Years ago, not long after I arrived in Switzerland, I was idly watching a British sitcom in which a young couple were squabbling. She wouldn’t meet in his favourite pub, he wouldn’t go to her cosy wine bar. “I think we should meet on neutral territory,” she suggested. “What, Switzerland?” he asked.
We had a laugh about that; it’s a fairly typical Anglo-Saxon joke. Neutrality, and maybe even Switzerland, are places you’re not very interested in, and you’ll only go there if other, more desirable options, become impossible.
I’ve been thinking about that recently, as the debate over Swiss neutrality intensifies because of the war in Ukraine. It’s interesting to watch the soul-searching going on here. As one Swiss journalist put it to me, “How can we stay neutral in a war like Ukraine? It’s so clear who is the good guy and who is the bad guy”.
In fact, after some hesitation, the Swiss government did sign up to all the sanctions, and very clearly said it viewed Russia’s invasion as a violation of international law. Other countries saw this as Switzerland abandoning its neutrality, but that’s not quite right. The legal definition of neutrality prohibits the Swiss from intervening militarily in foreign conflicts, but doesn’t forbid sanctions.
Is neutrality useful?
Thinking about this prompted me to get some neutrality and security experts round the table for our latest episode of the Inside Geneva podcast. Not just to take a fresh look at the Swiss position, but to examine the concept of neutrality more broadly. After all, Switzerland is not the only neutral country in the world. What’s more, the United Nations, and in particular its humanitarian organisations, operate on a fundamental policy of neutrality and impartiality.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused shock, and doubt. The assumptions we had about global security have changed, almost overnight. Europe’s hard-won peace, after so many centuries of conflict, looks very fragile. So, is there a point to staying neutral right now?
“I don’t think neutrality becomes redundant in a situation like this,” Sara Hellmüller of Geneva’s Graduate Institute told Inside Geneva. “I think in the current situation of increasing polarisation, and massive [military] mobilisation, in the long term we need a political solution, and neutral states can play an important role.”
Jean-Marc Rickli of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy added: “Neutrality doesn’t mean that you don’t have an opinion about what’s going on. It just means that you maintain equidistance between the warring parties.”
The benefit of this, both Hellmüller and Rickli suggest, is that at some point those who have maintained that “equidistance” can become honest brokers in peace negotiations.
NATO for neutrals?
But other neutrals in Europe are having a radical re-think. Sweden and Finland, looking anxiously eastwards, have applied to join NATO. Membership would, Rickli believes, end their neutrality, because NATO’s Article 5 stipulates that, should one member be attacked, all others will view that as an attack on the whole of NATO and will take the necessary military action.
Switzerland, and, so far, Austria, are not considering such a step, but Switzerland is beefing up its defence spending, and some politicians at least are suggesting closer cooperation, perhaps joint exercises, with NATO.
As analyst Daniel Warner points out, “neutrality changes over time, it’s not written in stone. Not only does it have legal and political implications, it also has moral implications”.
Morally then, and in many ways politically, western Europe, including the neutrals, are united in their condemnation of Russia’s aggression. But militarily they are in different places: some, like the United Kingdom, sending a great deal of heavy weaponry; Germany, fearful of escalation to a possibly nuclear conflict, hesitating; some neutrals joining NATO, others ruling that out, for now.
And what about the United Nations?
But if, as we are told, we are living in a new, radically polarised world, in which even neutral countries are joining big military alliances, where does that leave the United Nations? Born out of the ashes of the last great war in Europe, the UN was designed to prevent conflict. Obviously, the decades since the Second World War have shown that vision to be wildly optimistic, and in relation to the conflict in Ukraine, some view the UN as particularly powerless.
Hellmüller, however, argues that to dismiss the UN right now would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It remains, she points out, the forum in which all nations, including Russia, continue to play a role, in which they meet, discuss, and negotiate. “Open communication channels are a condition for embarking on the road towards a peace agreement,” she told Inside Geneva.
Russia’s veto at the UN security council has prevented UN sanctions, or condemnation of alleged war crimes. But other bodies, notably the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council, have taken significant action against Russia.
The UN Secretary General has visited both Moscow and Kyiv and, according to aid agencies, was instrumental in finally getting a humanitarian evacuation of Mariupol.
Pressure to take sides
In fact, the humanitarian actors – the UN agencies as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – have been working extremely hard, with some success despite the huge challenges, since the start of the conflict.
But here again the notion of neutrality has come under pressure. Humanitarian workers pride themselves on their neutrality and impartiality – the agencies are there to help civilians suffering because of the conflict, whether they are Ukrainian, Russian or, as so often in eastern Ukraine, a bit of both.
Unfortunately, perhaps understandably, the sheer violence of Russia’s attack – the fact, as my Swiss colleague said, that it’s clear who the bad guy is – has led some in Ukraine to expect humanitarian agencies to take sides – with the perceived good guy.
When the ICRC said it hoped to establish a presence in the Russian city of Rostov, just over the border from Ukraine, in order to assist civilians fleeing the conflict, there was fury on Ukrainian social media, with false accusations that the ICRC was assisting forcible evacuations, something it never does.
So great was the pressure that the ICRC issued an unprecedented statement warning that a massive “misinformation campaign” was “putting at risk Red Cross staff and volunteers on the ground and could jeopardise our access to people in need of urgent aid”.
The ICRC rarely if ever comments publicly on what it witnesses in conflicts. But the ICRC “is very often the only organisation to get access to prisoners of war”, Rickli reminded us, and it maintains contacts with all sides in order, for example, to agree humanitarian deliveries, or humanitarian evacuations of civilians who do want to leave.
“So here you have a very good example of how sometimes neutrality from a moral perspective could be considered questionable,” said Rickli. “But then you have to look at what is the objective, and the objective is to get access to people who are in need, whichever region they are in.”
So the humanitarian concept of neutrality has, most agree, definite and immediate benefits in the heat of conflict, when innocent civilians are suffering from lack of food, medicine, or shelter, or when families of missing soldiers desperately need to know their fate.
But in the long term? Here too Hellmüller and Rickli see benefits, even if, right now, a neutral stance may not be the most popular. As Hellmüller reminded us, all wars end at the negotiating table and there, she believes, “neutrality can be an enabling factor”.
And Rickli pointed out that a neutral country, Switzerland, has represented the United States in Iran for over 40 years – a role that has certainly helped to ease tensions between the two.
In relation to Ukraine, “there will come a time when negotiations will have to take place”, said Rickli. “And neutral states are very well positioned to offer mediation, to offer the possibility to rebuild bridges.”
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