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Swiss seek to adapt neutrality to new political realities

Switzerland's policy of neutrality has not prevented the deployment of peacekeepers abroad

(Keystone)

Switzerland has re-affirmed it will remain a neutral country, and says membership of international organisations like the United Nations and European Union, or involvement in peacekeeping operations, will not compromise its position.

The government, meeting in Bern on Wednesday, acknowledged that the traditionally strict interpretation of Swiss neutrality should be applied in a manner "more in keeping with the times".

The statement follows a working group report on the issue, which focused on Swiss policy in the 1990s, and in particular the logistical support provided by Swiss troops in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.

Political analyst, Curt Gasteyger of the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva, said the government's position reflected the fact that "the interpretation of neutrality has changed and become much more flexible".

"This has happened in view of a number of actions that Switzerland has taken, such as joining Nato's Partnership for Peace, and sending peacekeepers into Kosovo," he added.

The government said it saw no contradiction in maintaining neutrality and pushing ahead with applications to join the UN and EU - two of Switzerland's main foreign policy goals. UN membership will be put to a referendum in 2002.

The cabinet said the report complemented its foreign policy guidelines, issued last week, which foresee Switzerland playing a greater role in international affairs in the future.

Gasteyger told swissinfo that a bigger role for Switzerland in the international arena was not necessarily incompatible with its policy of neutrality.

"If one reduces neutrality to what it was originally understood to mean at the beginning of the 20th century - namely neutrality in case of war - Switzerland can participate in all sorts of activities without affecting this definition of neutrality."

Armed neutrality has been the cornerstone of Swiss foreign policy. But opponents of Switzerland's increasing, but still limited, role in foreign peacekeeping operations have claimed any military involvement abroad comprises its traditional stance.

Switzerland recently hosted a Nato Partnership for Peace (PfP) defence exercise - the first to be held in the country - but the defence minister, Adolf Ogi, made it clear that membership of PfP did not affect Swiss neutrality.

The issue is likely to come to the fore again next year when a referendum is held on arming Swiss peacekeepers abroad. They are currently unarmed, with a few exceptions.

Gasteyger believes the government will find it hard to persuade voters to approve this proposal.

"Neutrality for many Swiss citizens is something almost sacrosanct that under no circumstances should be sacrificed, even if it is not in the interests of Switzerland as such," he said.

swissinfo with agencies


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