Zurich, 12 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite its long tradition of neutrality, Switzerland is considering taking a more active role in European security, particularly in peacekeeping operations under the control of international organizations.
Swiss Defense Minister Adolf Ogi said recently that Bern has no intention of abandoning its cherished neutrality, which kept it out of both world wars. But he said there is now a strong feeling in the government that Switzerland cannot stand aloof from moves to strengthen pan-European security.
Switzerland already has 60 unarmed peacekeepers deployed in Bosnia and has contributed 38 experts to the observer team in Kosovo controlled by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It has been a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace military training program since 1996.
In times of crisis, Switzerland can mobilize around 400,000 soldiers under arms. But it is a citizens' militia made up of soldiers who perform annual military training until the age of 40. There are only a few thousand regular troops. Switzerland has no standing army on which the government can draw for peacekeeping duties. The law will have to be changed if Switzerland goes ahead with its proposals for a more active international role.
Ogi said the government hopes by the end of next year to win approval for a new security policy. He said part of that plan is to create a detachment of volunteers who would sign on for at least one year of military service. He said they would be earmarked for international peace support operations, particularly in Europe.
By Swiss law and tradition, such a policy change will not only require parliamentary approval but will most likely be voted on by citizens in a referendum. Referendums on political issues already approved by parliament are common in Switzerland. In the past, such referendums have stopped the government from joining the United Nations and other international forums.
However, Ogi says he is reasonably sure that a referendum on a new security policy would be successful. He said opinion polls indicate that Switzerland is changing and that its citizens are more ready to modify long-held ideas. But he says change has to be a step-by-step process. Switzerland has been a neutral state since 1815, and many voters remain wary of political changes that could damage that status.
Swiss diplomats say there are no plans for Swiss military units backed by armor and aircraft to participate in international actions under the command of NATO or in the European force now proposed by Britain and France.
One diplomat -- who asked not to be identified -- said such action would never be approved in a referendum.
Initially, the Swiss role in peacekeeping operations would be limited to non-combat activities, such as transport, communications and medical assistance. But diplomats say there is some support for proposals that these units should carry weapons for protection, instead of having to rely on U.S. or European troops to help them if they are attacked.
Diplomats at OSCE headquarters in Vienna say they are not surprised by the Swiss discussions. They say Swiss military experts have always played an active role in negotiations on European security -- despite the country's neutrality -- and have offered valuable proposals. Switzerland plays a prominent role in the continuing discussions at the OSCE on drawing up a security model for Europe in the next century.
An OSCE spokesman (unnamed) said that in the modern Europe, even neutral countries are finding they have to become involved in protecting the peace. He said Switzerland has a role to play in peacekeeping operations without breaching its neutrality.