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EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland rejected a German arms delivery to Ukraine

Switzerland has repeatedly blocked the export of everything from weapons to helmets to Ukraine, even for non-military uses. Here’s why.

Switzerland's support of Ukraine cannot include arms or even protective devices.Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Switzerland's support of Ukraine cannot include arms or even protective devices.Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

On Monday, news came to light that Switzerland had blocked a German weapons delivery to Ukraine, as it contained Swiss ammunition used in anti aircraft devices. 

Switzerland vetoed the delivery based on its commitment to neutrality, which prevents any delivery of weapons or other items which could be used in combat to countries where an active war is taking place. 

This is the case even if the items are in the possession of another country. 

Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said the delivery “must be rejected by law”. 

“Due to the duration and intensity of the fighting between Russia and Ukraine, both countries are involved in an international armed conflict” SECO wrote on Sunday. 

Sanctions on Russia: Is Switzerland still a neutral nation?

Since then, it has emerged that Switzerland has blocked a wide variety of items from being exported to Ukraine, including helmets, protective vests, footwear and medical supplies. 

More than 50 requests have been made by Ukrainian officials and other organisations based in Ukraine for the items, all of which have been rebuffed. 

Even requests for non-military uses have been denied, with a delivery of helmets to a Ukrainian fire fighting brigade vetoed. 

No export for countries at war

Switzerland’s commitment to neutrality is centred around a pledge for military neutrality, which falls only if Switzerland is attacked. 

This pledge of military neutrality does not extend to political neutrality, which allows Switzerland to support sanctions efforts on Russia. 

In late February, Switzerland announced it would join sanctions efforts on Russia, with President Ignazio Cassis arguing that by doing nothing, Switzerland would be “playing into the hands of an aggressor”. 

Switzerland’s War Materials Act includes a strict prohibition on the export of weapons to countries at war. 

READ MORE: Switzerland to impose sanctions on Russia

Swiss legal experts argue that this prohibition extends further to include defensive items such as helmets and footwear. 

According to legal analysis, Switzerland would only be allowed to export weapons or any other items to countries at war if Switzerland itself was under threat. 

Other neutral countries have however taken a different approach, with neutral Sweden already sending anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. 

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Swiss finance minister makes surprise decision to quit

Swiss Finance Minister Ueli Maurer, 71, announced he would resign at the end of the year in a surprise move on Friday after more than four decades in politics.

Swiss finance minister makes surprise decision to quit

He is the longest serving member of the Federal Council — Switzerland’s seven-member government — having been a member since January 2009. He has held the finance brief since January 2016 after seven years as the defence minister.

“I have been in politics for more than 40 years, 14 of them in the Federal Council. It is a fascinating task,” Maurer told a hastily arranged press conference.

However, “during the last year, I thought that I still have a lot of energy to do something else”, he said, announcing his resignation.

“I already have plans,” the Zurich father-of-six said, without revealing his intentions, adding that he was leaving “with one eye smiling and one eye crying”.

Maurer served twice as Switzerland’s president — which rotates annually among Federal Council members — in 2013 and 2019.

He chaired the Swiss People’s Party from 1996 to 2008. The right-wing, populist SVP has been Switzerland’s biggest party since 2003.

“Without Ueli Maurer, the SVP would never have become the country’s leading political force,” Le Temps newspaper said.

The Tages-Anzeiger daily said he was “one of the most versatile Swiss politicians of recent decades, unpredictable and agile”.

The election of his successor on the Federal Council is expected to take place on December 7. Ministers are elected by parliament.

The major parties share out the seven seats according to a so-called “magic formula” which has evolved over time.

The SVP, the centre-left Socialist Party and the centre-right Liberals have two ministers each, with the centre-right Centre party allocated one.

The left-wing Green Party hopes to secure a first-ever seat with a strong performance in the 2023 parliamentary elections.