Federal Council reined in

The Swiss arms industry is well represented at IDEX (International Defence Exhibition & Conference) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Political article
The weapons industry should not be strengthened through facilitated exports to countries undergoing internal conflict. Arms exports and development are hardly compatible.

The Federal Council's announcement in mid-June 2018 of its decision to facilitate exports of war materiel to countries gripped by internal strife triggered strong protest. Political parties and citizens alike were outraged by the one-sided consideration given to the needs of the arms industry at the expense of human life in conflict zones. How can Switzerland supply weapons to countries experiencing internal strife, at the same time offering its good offices and underscoring its humanitarian tradition? The matter was urgently debated during the National Council's autumn session. It had already been announced that a popular initiative would be launched if the Federal Council failed to annul its decision.

The criteria for weapons exports had already been on the political agenda 10 years ago. In 2006 the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) launched its popular initiative "For a Ban on War Materials Exports". The Federal Council responded in 2008 by tightening export conditions. Several key aspects of the Ordinance on War Material were supplemented. These included the banning of exports if a country of destination is involved in an internal or international armed conflict, if it commits systematic or grave human rights violations, or is a least developed country. Similarly, exports were prohibited in the event of a substantial risk that the weapons could be used against the country's population or passed on to an unintended end recipient. The more radical GSoA initiative was subsequently rejected at the polls.

Averting unilateral Government action

The Federal Council's decision to go it alone was very badly received in the National Council. This latter body therefore accepted a Motion by the centrist Liberal Democrat Group (BDP) designed to ensure that the Parliament would have a say. It called for the approval criteria for export transactions to be removed from the Ordinance and instead incorporated in the War Material Act. That would shift responsibility from the Federal Council to the Parliament. Amendments to export regulations would then have to go through Parliament and could also be submitted to the Swiss population via referendum.

Various aspects of the topic are relevant to development. Peace is generally regarded as a basic precondition for development. Using development cooperation to foster peaceful and stable societies also favours successful social and economic development. But international support for properly functioning education and health systems in poor countries ought not to help free up budgetary resources in the recipient country, which are then used to purchase weaponry. The stipulation in the 2008 Ordinance was therefore an important lever for banning arms exports to least developed countries and ensuring that government funds are allocated as a matter of priority to poverty alleviation and the financing of education and health services rather than used to buy weapons. When the Federal Council first relaxed the provisions of the War Material Ordinance in 2014, it watered down this stipulation. A country's development level should only be taken into account but not constitute grounds for denying an export permit. In the light of the changing nature of conflicts and the ever-growing menace of terrorism, for example in the Sahel, raising the question of government spending on national security forces is entirely justified. But in examining the relevant requests for weapons purchases, Switzerland must be sure verify whether the police or other security players in the destination country are subject to democratic controls. If this is not guaranteed, it cannot be ruled out that the weapons may be turned against the country's own people.

A key role falls to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in assessing context. It is active in many poor countries through governance-related programmes and has possibilities for accurately assessing the situation on the ground. It is therefore imperative for SDC to be involved in the evaluation of export permit applications. It can assist in evaluating the degree of democratic control over security forces or the level of corruption in a country. Corruption is a crucial though insufficient indicator for assessing the credibility of a buyer's assurances that weapons will not be sold on.

On 31 October the Federal Council announced its decision not to proceed with the loosening of the War Material Ordinance. But the momentum already gained can no longer be halted. In just two months, a broad coalition against arms exports to countries experiencing civil conflict obtained the 100,000 signatures required for its initiative, and notarization is now in progress. On 11 February, the Security Policy Committee of the Council of States recommended that the Council should not deliberate on the BD Motion but instead discuss the matter when the initiative was being debated. On 11 March the Council of States adopted the Committee's reasoning. With this, the debate on arms exports to countries undergoing internal conflict is being kicked into the long grass.


Correction Initiative

Following the announcement of the Federal Council's decision to relax the regulations governing weapons exports, an opposing coalition rapidly took shape. This coalition includes Alliance Sud member and partner organizations Helvetas, HEKS/EPER, Swissaid and Terre des Hommes Switzerland. The aim of what is called the Correction Initiative is to ban weapons exports to countries experiencing internal conflict. The declared aim is not a blanket ban on exports as called for under the GSoA Initiative in 2006, but a return to the situation prior to 2014, when the provisions of the War Material Ordinance were last relaxed. Twenty-four hours after the announcement that a popular initiative was being considered, 25,000 people had already pledged to collect four signatures each.

Facts and Figures

  • In 2017, Switzerland spent CHF 100 million on civil peace support and human rights. (Source: DFA)
  • Worldwide military spending for 2017 was USD 1,739 billion. (Source: SIPRI)
  • The UN estimates that USD 5000-7000 billion will be required each year to fund the Sustainable Development Goals (2030 Agenda).

Among the largest buyers of Swiss military equipment are three countries in which either fundamental human rights are not guaranteed and/or which must be regarded as an acute threat to peace in their region. India (rank 3) purchased weapons for CHF 35 million in 2016, Pakistan (rank 5) for CHF 16 million and Saudi Arabia (rank 10) for CHF 12 million. South Africa (rank 2, 51 million) is primarily responsible for the growing share of arms exports to Africa shown in this chart.