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Why is Switzerland’s UN Security Council bid controversial?

For the first time in its history, the government is seeking a seat on the United Nations body, overseeing world peace and security. But why are some in Switzerland critical of this move?

Why is Switzerland’s UN Security Council bid controversial?
The United Nations Security Council, the body that Switzerland seeks to join. Photo by Andrea Renault/AFP / AFP

In an unprecedented move spurred by the war in Ukraine, Switzerland has applied for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) for the years 2023 and 2024.

The National Council, the lower house of parliament, voted by 125 to 56 on March 10th to support the candidacy, believing the  membership will strengthen the country’s international standing.

“Our candidacy is in the interest of Switzerland as much as in that of the world,” Swiss President Ignazio Cassis told the lawmakers.

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

What is the role of the Security Council?

Simply put, it is to maintain world peace and security, although this mandate is decidedly not simple.

According to the UN, the Council “takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorise the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security”.

There are 15 members of the UNSC but only five are  permanent: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The other 10 seats — one of which Switzerland is seeking — are attributed on a two-year rotating basis by geographic regions. Switzerland and Malta are the only candidates for the two seats allocated to western Europe up for election in New York in June.

Why does Switzerland want a seat on the Security Council?

Switzerland did not join the UN until 2002 – more than 50 years after its founding – doing so after a referendum.

Despite not being a founding member, the Swiss city of Geneva was considered as the site of the UN, but the bid was rejected due at least in part to ties to the failed League of Nations, which was also headquartered in the western Swiss city. 

Geneva remains however the European headquarters of the UN

Since then, the country has assumed the role of an observer and member of numerous specialised agencies.

Membership in the Security Council is in Switzerland’s interest, according to the government, as it will allow the country to engage for peace and security.

“For a medium-sized export-oriented country, this is of great importance. A seat on the Security Council also improves access to important governments and allows Switzerland to make itself better heard in matters of foreign and security policy”, the Federal Council said.

And a seat on the Council is not a breach of Swiss neutrality, according to the Foreign Ministry (FDFA).

 “In the current global situation, independent voices such as that of Switzerland, which are committed to an international order based on law and can mediate between different parties, are more necessary than ever”, FDFA said.

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

Not surprisingly, Switzerland’s bid to join the UNSC is sparking controversy.

The bone of contention is the country’s neutrality — that is, the longstanding policy of non-involvement in foreign affairs.

Most MPs, however, support the government in the move, as the vote in the National Council has shown.

“It is clearly in times of crisis that the world needs, within the Security Council, to have the voice of a neutral, non-aligned country”, MP Laurent Wehrli told Switzerland’s RTS public broadcaster.

Another deputy, Charles Juillard, also noted that “our peace-building activities and our diplomatic role must also continue in international forums”.

However, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has always opposed Switzerland’s involvement in any international matters, is maintaining its staunch opposition to the plan.

“Entry to the Security Council would torpedo Swiss neutrality. It is an uncalculated risk for our country,” said SVP lawmaker Roger Koppel.

Historian and former diplomat Paul Widmer agrees that Switzerland “should not aim at a seat in the Security Council”.

“If Switzerland is faithful to its traditional neutral policy, it probably would have to abstain often from casting a vote in the Security Council. This would not be in the interest of this body, which should be strengthened and not weakened”, Widmer told The Local on Tuesday.

The abstentions would also “not be in the interest of Switzerland, which has acquired an important role as an honest broker in difficult international situations. By going into the Security Council, the danger is too big that [Switzerland] will diminish its credibility and lose its high standard as a neutral actor”, he added.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

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For members


‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine