Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 5 March 2009

Guns at the ballot box

Since many of our regular readers belong to what’s referred here as the ‘Geneva disarmament community’, it might be of interest to have a brief look at what their Swiss hosts have recently been up to on the weapons regulation front.

As many who live in Switzerland are aware, Swiss citizens enjoy the right to ‘popular initiative’; that is, they can propose a change to the federal constitution and submit it to a nation-wide vote, provided they manage to collect 100’000 voter signatures within 18 months in support of the initiative.

One such popular initiative recently managed to gather the required number of signatures and even made it into the foreign press.The initiative for the ‘protection against gun violence’ proposes stricter regulation in Swiss law of the private use, acquisition and carrying of weapons and munitions. It would require legislators to specify the licensing requirements for hunters, collectors, sportsmen and other professionals who wish to possess weapons, and calls for the establishment of a federal firearms registry. In addition, the law would oblige the federal authorities to advocate the reduction of small arms availability at the international level.

But what has really caused a stir among the Swiss is that, outside of military service, army weapons would have to be deposited in secure military facilities. Switzerland has a militia army, and military service is (in principle) compulsory for men. It means that about 200’000 Swiss men undertake military service in annual courses of a few weeks in duration every year. Outside of this period, such men are required to keep their military weapon at home and cannot leave it in the military arsenal.

Proponents of the initiative argue that to store military guns in cupboards or under the bed is not required for effective national defence. They say the practice can be connected to gun homicides and relatively high suicide rates in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the initiative strikes at the heart of the Swiss ‘keep-your-gun-at-home’ tradition. Opponents, including, naturally, the right wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC) see this as undermining the very foundations of the militia army (which plays an important role in Swiss national identity), and is thus a threat to the security, independence and sovereignty of the country. When exactly this initiative will be put to the vote – and whether Switzerland’s Parliament will present a counter-proposal – is yet to be decided.

Another popular initiative, ‘against new fighter jets’, is currently at the stage of signature collection. If this initiative reaches the voting stage, the Swiss will have to decide on whether to impose a moratorium on the purchase of new fighter jets from 2010 until December 2019. The initiative was launched mainly with a view to decreasing Swiss military expenditure, but also because there is no possibility to call for a referendum once a decision on an armaments purchase has been made. Whether the committee initiating this effort will succeed in collecting the necessary signatures is unclear. It is worth recalling that an initiative ‘against the noise of fighter jets in tourism regions’ failed at the ballot in February last year, and several previous initiatives to limit the size of the Swiss army were also voted down.

One initiative deposited successfully in 2007 called for a ‘prohibition on the export of war materials’. It obliges the federal authorities to support and further international disarmament and arms control efforts and it would prohibit the export of war materials (regulated by the ‘Swiss Federal Act on War Materials’), including small arms, light weapons and ammunition, and special military goods (subject to the Swiss ‘Goods Control Act’), as well as technologies that are of particular importance for the development and use of these goods. The brokering of the transfer of these goods to recipients abroad would also be prohibited. Exceptions are provided for mine clearance, sport and hunting devices, as well as weapons that Swiss authorities use abroad and re-import subsequently. The proponents of the initiative consider that Switzerland’s ‘business with death’ is at odds with the country's world-wide humanitarian engagement and peace promotion policies, and is also inconsistent with its claim to neutrality. Moreover, they express concern about the impact of this trade on international peace, security and sustainable development in recipient countries.

The Federal Council has advised the Swiss Parliament to reject the initiative, though. Parliament has to take a decision by March 2010. Whereas the government acknowledges that an export ban on war materials would not have severe consequences for the Swiss economy, it warns that the Swiss army would depend on foreign armaments production to ensure the country’s defence as, without exports, Switzerland's arms industry would largely perish. As independence from other states is – for many Swiss – still part of their self-understanding (Switzerland is not in the EU and has joined the UN only in 2002) this argument could cause many to reject the initiative.

On the other hand, revelations about the use and misuse of war materials and related goods ‘made in Switzerland’ in conflicts abroad have repeatedly shocked the Swiss public. The latest such incident involved a Swiss Pilatus aircraft exported to Chad for military pilot training, which was later equipped for and used in an attack in Darfur in January 2008. This prompted the federal council to call for a strengthening of the licensing criteria of such goods. Additional grounds for denying an export license in cases where the recipient state is involved in an internal or international armed conflict or where there is a risk that the good would be used against the civilian population were initially envisaged. However, the draft amendment of the Goods Control Act presented last month turned out to be rather vague. On the basis of the new paragraph the Federal Council may deny a license if the ‘protection of substantial interests of the country so demands’.

Whether this change in legislation will indeed be enough to avoid further war materials export scandals is doubtful. Many might find this kind of response inadequate and support more radical measures, such as a total ban on war materials exports.

Maya Brehm

Photo credit: Image used by the women's magazine 'Annabelle' in their campaign against army guns at home. Taken from IANSA's website.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations Ms Brehm! "Geneva disarmament community" is certainly keen on knowing more about its "host nation support". Cheers!