Weapons, tanks and laws

Swiss military hardware is in demand, but exports are controversial. By Marcel Hänggi, infographic: 1kilo

(From "Horizons" no. 109 June 2016)​​​

Switzerland wants to export war materials without encouraging existing conflicts or human rights abuses. The principle sounds simple, but in practice it’s complicated.

Two laws and several international agreements regulate the export of war-related materials from Switzerland. The War Material Act forbids without exception the export of atomic, biological and chemical weapons, anti-personnel mines and cluster ammunition, and also forbids financing them. Other war materials may be exported to countries that are not at war.

The Goods Control Act also controls the export of ‘special military materials’ (which may not be used directly in battle) and ‘dual-use materials’ (i.e. those that may be used for both civilian and military purposes). These may be exported to countries at war unless it is forbidden by international treaties or embargoes, would endanger regional or global stability, or if there is reason to assume the materials might be used for terrorist purposes. Export licences for military grade materials are granted by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). In 2015, licenses were issued for goods to a value of CHF 1.7 billion and munitions sales reached CHF 450 million. To put this into context, Swiss export statistics for 2015 list total exports of CHF 203 billion.

There have been two attempts by referendum to institute a complete ban on the export of war materials, but both were unsuccessful. The referendum of 1972 only just failed to pass, while the result of the 2009 referendum was more clear-cut. But the topic remains contentious. Last February, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that the Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann wanted to allow the export of Piranha military vehicles to countries that are waging war in Yemen. But the Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter was against it. Also in February, a motion was submitted to the National Council Defence Committee in favour of a moratorium on the export of war materials to those countries, but it had no chance of being accepted.

It is also forbidden to export war materials to countries that are not actually engaged in war, but are guilty of ‘systematic and grave violations’ of human rights. It is, however, permissible to supply replacement parts for materials supplied under an earlier export licence. And since 2014, the above ban may also be circumvented if the danger of Swiss materials being misused is assessed to be ‘minor’. This means that even a regime such as that of Saudi Arabia would be able to buy Swiss war materials – or at least it would have been able to do so before its war in Yemen.

Marcel Hänggi is a science journalist in Zürich.