has clearly criticised the war in Syria on many occasions.

The declaration was adopted on Monday by 116 votes, with 57 against and 13 abstentions. Only the rightwing Swiss People’s Party voted against, citing the need to uphold Switzerland’s neutrality.

This kind of parliamentary declaration is rare for Switzerland. The last time was in 2013, concerning a tax row with the United States.

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