Switzerland one step closer to UN Security Council seat despite neutrality concerns

Switzerland's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council was strongly backed by lawmakers on Thursday, despite fears it could "torpedo" Swiss neutrality.

The United Nations logo, seen up close. Photo: ANGELA WEISS / AFP
The United Nations logo, seen up close. Photo: ANGELA WEISS / AFP

Thursday’s vote comes with Switzerland’s traditional neutral stance already thrown into question by its imposition of sanctions on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

The National Council lower house of parliament voted by 125 to 56 to support the Security Council candidacy — a move that has consistently been opposed by the country’s largest party, the populist, right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP).

READ MORE: Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

Switzerland looks set to join the Security Council for two years from 2023.

The wealthy Alpine nation and Malta are the only candidates for the two seats allocated to western Europe up for election in New York in June.

The Swiss government believes Security Council membership will strengthen the country’s international standing.

President Ignazio Cassis insisted that Switzerland’s neutrality was not at risk, the domestic ATS news agency reported.

“Our candidacy is in the interest of Switzerland as much as in that of the world,” he told lawmakers.

“A neutral state listening to minorities, we are always looking for compromise.

READ MORE: How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already changed Switzerland

“As the saying goes: The absent are always in the wrong. You have to be at the table to take part.”

Some in Switzerland suggest that, in a Security Council vote on the use of force, even a Swiss abstention would, by definition, be taking a position.

The SVP maintained its vehement opposition to the plan.

“Entry to the Security Council would torpedo Swiss neutrality. It is an uncalculated risk for our country,” said lawmaker Roger Koppel, putting the party’s case to parliament. “A neutral ground is necessary to allow the parties to a conflict to speak to each other without arms.”

Switzerland has long been the site of diplomatic tete-a-tetes.

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a summit in Geneva last June. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart Antony Blinken held ultimately fruitless talks on Ukraine in Geneva on January 21.

The 1985 Geneva Summit brought together then-US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for landmark talks on the Cold War-era arms race.

Koppel slammed Bern’s recent decision to adopt the neighbouring European Union’s sanctions on Russia, saying neutrality implied avoiding economic conflict.

Switzerland only joined the United Nations in 2002.

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Biden accidentally congratulates Switzerland on joining NATO

NATO's latest expansion momentarily got really interesting with even Switzerland about to join -- at least for a second in a Joe Biden verbal slip Thursday.

Biden accidentally congratulates Switzerland on joining NATO

At a press conference marking the end of the NATO summit in Madrid, the US president recounted the behind-the-scenes talks putting militarily non-aligned Finland and Sweden on track to join the Western alliance in a major rebuff to Russia.

Except he misspoke, saying there was a plan to call the leader of famously neutral Switzerland about joining. Quickly realising his stumble, Biden said: “Switzerland, my goodness.”

“I’m getting really anxious here about expanding NATO,” he joked, before adding for the record: “Sweden.”

Biden, 79, has long been known for his verbal gaffes during a political career spanning half a century.

How much is too much? Understanding Switzerland’s cooperation with NATO

Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

NATO, an acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was created in 1949 as a response to the militarisation and expansion of the Soviet Union.

Two years earlier, a period known as the Cold War began — a state of conflict between western countries and the Soviet bloc that lasted for more than four decades.

NATO was formed in that geopolitical context to provide collective security against the rising threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Switzerland’s reason for not joining the military alliance at that time or since then was that such a move would be incompatible with the country’s longstanding tradition of neutrality — the same tradition that had kept Switzerland from joining the United Nations until 2002, and is still keeping it from joining the European Union.

EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

Specifically, what has kept Switzerland from becoming a member is the Article 5 of the NATO treaty — the principal of collective defence, implying that an attack on one member is viewed as an attack on all.

Switzerland’s principle of “armed neutrality” means the country can defend itself against an invasion, but it can’t engage militarily to defend other nations in an armed conflict.