The government has launched its campaign to presuade voters to accept more international military cooperation when the issue comes to a referendum in June. The government says acceptance is necessary to remain credible and to protect civilian humanitarian missions abroad.
The defence minister, Samuel Schmid, and the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, have called on voters to approve proposals to arm Swiss troops taking part in international peacekeeping missions and to increase cooperation in military training.
Speaking at a news conference in Bern on Friday, they said the proposals were a pragmatic way to promote peace, prevent conflicts and improve army training.
They said Swiss involvement would remain limited to volunteers and to peacekeeping under the auspices of the United Nations or the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Combat missions would be excluded.
Schmid and Deiss both dismissed allegations that Switzerland would compromise its traditional neutrality by allowing its soldiers to be fully armed on international missions.
They also repeated that the government was seeking membership of Nato.
Parliament has already approved the changes to the army law, but the move is facing opposition from both left- and right-wing camps. Two committees have collected enough signatures to challenge the army law in a nationwide vote on June 10.
Right-wing politicians claim that Switzerland is jeopardising its humanitarian tradition and will forego its neutrality by seeking Nato membership. In their campaign they have also warned of the dangers of military involvement in crisis areas.
Another committee, comprising peace groups and left-wing politicians, says peace promotion cannot be achieved by military forces.
Switzerland has about 160, mainly unarmed soldiers currently serving with international troops in Kosovo. Military personnel were also deployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Namibia and the Western Sahara over the past decade.
Swiss military observers have been stationed in several countries in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including on the border between North and South Korea.
by Urs Geiser