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Switzerland's parliament is considering a retooling of Swiss neutrality


Switzerland's parliament today will consider something that was once unthinkable, a retooling of Swiss neutrality. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, the reason is Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Geneva is surrounded by the snowcapped Alps. Boats ply the gentle waters of its Lac Leman. Over the last century, this tranquil city has been the setting for peace talks and arms treaties. It's where the Red Cross was born and the Geneva Conventions penned. Switzerland has played an outsized role in resolving world conflicts because of its neutrality.


CLAUDE BUCHWALDER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The Buchwalders are strolling along the lake. Ninety-year-old Claude Buchwalder remembers his country's neutrality in World War II. This time it's joined EU economic sanctions against Russia.

BUCHWALDER: I don't any longer believe in the neutrality because we are on one side. You see?

BEARDSLEY: Is this good or bad?

BUCHWALDER: It's both.

BEARDSLEY: Switzerland has denied permission to Germany, Spain and Denmark to reexport Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine. But the Swiss parliament could vote to waive those reexport restrictions in its spring session, which convenes today. I meet Swiss Socialist parliamentarian Laurence Fehlmann Rielle in a Geneva cafe. She'll be part of the intense debate. She says her country backed economic sanctions because neutrality doesn't mean indifference. But allowing Swiss-made weapons onto the battlefield is another matter.

LAURENCE FEHLMANN RIELLE: It's a more touchy problem. We are Socialists who are normally on the pacifist side. That's the problem, is that - should we make an exception because Ukraine has been attacked? Or that we must be very strict and say no.

CENNI NAJY: A sanction is a political decision, but clearly, it's an important political decision.

BEARDSLEY: Cenni Najy specializes in foreign policy at the University of Geneva. He says Switzerland can technically remain neutral under international law while applying sanctions or dropping reexport bans, though it may not be perceived that way.

NAJY: If you decide to align on these EU and U.S. sanctions regime, you are basically seen as an aligned country in the eyes of Russia, in the eyes of China.

BEARDSLEY: Swiss neutrality dates back to the 1815 Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic wars in Europe. It was further defined in the Hague Convention of 1907, which says a neutral state can't directly export weapons to a country at war.

YVES NIDEGGER: So we are neutral or we are not. There's not a little bit of neutrality.

BEARDSLEY: Yves Nidegger is a parliamentarian with the conservative Swiss People's Party, the largest in parliament. He says neutrality is an integral part of Swiss identity and should not be whittled away. His party wants to hold a referendum to inscribe a clear definition of neutrality in the Swiss constitution.

NIDEGGER: In my opinion, we would lose a lot because this tiny, almost insignificant country on the Alps has this tremendously strong soft power and influence over the world.


BEARDSLEY: In Geneva's old city, parents watch their children ride a merry-go-round. Mother Alice Denoyer is among the 55% of Swiss who think third countries should be allowed to send Swiss weapons to Ukraine.

ALICE DENOYER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Being neutral doesn't mean you're for peace," she says. "I would like Switzerland to be more courageous."

MARCO SASSOLI: Hello. How are you?

BEARDSLEY: But Marco Sassoli says, in the end, it doesn't really matter what the Swiss think. He's a professor of international law at the University of Geneva.

SASSOLI: What counts is not whether you believe you're neutral but whether the others believe. And both President Biden and President Putin declared Switzerland is no longer neutral.

BEARDSLEY: Biden was happy, and Putin was angry, he says, but they agreed. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.