Starting in 2012, only residential buildings with more than 38 apartments will be required to have fallout shelters in their basements, the Swiss government said in a statement.

"/> Starting in 2012, only residential buildings with more than 38 apartments will be required to have fallout shelters in their basements, the Swiss government said in a statement.

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Swiss cutting back on nuclear fallout shelters

Starting in 2012, only residential buildings with more than 38 apartments will be required to have fallout shelters in their basements, the Swiss government said in a statement.

Swiss cutting back on nuclear fallout shelters
Null Stern Hotel

The change is significant, since until now any building with more than eight apartments was forced to include an area to protect residents from nuclear war.

To compensate for the coming shortfall, all new bunkers will have to be capable of housing at least 25 people each.

Nuclear bunkers in private homes are one of the peculiarities that have defined Switzerland for over half a century. It is said to be the only country in the world with the capacity to shelter almost all of its 7.8 million population.

The country is currently home to some 300,000 nuclear refuges in private homes, schools and hospitals. Additionally, there are 2,500 public fallout shelters, some of which can hold hundreds of even thousands of people. In total, there is enough protection for more than 95 percent of the population, according to official data.

The change in the law approved by the government on Thursday was first suggested by the Council of States in June, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

Prior to the nuclear crisis sparked by the March disaster, the discussion had focused on whether to abolish the home bunker requirement completely and instead build shelters only in hospitals.

Switzerland’s system of emergency shelters was created in the 1960s, at the height of the paranoid Cold War era, amid fears of nuclear war between East and West.

Many bunkers are now used as storage space, and one was even converted into “the world’s first no-star hotel”. The Null Stern Hotel in Teufen closed for business in June 2010 but remains open as a museum.

In 2005, the then member of parliament Pierre Kohler presented an initiative to abolish the law that made the construction of nuclear bunkers mandatory in private homes on the grounds that these “relics of other times” made housing more expensive.

After studying his petition, the Federal Council rejected it arguing that these constructions were still useful outside of a war context, since they could also be used as safe havens from chemical accidents, natural disasters, or a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons.

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Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”