Switzerland adjusts its law on arms re-exports

Switzerland adjusts its law on arms re-exports

Markus Häfliger

Published today at 7:30 a.m.

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Well, yes! Switzerland can provide indirect arms assistance to Ukraine. Countries like Germany, Denmark and Spain should be allowed to hand over war equipment that they once purchased in Switzerland to Volodymyr Zelensky.

This is what the Security Policy Commissions (CPS) decided, just a few days after the conference at Bürgenstock. The majority of members are in favor of adapting the law on war materials, which until now prevented re-exports. To do this, she presents a detailed bill.

This decision, which surprises public opinion, is the culmination of a drama which has lasted for a year and a half at the Federal Palace. The fact that Switzerland does not directly supply weapons to Ukraine due to its neutrality is virtually uncontested in parliament. But politicians from the PLR, the Center, the PS and the PVL now want to authorize third countries to transmit Swiss-made war equipment to kyiv.

Uniting goodwill

This has been discussed in the federal parliament for a long time, but so far all concrete proposals have failed.

A breakthrough is now just possible. In committee, there was an impasse of 10 votes to 10 and 4 abstentions. The socialist Priska Seiler Graf, national councilor and president, gave her decisive vote in favor of the bill. The favorable votes came from the PLR, the Center, the PS and the PVL, with a few dissidents.

The Zurich politician speaks of the “coalition of good will”. We “sticked together”, the bourgeoisie and the left alike had to make compromises.

The SVP voted against changing the law. From the point of view of law and neutrality, the decision is “delicate”, according to national councilor Thomas Hurter. Within the committees, representatives of the UDC are threatening to launch a referendum.

The CPS wishes to study the proposal. The National Council will decide on this subject no earlier than spring 2025. It is not certain that the majority of the group will succeed in imposing itself at the plenum of the National Council and the Council of States.

Since the start of the conflict, at least three EU countries have asked the Confederation to be able to transmit initially Swiss war equipment to Ukraine. Germany wanted to deliver ammunition for Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine, Denmark 22 Piranha wheeled grenadier tanks, and Spain two 35 mm cannons.

These states require authorization from the Federal Council for such re-exports, because they have signed so-called non-re-export declarations. Bern, however, rejected all demands, referring to the restrictive law on war materials and neutrality.

This attitude was violently criticized abroad. Defense Minister Viola Amherd said in an interview with the newspaper “Le Temps” that the Federal Council prohibited the transfer of war materials to other countries.

Detailed conditions

The ITUC formulates modalities according to which third states can in the future transmit Swiss weapons to Ukraine (or to other countries at war):

  • At least five years have passed since the declaration of non-reexport was signed.

  • The belligerent state which is to receive the weapons “makes use of its right of self-defense under international law.”

  • The UN Security Council found a violation of the principle prohibiting the use of force.

  • If the Security Council is blocked (as in the case of Ukraine), the state which purchased the weapons can transfer them, if it concludes that it is a case of self-defense under the international law. This means that the re-exporting country ultimately decides itself on the transfer of weapons.

  • The state receiving the weapons must not “gravely and systematically” violate human rights.

  • There must not be a “high risk” that the state will use weapons against the civilian population.

A list of 25 states

However, not all purchasing countries will be able to take advantage of the new paragraph of the law. Such re-exports would only be authorized for 25 Western countries named by name in the order on war materials. Saudi Arabia, for example, an important customer of the arms industry, would still not be able to re-export Swiss weapons.

The fact that the new rule also applies retroactively to arms exports made decades ago was controversial in parliament, leading to some negative votes and abstentions.

National Councilor Maja Riniker provided the impetus.

It was Aargau national councilor Maja Riniker, a member of the Liberal-Radical Party (PLR), who initially provided the impetus for the solution found. In February 2023, when the CPS was totally divided on the question of re-exports, she launched a parliamentary initiative which served as the starting point for the current bill.

Normally, it is the Federal Council which submits bills to parliament. But as the government defends a very restrictive line in terms of arms exports, the specifications were withdrawn.

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