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EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

It is common knowledge that Switzerland is a neutral country, but not everyone knows how this came about and what exactly “neutrality” means.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?
Switzerland is proudly neutral.Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

If you ask a random person to name a neutral country, chances are they won’t say “Turkmenistan”.

The reason is that many people may not even know that this central-Asian nation is indeed neutral, along with Finland, Malta, Ireland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Sweden, and Vatican City.

In most people’s minds, the word “neutrality” is synonymous with Switzerland, in much the same way as cheese, chocolate, and watches.

In this sense, Switzerland may well be the world’s most famous neutral nation, which means it must remain impartial, not take sides in any international conflicts, and its forces can only be used for self-defence and internal security.

At least this was the idea behind the country’s earliest move toward neutrality in the 16th century. Interestingly, it was not driven by any pacifist inclinations but by desire for self-preservation and survival.

This is what history tells us:

It may come as a surprise that in the Middle Ages Switzerland was a nation of warriors and mercenaries, who fought on the side of those who paid them the most.

In one such conflict, which took place in September of 1515,  Swiss soldiers fought and lost against France in the Battle of Marignano, in present-day Italy.

That was, of course, long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers fought with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

Nevertheless, the Swiss lost that battle, and decided to cut their losses and avoid further involvement in bloody wars.

They managed to stay out of trouble until 1798, when Napoleon invaded the country, making it part of the marauding French empire and compromising its neutrality.

However, after Napoleon was famously defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared at the Congress of Vienna the same year. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarreling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

Swiss Vatican guards started out as mercenaries hired to protect Pope Julius II in 1505. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

More history of Switzerland’s neutrality can be found in this government report (in English).

Has the policy of neutrality been good for Switzerland?

In many ways, it has been a double-edged sword: on one hand, it allowed Switzerland to stay out of armed conflicts that devastated much of Europe, including both world wars. But on the other, it created some incongruous situations.

For instance, in the 1990s, Switzerland has sent its troops on peacekeeping missions to conflict zones but, unlike soldiers from other nations serving in this capacity, the Swiss could not carry weapons (which is somewhat of a paradox, given that guns are as ubiquitous in Switzerland as chocolate and edelweiss).

EXPLAINED: Understanding Switzerland’s obsession with guns

This was the case in Kosovo in 1999, where in the middle of an armed conflict Swiss troops were walking around empty-handed and had to be protected by their (armed) German and Austrian counterparts.

This situation proved to be an embarrassment to people back in Switzerland who in 2001 finally voted in a referendum to allow soldiers taking part in international peacekeeping missions to carry weapons.

Political neutrality had also kept Switzerland out of the United Nations for decades, even though a number of UN agencies are headquartered in Geneva and the country was one of the largest contributors to the UN budget —all that without having any say in the decision making process.

That too changed in 2002, when the Swiss voted at last to join the organisation.  

The United Nations building in Geneva. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Do the Swiss want to remain neutral?

For tiny Switzerland, remaining neutral in the 21st-century world of multilateralism is becoming more challenging, especially when surrounded on all sides by one of the largest international political alliances of all —the European Union.

Still, as various studies and surveys have consistently shown, for the vast majority of the people, neutrality is a source of national pride and identity, and it is strongly linked to their sense of independence self-determination.

For this reason it is unlikely that Switzerland will want to change the status quo, at least for the time being.

The Swiss just can’t remain neutral about that.

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Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

Foreigners living in Switzerland may be wondering what their basic rights are compared to Swiss citizens. The answer depends on several factors.

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

There are currently 2.2 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — roughly 25 percent of the population.

Simply put, everyone residing in the country legally, regardless of nationality, has the same basic constitutional rights as Swiss citizens do — for instance, the right to human dignity, free expression, equality, protection against discrimination, and freedom of religion, among other rights.

They also have the right to fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, in terms of wages, work hours, and other employment-related matters.

As the law states, cantons and municipalities “shall create favourable regulatory conditions for equal opportunities and for the participation of the foreign population in public life”. 

If they are arrested or imprisoned, foreigners also have the right to fair trial and to the same treatment as their Swiss-citizen counterparts, including legal representation and due process of the law.

Even those who are subject to deportation have the right to be represented by a lawyer.

And the Swiss legal system doesn’t necessarily favour Swiss litigants over foreign ones. For instance, in some cases, foreign nationals whose request for naturalisation was denied but who then appealed the decision, eventually won.

The most recent example is a man in the canton of Schwyz whose application for citizenship was rejected due to a minor car accident, but a Swiss court overturned the decision, ordering that the man be naturalised this year.

READ MORE : Foreigner wins appeal after being denied Swiss citizenship due to car accident

Where the rights and privileges differ between foreigners and Swiss, as well as among foreigners themselves, is when it comes to work and residency rights.

 EU / EFTA nationals

People from these countries, who have B or C permanent residence status have sweeping rights in terms of residence, employment (including self-employment), and home ownership.

The only right that is denied them is the vote, though some cantons and communes grant their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians. 

READ MORE : Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

Apart from the limit on political participation, EU / EFTA nationals can live in Switzerland in pretty much the same way as their Swiss counterparts.

There are, however, some groups of foreigners whose rights are curtailed by the Swiss government.

Third country nationals

They are people from countries outside Europe, for whom various restrictions are in place in terms of entry, employment and residency.

For instance, their “future employer must prove that there is no suitable person to fill the job vacancy from Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA state”, according to State Secretariat for Migration. This could be seen as a discrimination of sorts, but that’s what the law says.

Once employed, however, “their salary, social security contributions and the terms of employment must be in accordance with conditions customary to the region, the profession and the particular sector” — in other words, no discrimination is allowed.

Another area where non-European foreigners are disadvantaged in comparison with their EU / EFTA counterparts is home ownership. While third-nation B-permit holders can buy a property to live in (but not rent out), they can’t purchase a holiday or second home without a special permission.

To sum up, all foreigners in Switzerland, regardless of their status, are entitled to fundamental “human” rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from discrimination in life and employment.

They also have the right to legal protection and representation during litigation or other court actions.

However they don’t have the right to participate in the country’s political process and, depending on their status, have equal access to residency and employment.