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  1. Switzerland has imposed sanctions on Russia due to the conflict in Ukraine
  2. "Swiss set to match EU sanctions if China invades Taiwan — agency chief"

These cases look like Switzerland de facto abandoning¹ their policy of neutrality. Why did they do so? Have similar cases happened in recent history?

¹ Switzerland actually claims that they didn't abandon their neutrality in a strict sense of the term because it "does not favour any warring party militarily", which might seem to be a valid argument, yet, if they wanted to remain 100% neutral, they wouldn't have recognized one side of the conflict as wrong and imposed sanctions.

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    With this logic one could say they were not neutral in the Second World War too. Were they? Depends on your definition but they could do things that others could not do because they let the Nazis do this and that. But they also had more freedom and could do things the Nazis might not have wanted. Neutrality is a difficult term to define in this case because is there such a thing as entirely neutral? Perhaps not.
    – Pryftan
    Sep 5, 2022 at 21:05
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    Even China itself comply some sanctions against Russia. The decision is often about whose retaliation hurts more, and not just a country will (56% of the population is hardly the *vast" majority, which also means that almost half of the country were against imposing the sanctions)
    – The Norman
    Sep 6, 2022 at 7:57
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    When a bully punches another kid unconscious, you are not neutral if you idly stand by and do nothing. You choose a side by doing nothing. True neutrality is a hoax, all actions have consequences, even abstaining from doing something has a consequence.
    – Polygnome
    Sep 7, 2022 at 8:50
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    @Polygnome - Sure, one can make the statement that neutrality is equivalent to choosing a side, but that does not make that statement true. You point out that all actions have consequences, but neutrality does not have the same consequences as actually choosing a side. Is it the same for India to not impose sanctions on Russia as to send a million soldiers to invade Ukraine? Of course not. Similarly, in the case that you present, the consequences of two people trying to beat someone unconscious, versus one person trying to do so, could be completely different.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 7, 2022 at 12:36
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    To give another example, in elections, if a person was originally going to vote for party A, opting for neutrality in the sense of not voting is mathematically only half as good for party B as if that person actually came over to their side. Neutrality is rarely practically equivalent to choosing a side, but of course, claiming that it is continues to be popular, because, well, everyone wants people to choose their own.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 7, 2022 at 12:44

3 Answers 3

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If they wanted to remain 100% neutral.

They don't.

They make it quite clear in your linked press release that they do not consider this to be a symmetric conflict in which both sides are equally culpable. The Swiss position is that "Russia's military aggression against Ukraine over the last several weeks constitutes a gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law, including the prohibition of the use of force." and Switzerland intends to use such influence that it has to aid Ukraine and hinder Russian aggression.

However, they do this within a framework of military neutrality. They have not allowed Swiss arms to be sold to Ukraine or Russia. Although they do not claim to be economically neutral, when setting sanctions, they have been mindful of the desire to maintain the Swiss credibility as a militarily neutral state.

It is worth noting that Switzerland has previously applied sanctions to Serbia/Yugoslavia, and has either adopted, adopted in part, or taken steps to ensure that Switzerland was not used to circumvent sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

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First, the Swiss government differentiates between neutrality and impartiality (March 2022 white paper):

Neutrality is a behaviour in an international armed conflict, not a stance on specific issues. It is not neutrality of opinion. Neutrality does not mean impartiality: even a neutral state has the right to political opinions and cooperation, and can stand up for its fundamental values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights

Second, sanctions are being imposed because the Swiss people wanted those sanctions put in place (late March poll).

A new poll published today shows that a majority (56%) of the Swiss population would be in favour of tougher sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, even if it results in higher energy costs in Switzerland.

The Swiss government’s strategy has the support of the public, according to the poll results. Some 65% of people said Switzerland was right to fully adopt EU sanctions against Russia.

The Swiss would also like to see further action. A majority (56%) would back tougher sanctions even if they had consequences for the supply of energy, the poll found. Over 50% said they would support such measures even if they meant a significant increase in the price of energy or cost of living. However, 58% of people said they would be against more sanctions if they lead to higher taxes that was spent on Swiss defence.

I don't want to speculate overmuch, but it might be worthwhile to think about Switzerland's reasons for neutrality. In the past, Switzerland's immediate neighborhood (Europe) was full of states frequently warring against each other for various reasons. Now that same neighborhood is at peace with itself which may be changing the neutrality calculus somewhat, at least in some cases.

A later poll (July) confirmed a more calculated look at neutrality:

Eighty-nine percent still support the principle of neutrality, but for the first time in more than 20 years, support has declined — down eight percent since January.

“Only 58 percent of the Swiss population remains convinced that neutrality protects Switzerland from international conflicts, compared to 69 percent in January,” said a government statement on the survey.

There is also a reputational cost, at least in the Western sphere of influence, for not pushing back about what is widely seen, in the West, as naked aggression by Russia. Switzerland has in the past been criticized for its tendency to take in and shield dirty money linked to human right abusing regimes. So not dragging its feet overmuch may also be in its self-interest, especially if oligarch money is involved.

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Have the Swiss abandoned neutrality?

To answer this question, we must understand what Swiss neutrality means. A first important distinction is between neutrality as a matter of international law, and neutrality as a tool of public policy:

Neutrality as a matter of international law is defined in the Hague Conventions (specifically Hague V and Hague XIII). That is, in international law, neutrality is about not participating or supporting warfare.

Neutrality as a policy tool is much more fluid. Notably, the Swiss constitution mentions it only in passing. Specifically, it is neither listed as an aim of the confederation:

Art. 2 Aims

  1. The Swiss Confederation shall protect the liberty and rights of the people and safeguard the independence and security of the country.
  2. It shall promote the common welfare, sustainable development, internal cohesion and cultural diversity of the country.
  3. It shall ensure the greatest possible equality of opportunity among its citizens.
  4. It is committed to the long term preservation of natural resources and to a just and peaceful international order

nor listed as a goal of its foreign policy:

Art. 54 Foreign relations

  1. Foreign relations are the responsibility of the Confederation.
  2. The Confederation shall ensure that the independence of Switzerland and its welfare is safeguarded; it shall in particular assist in the alleviation of need and poverty in the world and promote respect for human rights and democracy, the peaceful co-existence of peoples as well as the conservation of natural resources.
  3. It shall respect the powers of the Cantons and protect their interests.

The only mention is this:

Art. 185 External and internal security

  1. The Federal Council takes measures to safeguard external security, independence and neutrality of Switzerland.

basically putting the Federal Council in charge of this topic, which is apparently part of maintaining external security. This gives the Federal Council considerable leeway in defining what, exactly, neutrality means in any particular situation, as long as he respects the Hague Conventions, and pursues the goals quoted above.

In exercising this discretion, the Federal Council has deemed that its constitutional goals of "a just and peaceful international order", and "promoting respect for human rights and democracy and the peaceful co-existence of peoples" are better served by a different policy tool.

Or in the words of Ignazio Cassis, President of the Swiss Conferation and Federal Councillor of Foreign Affairs: (translation by me):

77 years after the end of World War 2, we are again witnessing war on our continent. Russia's attack against an independent European nation is an attack on sovereignty, an attack on liberty, an attack on democracy, an attack on civilians and the institutions of a free nation. This is unacceptable: Unacceptable under international law, unacceptable politically, and unacceptable morally. Accordingly, the Federal Council has decided to adopt the sanctions of the European Union in their entirety.

Why did we make this decision? Other democracies must be able to rely on Switzerland. Nations protecting international law must be able to rely on Switzerland. Nations upholding human rights must be able to rely on Switzerland. The Federal Council has considered the question of neutrality from this perspective. To play into the hands of an aggressor is not neutral. As signatory and depositary state of the Geneva convention, we have a responsibility to humanitarian law, and must not stand by while it is trampled underfoot.

This doesn't change Switzerland's willingness to actively contribute to a peaceful resolution of this conflict. But dialoque can only begin once the spiral of violence has been broken, and given way for a genuine will for peace talks. Ultimately, the sanctions support the goal of getting the Russian leadership to change its thinking.

To conclude, Switzerland has not "abandoned" its neutrality. It remains neutral in the legal sense, and continues to wield neutrality as a tool to pursue its goals in the world. But just how this tool is used depends, as always, on the circumstances at hand.

Further Reading

If you'd like to read more about the varied history of Swiss neutrality, ranging from an extremely broad interpretation that blocked Switzerland from joining pretty much all international organizations (even the United Nations!) in the 1950s, to a very narrow interpretation that allowed pretty much unchecked trade with the axis powers in the 1940s, even violating the Hague Conventions, the article Neutralität im Historischen Lexikon der Schweiz is a good starting point. Sadly only available for those reading German, French, or Italian, or equipped with a good machine translation tool :-)

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