Access to civilian service will not be restricted after all

Repairing a wall: all part of civilian service Keystone / Urs Flueeler

This content was published on June 19, 2020 - 16:51

The House of Representatives has scuppered plans to make access to civilian service - the alternative to military service - more difficult. The aim of the reform had been to boost dwindling army numbers.

Earlier in the month the House of Representatives, like the Senate, had approved making access to civilian service more difficult, especially for people who have already completed part of their compulsory military service (by making them wait 12 months). But the chamber changed its mind when it came to the final vote on Friday.

Supporters of the reform, including the government, had argued that the increasing popularity of the civilian service undermined the number of conscripts in the Swiss militia army. Opponents had slammed the proposal as a purely arbitrary measure.

Pacifists and several political parties mainly on the left of the political spectrum had already announced that they would challenge the reform in a nationwide vote – a move that will now be dropped.


“This is excellent news which we were not expecting,” Fabian Fivaz of the leftwing Green Party told Swiss public television RTSExternal link. Fivaz said that the coronavirus crisis had likely contributed to a change of heart, especially among some in the centre-right. “There were around 4,000 civilian volunteers who were supporting the emergency services and hospitals. I think this had an effect on the final result,” he said.

Jacqueline de Quattro of the centre-right Radical party was concerned that military service numbers were falling. “Young people are turning away, preferring civilian service where they feel more useful. This is understandable but we still need and have the desire for an army for the defence and protection of our country,” she said.

The army needed to become more attractive: being a soldier was not just marching and being present for duty, but also learning new skills and professions. This needed to be taken into account, she said.

Civilian service alternative

Civilian service was introduced in 1992 as an option notably for conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the country’s militia army. Access to civilian service was eased in 2009, leading to a temporary surge in applications.

All able-bodied Swiss men are called up to do military service from the age of 19. If declared fit for military service – as on average two-thirds of conscripts are – the only way out is to opt for civilian community service on ethical grounds. This lasts 50% longer than military service.

Switzerland is one of only a few European countries to continue with military service (like Austria). Neighbouring France has said that it is planning to reintroduce national service for all 16-year-olds.

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