Posted by Yohanens Zewde August 03, 2012

Source Swiss World Org

1. General Introduction

1.1 CH: Confoederatio Helvetica

Switzerland in its modern form came into being in 1848. Until that time, Switzerland was not a real state, but a loose alliance of autonomous cantons whose degree of cooperation with each other varied from one period to another. Before 1848 the cantons were free to secede from the confederation if they wanted to.

Switzerland's 1848 constitution made it into a federal state, giving it a central authority that counterbalanced and limited the power of the individual cantons. Some areas, such as foreign policy, are now solely in the hands of the central government. The cantons no longer have the right to secede.

The constitution was designed to balance as fairly as possible the interests of the state as a whole with the interests of the individual cantons.

For historical reasons, Switzerland's official name is still the "Swiss Confederation". In Latin this is Confoederatio Helvetica, from which the country's international abbreviation, CH, is derived. However, this is in fact a misnomer: a confederation is an alliance of autonomous entities. Since 1848 Switzerland has been a federation: a grouping of entities with a central authority.

The word Helvetica refers to the Helvetians, one of the many Celtic tribes living in what is now Switzerland at the time of the Roman conquest.

"Switzerland is not like any other state, whether in regard to the events that have occurred there in the past several centuries, or in regard to its geographical situation, or in regard to the great differences between the customs of its various parts. Nature has made your state a federal one, and no wise man would want to flout her."

Napoleon I (1769-1821) Letter to the delegates of the Swiss cantons, 1802

1.2 The cantons

Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons. There are German-speaking and French-speaking cantons, one Italian-speakingcanton and cantons in which both German and French are spoken. In one canton (Graubünden) German, Italian andRumantsch are spoken.

The cantons vary greatly as to size and character. The canton of Geneva is virtually made up of just of one city. Some other cantons, like Uri, consist almost entirely of mountains and valleys. The cantons vary greatly in size and in population density. Basel-Town, with its 37 km2 (14 square miles) has almost as many inhabitants (184,950) as the largest canton, Graubünden, whose 192,621 inhabitants are spread across 7,105 km2 (2,743 square miles) and 150 valleys. The canton of Zurich has 1,373,068 inhabitants, while the entire population of some other cantons would merely fill a small football stadium. Appenzell Inner-Rhodes, for example, has a total of 15,688. Not all the cantons are single territorial entities: some have small exclaves completely surrounded by the territory of other cantons.

Some of the cantons have deep historical roots as autonomous entities within Switzerland; others either joined later, or split off from existing cantons. The newest is the canton of Jura, which separated from the canton of Bern in 1979.

The composition of Switzerland is not fixed in stone. For example, in 2002 the citizens of Geneva and Vaud were invited to vote on whether their cantons should merge - although they overwhelmingly rejected the move. 

There are also some communes which want to change cantons. In a celebrated case in 1996, the whole country was called tovote on whether the village of Vellerat, with a population of 70, should be allowed to leave canton Bern and join canton Jura. Its wish was granted.

1.3 Role of the cantons

Each canton has its own constitution, its government, its parliament, its courts and its laws, though they must, of course, be compatible with those of the Confederation. The cantons enjoy a great deal of administrative autonomy and freedom of decision-making. They have independent control over their education systems and social services, and each has its own police force. Each canton also sets its own level of taxation.

In two of the smaller cantons - Appenzell Inner-Rhodes and Glarus - the people meet annually in a popular assembly, the Landsgemeinde, where each citizen can vote personally on local issues.

In the other cantons decisions are taken by elected delegates.

Economic and political developments in recent years mean that many of these local variations are now felt as a hindrance. Workers are more mobile and companies are doing business over wider areas. For this reason, and in line with the regionalisation policy of the European Union - although Switzerland is not a member - the federal authorities in 1999 grouped the cantons into seven macro regions, each focussed on a specific urban centre.

Regional intergovernmental conferences deal with matters of importance to their particular region.

The directors of departments at cantonal level - such as education - meet in the relevant cantonal directors' conferences to discuss coordination beween them.

In addition, more and more responsibilities are being transferred to the confederation. The problems and tasks of a modern society (environmental protection, traffic, social security) can no longer be dealt with in any other way.

The governments of all the cantons are represented in the Conference of Cantonal Governments, set up in 1993, to mediate between the cantons and the federal government and to help in the division of responsibilities between them. 

A group of children can't agree on where babies come from.

"They're brought by a stork," says one.

"No, silly, you find them under a bush," says another.

"Well, actually," says the third, "it all depends on the canton."

1.4 Communes

The cantons are divided into communes. All Swiss are first and foremost citizens of a commune. It is from this status that they automatically derive citizenship of a canton and of the country as a whole. Foreigners wishing to become Swiss citizens have to apply to the commune where they live.

There are now about 2,551 communes (last update: 2011), varying greatly in area and population. The smallest, Rivaz in Canton Vaud, have an area of only 0.3 km2 (0.1 square mile), while the biggest, Bagnes in Canton Valais, is 282 km2 (109 square miles).

Some communes have more inhabitants than the small cantons, others just 100-200. More than half have populations of less than 1,000. Only about four percent of communes have more than 10,000 inhabitants - but about half the Swiss population live in them.

The communes, like the cantons, have their own elected administrative authorities. For some local issues they take autonomous decisions; in other cases they carry out decisions of the canton or the confederation. The areas for which they are responsible include security, education, health and transport affairs. They also register births, marriages and deaths, and collect federal, cantonal and local taxes. The details vary from canton to canton.

In 90% of communes, the citizens gather at least once a year in an assembly where each individual votes on important subjects. However, in larger communes such direct participation is not practical, and most decisions are left to an elected town council which meets regularly. Even in the biggest communes all members are ballotted on items like the budget. They cast their votes not in an assembly, but in booths or by post.

1.5 The future of communes

The number of communes is falling: many of the smaller ones are no longer viable and have found themselves obliged to merge with their neighbours.

Many people today believe the system needs a thorough overhaul, but proposals to merge smaller communes often run into stiff opposition. Some of this comes from communes with low tax rates. Paradoxically these are the richest areas, because they attract high earners; not surprisingly they do not want to be burdened by the liabilities of poorer neighbours, or to lose the incentive which attracts their wealthy residents.

However, in other cases mergers are welcomed. In a surprise vote in 2006, for example, voters in Glarus decided decided to reduce the number of communes in the canton from 25 to three. The cantonal government had called for ten.

1.6 The militia system

Switzerland has a firmly anchored tradition of service to the community, under which citizens take on public office which they perform alongside their normal jobs. This is referred to by the Swiss as the militia system. Its best known manifestation is the army, which is largely non-professional, even as far as most of its officers are concerned.

The Swiss regard their politicians as part of the same militia system. Members of the federal parliament do not give up their former jobs when they take their seats.

Public office, even at commune level, is time consuming and poorly remunerated, and as a result some of the smaller communes are finding it harder and harder to persuade people to take on these tasks.

2. People's Rights

2.1 Indirect and direct democracy

In Switzerland, as in all democratic countries, citizens elect representatives to act on their behalf.

But Switzerland gives its citizens the chance to take a direct part in decision-making as well. Although direct democracy is by no means unique to Switzerland - Italy and many US states are among those who also give voters an important decision-making role - the Swiss system is probably the most extensive in the world.

Swiss citizens can both propose legislation of their own, or thwart legislation already approved by parliament.

The only case in which parliament can override this right is if it decides that the motion being proposed is unconstitutional, or if it violates international law.

A brief introduction to the Swiss political system.

Together with neutrality and federalism, direct democracy is a part of the Swiss national identity and helps unite the various languages, religions and cultures in the country. This video gives you a short introduction to this unique political system. (Produced by swissinfo.ch on behalf of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad)

2.2 People's rights

There are two different ways to consult the people, depending on the nature of the issue: the popular initiative, and the referendum.

2.2.1 Popular initiative

Any Swiss citizen has the right to propose new legislation by launching an initiative - although normally initiatives come from pressure groups rather than individuals. If they manage to gather 100,000 signatures in support of the proposal, it must be put to a nation-wide vote.

In theory, an initiative can only deal with constitutional matters, but in practice they have been held on a variety of issues.

Initiatives have been held recently on matters such as cutting military spending (rejected) and limiting the foreign population to 18% (rejected).

More "exotic" initiatives have included making it easier to open casinos (accepted), protecting marshland (accepted) and banning the production and sale of absinthe (accepted). The first initiative under the current system, put to the vote in 1893, called for a ban on the Jewish method of slaughtering of animals without stunning them first. It was accepted, against the advice of parliament.

2.2.2 Referendum

The Swiss use the term "referendum" for a popular vote called to challenge a piece of legislation already approved by the Federal Assembly. If any person or group opposed to the new law manages to collect 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the official publication of the proposed legislation, the voters as a whole are given the chance to decide.

In most cases, a referendum is only called if those who feel strongly about the issue manage to collect enough signatures.

However, the authorities are obliged to hold a referendum if the legislation involves an amendment to the constitution initiated by the government, or any proposal for Switzerland to sign a major international agreement which cannot be rescinded.

In the case of an initiative or a mandatory referendum, there has to be a "double majority" for it to pass, meaning a majority of the people as a whole, and a majority of the cantons must approve it.

2.3 Participation

The Swiss people vote around four times a year on about 20 issues at a national level. There may be even more referendums in cantons and communes, touching on very local matters, such as whether to buy particular pictures for the city museum, when local shops can open, or a change in land use. Local authorities try to combine their own votes with the national ones, so that electors do not have to turn out too often.

In a few cantons, voters still vote on every new law or amendment passed by the cantonal government, whether or not it is controversial.

Only about half of all proposals are accepted by the people in referendums and only one tenth in popular initiatives.

Voter participation is usually around 40 per cent. Moves are now underway to experiment with electronic voting, in the hope that this will raise participation.

A few cantons have granted long-term resident foreigners the right to vote, mainly only at communal level.

2.4 Direct Democracy, for and against

Direct democracy in Switzerland means that new laws enjoy general acceptance, but on the other hand it slows down the political process.

Supporters of the direct democracy system say it forces members of the Federal Assembly to seek compromise when debating a bill. They will not insist on controversial points because this could mean the entire measure being lost.

It also gives members of opposition groups or minorities the chance to provoke discussion on issues that might otherwise be ignored.

Critics of the system point out that it is slow and cumbersome. Five years can pass before a popular initiative becomes law. Referendums can also be used to delay social or political change. One example is the adoption of women's suffrage, which was approved by parliament in 1959, but then rejected by the (entirely male) electorate in a subsequent referendum. Men only agreed to accept the project in 1971.

Critics also point out that the "double majority" rule gives an unfair advantage to the smaller cantons - which tend to be conservative.

The anomaly was clearly pointed up in 1992, when the Swiss were asked whether the country should join the European Economic Area. The popular vote was split almost exactly down the middle, but the cantonal vote was a hefty 16 to 7 against.

Ironically, any move to reform the system would need the approval of these small cantons - who are not eager to give up their voting power.

In a fast-changing world of instant communication and globalisation, the challenge of balancing democratic involvement against greater efficiency can never be settled once and for all - neither in Switzerland nor anywhere else. 

3 Government and Parliament

3.1 Executive branch: the Federal Council

The Federal Council, Switzerland's government, has seven members. Each year, a different member becomes Federal President. The post confers no special powers or privileges, and the president continues to administer his or her own department. The four strongest parties are represented in the council.

The Federal Council is assisted and advised on the running of its business by the Federal Chancellery. The Chancellor attends weekly cabinet meetings in a consultative capacity, and is sometimes referred to unofficially as "the 8th councillor."

Federal Councillors are much more accessible than their equivalents in most countries. The Swiss are used to seeing them travelling around by tram or in the train just like anyone else - much to the amazement of many foreign security officials accompanying leaders on state visits. People can talk to them without being hustled away by security guards.

3.2 Electing the government

Members of the Federal Council are elected by members of parliament.

All members of the Federal Council take collective responsibility for decisions. Some analysts see the system as a way to tame dissent, bringing potential opposition into government.

When a federal councillor retires or dies, his or her replacement is elected by parliament. In theory any Swiss citizen can stand for the post; in practice the new councillor is chosen from a list put forward by the outgoing councillor's party. Members of the Federal Council are not members of parliament.

Once a councillor has been elected, he or she remains in office during the life of the parliament which chose them. After parliamentary elections (i.e. every four years), the councillors submit themselves individually for re-election unless they want to retire. Normally this re-election is a formality, and most councillors remain in office until they themselves decide to step down.

Between 1959 and 2003 government seats were distributed between the political parties according to the "magic formula". This gave two seats each to the then largest parties, the Free Democrats, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, and one to the Swiss People’s Party. During this period the number of seats held by each of the government parties changed considerably.

The formula was broken after the 2003 elections, when the Swiss People’s Party became the biggest single group in parliament. It then took one seat from the Christian Democrats, who were the smallest. This was the first time in 131 years that a member of the Council standing for reelection had been rejected by parliament.

Until the constitution was amended on January 1st 2000, no two councillors could come from the same canton. Although this rule has been dropped, efforts are made to try to ensure that all areas of the country are represented. In recent years there has also been a move to put forward more female candidates.

3.3 Federal departments

Switzerland uses the word "Department" for its ministies. While many countries have 20 to 30 ministries and departments, Switzerland has just 7 federal departments, each headed by a federal councillor. Attached to the departments are the federal offices and other adminstrative units. The Federal Chancellery is the staff office of the Federal Council.

The Swiss federal departments

  • Federal Department of Foreign Affairs
  • Federal Department of Justice and Police
  • Federal Department of the Interior
  • Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications
  • Federal Department of Finance
  • Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports
  • Federal Department of Economic Affairs


3.4 Legislative branch: Parliament

The Federal Assembly is made up of two chambers, the National Council representing the people, and the Council of States, representing the cantons. The make-up of the Assembly reflects the desire to balance the interests of the cantons, to ensure that smaller ones are not dominated by larger ones. The 200 seats in the National Council are distributed between the cantons in proportion to the size of their population, while the Council of States has two members for each canton, and one for each half canton, making a total of 46. However, the two chambers are of equal weight.

The role of the two chambers include approving every federal law and supervising the government. Any member can also propose a new law or decree. He or she can also put questions to the Federal Council about any matter concerning state affairs.

Lastly, the two chambers come together to elect the the President of the Confederation and Vice-President of the Federal Council for the following year, as well as the heads of other state bodies.

The National Council is dominated by the four parties which make up the government, but examination of voting patterns within parliament show that on specific issues members follow their personal convictions rather than a party line. Elections to the Council take place every four years.

In both chambers the post of speaker rotates annually. The speaker of the National Council is the highest ranking person in the country, rather than the president.

National Council seats 1959 - 2007


Swiss People's Party

Social Democrats

Free Democrats

Christian Democrats


































































Source: parliament.ch 

3.5 A system based on compromise

The Swiss pride themselves on their ability to reach consensus through compromise.

When a Federal Councillor proposes new legislation, a long process of discussion follows before it becomes law.  

Once the other members of the Federal Council have been convinced, various relevant lobbies will be consulted to help formulate a draft bill. The draft then goes to one of the two chambers of the Swiss Federal Assembly. The chamber discusses it in committee, then as a body. Once the proposal has passed the hurdle of the first chamber, it moves on to the other one where the procedure is repeated. The order in which the chambers examine any particular proposal is decided by their speakers. No proposal can become law unless it is accepted by both chambers of Federal Assembly.

Even then, it could still be opposed by a special-interest lobby, who might threaten to collect signatures for a referendum in a bid to thwart the bill entirely. To avert this threat, the government might suggest a compromise to persuade the opponents not to go ahead with the referendum call. 

Opposition in parliament

The Federal Assembly might be expected to support every government proposal, since the strongest parties in parliament are all represented in the Federal Council.
However, this is not the case. Proposals made by the Federal Council are often rejected by the Federal Assembly or by the people.

This is how the Swiss system of compromise is designed to work: rejection of government proposals is part of the Swiss democratic process. It does not lead to a government crisis, votes of confidence or to resignations.

3.6 Part-time politicians

The Swiss Federal Assembly has no full-time politicians; the chambers meet for 3 weeks at a time, four times a year.

However, many commentators believe reform is necessary both the make parliament more efficient and to safeguard democracy.

In the first place, the politicians do not always manage to work their way through the whole agenda during their sessions, despite often sitting late into the evening.

In the second place, the members of the Federal Assembly are paid very little for their political activity: they are expected to rely on their earnings from their main professions. Since the pay depends on the number of days they spend on parliamentary duties, the system works against new members, representatives of small parties and independants, who tend not to be given places on commissions. This has led to concern that only members of large parties or people in well-paid positions will be willing to stand for election.

At the same time, one source of income for some Assembly members is a position on a company board, and much concern has been expressed about possible conflicts of interest. Calls for transparency have been met with objections that income is a private matter.

Despite the problems arising from the system of part-time politicians, there is widespread opposition to making them professional, as is the case in most other countries. An argument often cited in favour of the current system is that Swiss Assembly members are closer to the concerns of the electors than their counterparts in other countries, and they can also bring a wealth of current professional expertise to parliamentary discussion.

Given the ever-increasing work load, many people believe members should receive an allowance to pay for personal assistants to help with research and secretarial work. However, such a proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 1992, and if parliament were to approve the idea, it would almost certainly be challenged in a referendum.

3.7 Women in politics

Although Switzerland is one of the oldest democracies in the world, it was the last one in Europe - apart from Liechtenstein - to give women the vote. Women have only been allowed to participate in federal elections since 1971.

In November 2007 the Interparliamentary Union ranked Switzerland 22nd in the world for the proportion of women in parliament. In the same table the United States was 65th, and the United Kingdom was joint 51th(with the Dominican Republic). The list is headed by Rwanda.

When the Swiss Federal Council came up for election before the new Federal Assembly chosen in the parliamentary elections of 2003, one of the two women members, Ruth Metzler, was not reelected. Failure to replace her with another woman led to protest demonstrations.

However, in 2006, when Federal Councillor Joseph Deiss of the Christian Democrats stepped down in mid-term, the party submitted only one candidate, Doris Leuthard, to replace him, ensuring that from August 2006 there would again be two women in the council.

Switzerland had its first woman president in 1999, when Ruth Dreifuss held the office. The Federal Chancellor is also a woman, Annemarie Huber-Hotz.

Another breakthrough came in April 2003, when four women were elected to the seven-member Zurich cantonal government, making Zurich the first canton to have more women than men in its administration.

3.8 Parliament buildings

The Swiss parliament and government building, the Bundeshaus, with its imposing green dome, stands high above the Aare river in the capital, Bern. It has become so much of a landmark that it is hard to imagine what the city skyline looked like before it was there. But the building was only completed in 1902.

In 2004 the square in front of the Bundeshaus, formerly used mainly as a car park, was redesigned. It was repaved with granite slabs from the Alps, and 26 water jets - one for each canton - were hidden at surface level. These have proved a popular attraction, especially on hot days. The new square has won two international prizes.

Time has taken its toll on the Bundeshaus itself: a two-year renovation programme started in the summer of 2006.

The Three Confederates

The Bundeshaus was designed to represent the "idea of Switzerland," so it is not surprising that it is full of artwork depicting the glories of Switzerland's past. Indeed, a huge 16.2 % of the construction budget was allocated for the decoration. And of this work, none is more impressive than the great statue of the three confederates, regarded as the founders of the Swiss state who swore the oath of confederation on the Rütli meadow in 1291. The statue is impossible to miss: it stands in a huge niche at the top of the first flight of stairs leading out of the vestibule.

But at the opening ceremony in 1902 it wasn't there. The niche was there, the idea was there, a design for the statue was there, but the confederates themselves had not been carved. Instead, a boys' choir stood in for them, and gave a lusty rendering of patriotic songs. (The Swiss still hadn't got round to choosing ananthem.)

For such an important work, nothing could be left to chance. Members of the Assembly found the original design, commissioned from sculptor Hermann Baldin, unsatisfactory, despite repeated reworkings. The version submitted to them in December 1901 - just over three months before the building was inaugurated - was felt to be anatomically incorrect. They asked Baldin to make yet another model, this time showing the three unclothed, and then invited an anatomy professor to give his verdict. Alas! He too concluded that the anatomy was "not quite right." Baldin lost the contract.

His would-be successors did not have an easy time of it either. Most of the new designs, the jury said, made the confederates look either like "ruffians from a melodrama" or "a group of opera singers, twisted into impossible contortions as they belt out a top-C." Their expressions made them appear wild and prehistoric - and not very bright.

The group was eventually carved by the sculptor James André Vibert and unveiled in 1914. Vibert, a pupil of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, had ample experience of Swiss historical art. Not only had he already produced several of the statues in the new Bundeshaus, he had even - thanks to his impressive physique - been the model for a halbardier in the famous picture by the Swiss artist, Hodler, showing the Retreat from Marignano. The contract for the missing statue must have given him particular satisfaction: his original submission for it had been rejected in favour of Baldin's.

4 Foreign Policy

4.1 Switzerland and the world

Switzerland recognises that as the world changes, it faces new challenges in formulating its foreign policy. Switzerland has defined the following foreign policy objectives:

Peaceful coexistence of people of all nations

Switzerland wants to play an active role in the prevention of violent conflict. This includes the establishment of the rule of law, support for democratic norms and the promotion of dialogue.

Respect for and promotion of human rights

Respect for human rights is of utmost importance to Switzerland. Switzerland has long been an active campaigner for the cause of human rights.

Environmental sustainability

Switzerland is internationally active in promoting the development of an international system for protecting the environment. This includes agreements in the fields of climate, biological diversity and chemicals as well as the protection of water and forests.

Representing the interests of Swiss businesses abroad

The Swiss government wants to provide the best possible conditions for Swiss businesses. Measures include export promotion, support for research and training in Switzerland as well as the signing of multilateral and bilateral agreements with other states.

Alleviating need and poverty in the world

Switzerland places the fight against poverty at the centre of its development aid policy. It is continually increasing its financial assistance in this field. At the centre of its development aid policy is the promotion of income and employment, good governance, development of the private sector, sustainable use of natural resources, integration into the global trade system, debt relief, bridging the social gap, crisis prevention and crisis management.

The Swiss themselves have a somewhat contradictory attitude to foreign countries. On the one hand, the economy is very outward looking, ordinary people travel a lot and many speak several languages. On the other, they have tended to keep aloof from close involvement in international bodies.

4.2 Neutrality and isolationism

The advice of Switzerland's popular saint, Nicholas of Flüe(1417-87), "Don't get involved in other people's affairs" has been the hallmark of Swiss policy for nearly 500 years. The country has in effect been neutral since 1515, a status formally recognised and guaranteed by the great powers of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

Swiss neutrality thus has deeper roots than any of Europe's other major neutral states: Sweden (1815), Eire (1921), Finland (1948) and Austria (1955).

Neutrality is defined as non-participation in a war between other states. The rights and duties of neutral countries in time of war were laid down by the international community in 1907. In times of peace neutral states define their own rules, but take it for granted that they should stay outside military blocs, like NATO.

The status of neutrality has not only protected Switzerland from war, but has helped prevent the country from being torn apart when its different language communities might have been tempted to side with different belligerents in cases of conflict.

Since the end of the Cold War Switzerland has had to redefine its understanding of neutrality. It signed up to NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1996, stressing that it was motivated by the desire to promote peace and security and reserving the right to withdraw if it believed its neutrality was threatened.

The despatch of unarmed Swiss volunteers to Kosovo as part of peace keeping troops there after the 1999 war kept alive the debate over whether neutrality can be combined with an international role.

A referendum in June 2001 approved two key changes to the army's role. One allows Swiss soldiers to be fully armed when taking part in international peacekeeping missions, and the other permits them to take part in military training exercises with other countries. However, the bitter campaign showed the country was deeply divided on the issues, and the margin of victory was only two per cent.

The first armed Swiss peacekeepers arrived in Kosovo in October 2002.

"We got to talking about Switzerland, the second world war and our neutrality... 'I don't know anything about politics,' said our host, 'but there's something not right. New Zealand went voluntarily to the aid of the mother country, England, to save Europe from destruction. Switzerland was there in the middle. What happened? My two boys were killed, one at Al Alamein, and one in Italy, on your doorstep, 12,000 miles from home. And now you have come from the middle of Europe to work in our dairy and on my farm, where my two sons should be working. There's something not right about that.' Later, whenever talk in Switzerland got round to our neutrality, I always remembered this scene, and I can still hear the New Zealander saying: 'There's something not right about that.'"

Heinz Helbling (1928 - ) Swiss dairyman in New Zealand, 1951-54

4.3 Role as mediator

Switzerland's neutrality allows the country to act as a mediator. Its diplomats often represent the interests of countries which have no relations with each other. Thus for example it looks after US interests in Cuba and Iran, and Cuba's interests in the US.

Switzerland offers a neutral ground to host sensitive conferences and meetings. For example, the first meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan (1985) or between Clinton and Syria's President Assad (2000) took place in Geneva. Switzerland has also been the venue for peace talks between various governments and rebel groups - for example from Indonesia, Spain and Sri Lanka - and for talks on a settlement for the divided island of Cyprus. Switzerland has been involved in international efforts to bring about a dialogue between the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels since 2001.

The Swiss foreign ministry has set up its own "Expert Pool for Civilian Peacebuilding" (SEP) whose members work discreetly in a number of countries as facilitators bringing together opposing factions. Among the conflicts where these experts have given help and advice was the long civil war between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, which ended in agreement in 2005.

Geneva functions as the "international capital of Switzerland" and houses around 200 international organizations and diplomatic missions from about 170 countries. It is the European headquarters of the United Nations and headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

4.4 Switzerland and international organisations

UN: United Nations

It was only in 2002 that voters finally accepted that Switzerland should join the UN. This long hesitation may seem all the more surprising given that the UN's European headquarters is in Geneva and Switzerland has long been a member of most of the organisation's specialised agencies. It has contributed to some of the UN peacekeeping missions with personnel, logistical and financial support.

Switzerland took up its seat as the 190th member of the UN on September 10th, 2002.

EU: European Union

Swiss voters have consistently rejected moves to bring Switzerland into the EU. In 2001 nearly 77% of the population voted against a proposal to start EU accession negotiations immediately. The Swiss government has made it clear that it wishes to take the country into the EU eventually, but that entry must not be rushed.

Meanwhile, Switzerland is in constant talks with the EU aimed at easing restrictions between the two sides. In May 2000 the Swiss people approved a first package of bilateral agreements which had taken four years to negotiate.

A second package was agreed in 2004 and its first provisions came into force in 2005.

Supporters of membership say that Switzerland needs to be able to participate in EU decision-making, since it is vitally affected by EU policies and laws.
Opponents of membership say it would undermine Switzerland's sovereignty.

Other organisations

Despite Switzerland's hesitation in joining the major world bodies, it has strong political and economic ties with the rest of the world and is a member of various international organisations.

In 1960, Switzerland was a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA); in 1963 it joined the European Council and in 1975 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It is also a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Switzerland has been a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund since 1992. The aim of its membership of these institutions is to help developing countries improve their economies, to combat poverty and to promote international economic and financial stability.

"Switzerland is changing rapidly. Globalisation does not stop at the Lake of Geneva. Switzerland is growing closer to the European Union and the old neutrality is having to adjust... The welcome decision to join the UN, taken in a referendum of course, is part of that process. Yet it would be a big mistake to assume that Switzerland is now just like anywhere else. Its Swissness remains palpable, and while the question "Why Switzerland?" may have changed, it is still a fascinating one."

The Guardian (London) (14.9.2002)

5 Humanitarian Tradition

5.1 The Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), founded in Geneva in 1863, has as its mandate to protect and assist victims of war and internal violence. The 15-25 members of the committee itself are all Swiss citizens, but its employees are international, and the bulk of its finance comes from voluntary contributions by states and supranational bodies. The ICRC operates worldwide, helping the victims of war, acting as a neutral mediator in cases of conflict, and promoting knowledge and respect for humanitarian law.

In addition, Switzerland has its own national Red Cross society.

The national societies of the whole world are grouped in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which also has its headquarters in Geneva.

Signed on 12 August 1949 in Geneva, the four conventions form the basis for international humanitarian law. Their intention is to protect people in an armed conflict who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, and to regulate the conduct of combatants during the conflict, by limiting their scope of action.

5.2 Land of refuge

Switzerland is proud of its humanitarian tradition. It has long been a place of refuge for those persecuted for political reasons, and has in turn been enriched by the contribution they and their descendents have made to Swiss life.

However, during World War II Switzerland turned back or deported thousands of refugees, most of them Jews, on the grounds that racial, rather than political, persecution did not entitle them to asylum. The slogan used at the time was that "the boat is full." Others who were refused entry included Polish and Russian slave labourers, and French and Italian citizens trying to escape forced labour or military service under the Nazis.

During the Cold War Switzerland took in refugees from Hungary in 1956 and from Czechoslovakia in 1968 after Soviet troops crushed protest movements in those countries.

In recent years Switzerland has taken in refugees from conflict in various parts of the world. In 2004 the country with the greatest number of nationals in the process of applying for asylum was Serbia and Montenegro.

In proportion to its own population Switzerland receives more asylum applications than most other countries in Western Europe. According to the Federal Office for Migration, in the 21 months from the beginning of 2003 to the end of September 2004, there were 441 requests for every 100,000 head of population. Austria received the most, with 623.

The number of asylum seekers reached a peak in 1999, when 48,000 applications were made. Since 2002 applications have fallen back. In 2004 the figure was 14,250, the lowest for a decade, and nearly one third fewer than 2003.

"We feel we must tell you that in our school we are extremely concerned that refugees are being turned back without the least qualms to face conditions of terrible hardship... We would never have imagined that Switzerland, a haven of peace which claims to be a charitable country, could turn these unfortunate, shivering people away from its borders... What is the point of being able to say that Switzerland acted in a praiseworthy way during the last world war, if we have nothing positive to say about what has been done in the current one?... Perhaps you have had an order not to take in any Jews, but this is certainly not the will of God. Obedience to Him comes before obedience to men."

Extract from a letter dated September 7th 1942, sent to the government by a class of 14-year old girls from Rorschach, in eastern Switzerland. The government had just announced the closure of borders to refugees.