The Swiss army found itself under attack 25 years ago – not from an outside enemy, but from a group of 100 young Swiss men and women.This content was published on October 5, 2007 - 21:48
The Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) has seen a number of ups and downs during its first quarter century, but believes it has made a useful contribution to public debate and still has an important role to play.
The organisation was founded by young pacifists in Olten, northern Switzerland, in 1982, and was at first not taken seriously.
That changed in 1989, when more than a million Swiss voters cast their ballot in favour of abolishing the army in a popular initiative called by the group.
Although the initiative was turned down by more than two-thirds of voters, the relative success took all observers by surprise.
But voters proved fickle: a similar initiative gained only 20 per cent approval in 2001.
Green Party politician Josef Lang, a member of the group's committee, attributes the 2001 result to the "September 11 effect" – the vote took place only three months after the terrorist attack on New York's twin towers.
At the same time, the army itself had changed, and no longer resembled what it was in the 1980s when the group was born. Its numbers had been cut by half, and its budget by 60 per cent.
The group has now changed the focus of its actions.
"War of attrition"
"At first, they made frontal attacks. But having seen that the abolition of the army pure and simple wouldn't get through, they are now conducting a war of attrition," commented Denis Froidevaux, vice president of the Swiss Officers' Society.
The war on Iraq mobilised a new generation of pacifists in 2003. Most of the group's activists are currently about the same age as the group itself.
The group has launched or supported numerous pacifist initiatives since it came into existence. In September it submitted its latest initiative, this time aimed at stopping Swiss arms exports.
"The abolition of the army remains our long term goal," Lang said. "But we have become more pragmatic. As a pacifist organisation, the group believes it is more judicious to try to keep Switzerland out of the 'war against terror'."
The movement regards one of its greatest successes as being the introduction of civilian service as an alternative to the military service which all Swiss men are expected to perform. This was added to the constitution in 1992.
"We prepared the ground for it," says Lang.
Opinions are divided as to whether the group is in fact a help or a hindrance when it comes to promoting reforms.
In the Swiss system of direct democracy, pressure groups play an important role in raising issues that might otherwise not get discussed, even though their initiatives are often turned down by voters.
Social Democrat parliamentarian Michel Béguelin considers that the group acts as a spur, drawing attention to army "excesses".
However, the centre parties disagree.
Christiane Langenberger of the Radical Party said it was more likely to have the opposite effect. "In Parliament we are already sufficiently critical of the army," she noted.
The army itself refused to comment.
"It is a political grouping which wants to see the army abolished. We have nothing to say on the matter," said a spokesman.
swissinfo with agencies
Group for Switzerland without an Army
The group is a political movement founded in 1982 with the aim of launching popular initiatives calling for the abolition of the army.
Its first initiative on the issue in 1989 surprised observers by the support it gained – about one third of votes cast. A similar vote in 2001 did much less well.
The group has campaigned against Swiss arms exports and Switzerland's supply of weapons to countries engaged in conflict.
It has about 20,000 members and supporters.
The Swiss army
Switzerland has a militia army, which means that the men and even most of the officers are not professionals.
Swiss men perform basic training lasting between 18 and 21 weeks at the age of about 20, and subsequently have to serve a set number of days over a period of several years.
Conscientious objectors can apply to do civilian service, which lasts half as long again as military service.
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