BERN — Vaporized. That's what some say will happen to Switzerland's defense industry if an initiative launched by the Socialist Party strikes its target.
In a referendum June 8, Swiss citizens will vote on perhaps the most restrictive weapons-export ban in history. They will decide whether to prohibit exports of war materiel not just to rogue nations, but to countries in good standing in the international community, including those in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
What's more, the ban includes "dual use" products such as airplane engines, computer chips, chemicals, and grinding machines that could be used either to make ammunition or steak knives.
With such potentially sweeping restrictions, Switzerland's machine, chemical, and aeronautics industries are up in arms. At present, those opposed to the ban and those promoting it appear to be neck-and-neck in the fight to win public support.
If passed, the ban would threaten about 365,000 jobs in the machine and aeronautics industries, says Heinrich Christen, spokesman for the Zurich-based Swiss Society of Machinists. In Switzerland, weapons exports amounted to about $702 million in 1987, but dropped to about $170 million in 1996, according to the Swiss Federal Bureau of Statistics.
While Switzerland has never been a leading international weapons exporter, its arms have ended up in what some have seen as rather embarrassing situations.
The Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus has been the subject of scrutiny many times. Pilatus manufactures and exports PC-7 and PC-9 aircraft fitted with anchors under the wings to which bombs, rockets, and missiles can be attached. The planes have been used in military engagements in South Africa, Burma, Guatemala, Mexico, and Angola.
The initiative runs counter to a trend of countries trying to hang on their share of a diminishing arms markets. But the Socialist Party says it is necessary. "It's true that if it passes it won't change many things in the world," says Jean-Franois Steart, a Socialist Party spokesman. "But to say that if we don't sell the arms, someone else will is a weak argument. Someone has to take the first step."
Mr. Steart says claims that the initiative would put thousands of Swiss out of work are unjustified since the Swiss Army and its thousands of reserve troops still would need to be equipped.
One argument supporting the initiative concerns bolstering Switzerland's neutral-country status, which is jealously guarded. If Swiss weapons continue to end up in military situations, this status could be threatened, argues Andr Duvillard, who chaired a federally appointed committee last fall investigating whether Pilatus should be subject to an export ban.
According to international law, a neutral country becomes a belligerent if it exports weapons to one party in an armed conflict. That could provide the basis for other countries to justify international embargoes against Switzerland for violating codes of neutrality, Mr. Duvillard adds.
SWITZERLAND'S neutrality was established at the Vienna Congress of 1815, and since then the country has taken great efforts to protect its neutral status. In this century, Switzerland managed to stay out of both world wars. But, as has been revealed in recent months, Switzerland escaped involvement in World War II through some now highly criticized arrangements with Nazi Germany.
The Socialist Party views the weapons-export ban as a way for Switzerland to gain back some of its lost credibility as a neutral. But in the end, Switzerland's sluggish economy could decide the outcome of the referendum. At a time when unemployment is sky high by Swiss standards - about 5.4 percent - voters may be reluctant to do anything that appears to threaten jobs.