Switzerland has eased its restrictions on arms exports – in order to save a few thousand workplaces. Critics fear that Switzerland’s credibility as an international peace broker will now suffer.
Switzerland’s army doesn’t go to war –
but its military equipment does. In 2011, Saudi Arabia used Swiss
Piranha tanks to crack down on protests in Bahrain. Libyan rebels used
Swiss ammunition against Muammar Gaddafi’s troops, and Syrian rebels
have been throwing Swiss hand grenades against President Bashar Assad’s
Only a few weeks ago, videos circulating on the internet offered
proof that Swiss sniper rifles where used against civilians on Kiev’s
Maidan square. Many died in brutal police action.
Switzerland, a neutral country at the heart of Europe known for an
active promotion of a peace policy in diplomatic forums, is in fact the
world’s fifth-largest producer of small arms. It ranks eighth in arms
exports per capita, according to the Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute (Sipri).
Last year, 34 percent of exported military equipment consisted of
ammunition. Other major exports were fire control systems, weapons and
armoured military vehicles. In all 73 percent of military exports went
to European countries.
But in 2013, Swiss arms exports dropped from 700 to 461 million Swiss
Francs (524 million dollars). The country’s three-biggest arms
producers, General Dynamics European Land Systems – Mowag, RUAG, and
Rheinmetall Air Defence sacked 415 employees.
The lobby of the 70 Swiss arms producers called for the government to act. It demanded the lifting of export restrictions.
Judging whether or not the Swiss arms industry is on decline depends
on how one reads the statistics. Ten years ago, these companies exported
less than in 2013 and long-term statistics show that the high export
values 2008-2012 were exceptional.
Further, arms exports statistics do not include “special military
goods”, a category designed for dual use goods. Under this category,
Swiss companies last year additionally exported military material worth
405 million Swiss Francs (461 million dollars).
Dismissing the alarming rhetoric of cuts and a crisis by the arms
lobby, the Swiss Peace Foundation (SPF) says the sector is
“ridiculously insignificant”, as it accounts only for 0.33 percent of
Swiss exports, and employs less than 10,000 people.
SPF director Heinz Krummenacher told IPS the Swiss arms industry
should be dissolved totally or at least produced only for the domestic
The Swiss government had tightened export restrictions in 2008. A
year later Swiss voters turned down an initiative by the pacifist Group
for Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) for a ban of Swiss arms exports.
On Mar. 6, the Swiss parliament narrowly gave in to the demands of the
arms lobby, and eased arms exports regulation drastically.
Under the former regulation, arms exports to countries known for
systematic and grave human rights violations were forbidden. Also, arms
exports to countries engaged in an internal or international, armed
conflict were not permitted. The new clause will be more elastic.
Now, permits will be denied if there is “a high risk” in the
receiving state that the military equipment will be used for serious
human rights abuses, if the country is “illegally” engaged in an
international, armed conflict or if an internal, armed conflict
prevails. The “high risk” provision especially leaves room for
The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) assesses risks of
human rights abuses in potential receiving states and issues export
permits. Alain Bovard, arms expert at Amnesty International Switzerland
is sceptical about these investigations.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen how little they help. Despite
thorough investigations, Swiss assault rifles were exported to Ukraine
and have now been used against civilians.”
In the end, it’s all about how specific criteria are checked and
assessed. “The human rights criteria hasn’t always been carefully
evaluated,” Bovard says.
Switzerland has been using post-shipment verification clauses to make
sure that delivered military equipment isn’t re-exported by the
receiving states. In practice, these clauses have often been
Boxes full of Swiss hand grenades, which were found last year in the
Syrian civil war, were originally purchased by the United Arab Emirates.
In 2011, Swiss ammunition was detected in the hands of Libyan rebels
that was originally delivered to Qatar. Both countries signed a
“It’s illusive to believe that Swiss authorities are able to control
whether exported Swiss weapons and ammunition are used for human rights
abuses,” Stefan Dietiker, secretary general of GSoA, tells IPS. “Once
they’ve left our country, they’re gone, no matter how many clauses the
purchasers sign and how many promises they make.”
Besides the material consequences of the Swiss parliament’s decision
to ease its arms exports regulation, critics stress its symbolic effect.
“The decision contradicts Switzerland’s foreign policy goals which
prioritise protection of human rights,” says Amnesty International’s
He points to Switzerland’s important role in negotiating and pushing
the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). ATT is a landmark effort to
regulate the global arms trade, which more than 100 states signed in
2013. The treaty currently awaits ratification. Switzerland has offered
to host the ATT secretariat.
“Switzerland loses credibility,” says Alain Bovard. Switzerland, he
says, must have stricter arms exports regulation than ATT’s minimum
He also worries about the country’s reputation. “Having close arms
trade ties with countries like Saudi Arabia, which systematically
violates human rights, damages Switzerland’s image.”
Economic Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann insisted through the
parliamentary debate that Switzerland would continue to keep up its
humanitarian tradition – while not neglecting its security interests.
“It’s not about surrendering the protection of human rights for the sake
of preserving work places,” he stressed.
Critics like Stefan Dietiker say Switzerland has to make up its mind.
“Ultimately, we have to decide whether we want to deliver weapons or
protect human rights.”
This report was first
by IPS Inter Press Service.