On small arms, Swiss relax neutrality

Swiss joint sponsorship of a UN anti-trafficking plan this week marks a key shift.

It has never joined the United Nations, but this Alpine country is wading into a major UN issue just as if it were a full-fledged General Assembly member.

Ahead of a two-week UN conference on illicit trafficking in small arms that got under way in New York yesterday, Switzerland said it would not attend just as an observer. It is joining France in cosponsoring a global-action plan to mark, trace, and register small arms and light weapons.

Observers here say the initiative signals a key shift in Swiss foreign policy - an effort to relax its traditional rigid stance as Europe's lonely "porcupine," with quills extended in all directions to safeguard its independence.

Laurent Goetschel, director of the Swiss Peace Foundation, sees the move as "a sign of Switzerland's declared ambition to play a more active role in international peace promotion."

A specialist in European integration policy, Professor Goetschel points out that the Swiss have traditionally played a useful mediating role behind the scenes. But now, centrist politicians here say Swiss interests call for openness, visibility, and a UN seat befitting this changing role.

Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss defended the Federal Council's (cabinet) "openness" strategy in June, telling the weekly consumer magazine Bruckenbauer that the country should join the UN "so that we can cast our vote, too, and not miss something vital for us."

This suggestion has drawn fire from political snipers, including Christoph Morgeli, a member of parliament who insists that Swiss UN membership would be "unconstitutional," violating a neutrality enshrined since 1848. The critic represents the country's largest political bloc, the conservative Swiss People's Party.

Yet, other members of the ruling grand coalition here see the future differently. "The Swiss also want to commit themselves to ideals," Mr. Deiss said in the magazine interview. "If one regards neutrality as an important topic, it's not just a strategy to protect our independence and freedom. Neutrality is also a declaration on behalf of peace."

The neutrality issue has long posed a stumbling block for the Swiss. It has kept them on the sidelines, even though Geneva has hosted both the League of Nations and the UN's European headquarters. But according to foreign ministry staff who declined to be identified, Deiss sees the time at hand to revise the Swiss notion of neutrality. The decision to speak out on the uncontrolled global spread of arms at a UN conference reflects this policy tilt.

Goetschel notes that a focal point of Swiss policy is so-called human security. It includes human rights, de-mining, and curbing abuse of small arms. "Bringing in technical advice and creativity in peace-related fields allows the country to play a more active and visible role without getting directly involved in specific political conflicts," he says.

The UN conference puts this new approach, at least figuratively, on the firing line. The more than 550 million small arms and light weapons worldwide cause some 500,000 deaths each year, and are responsible for 90 percent of casualties in armed conflicts around the world.

The Swiss foreign ministry points proudly to the just-published Small Arms Survey, 2001 (Oxford University Press) compiled by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva as a Swiss contribution, although the survey takes no position on the issues of marking, tracing, and registering championed by the Swiss and the French.

The proposal clearly targets illicit traffickers. Legitimate producers receive permission to supply arms openly and abide by marking rules in most cases. But the Small Arms Survey 2001's authors say small, private workshops and larger production lines produce illicit arms in at least 25 countries, including Brazil, Britain, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Indonesia, India, Japan, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, South Africa, and the US.

Despite past abuses - notably during the 1967 Biafra war - Swiss armsmakers have abided by reforms enacted to close earlier legal loopholes. The Small Arms Survey 2001 ranks Switzerland as a medium exporter of legal firearms, including pistols and revolvers.

The UN drafted a new protocol in Vienna, Austria, in March. It targets illegal trafficking in firearms under the UN convention against transnational organized crime. The General Assembly approved the measure a few weeks ago, and member nations may now sign it. And Switzerland - even as a mere observer - expects to shed one of its porcupine quills for use as a UN cosigner.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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