Merchants of death, arbiters of peace: campaigners challenge the Swiss arms paradox

The Swiss army knife is not the only weapon sold by Switzerland. The oldest neutral country in the world, an international peace broker famous for exporting cheeses, chocolates and iconic pocket knives, quietly sells arms on the global market.

Switzerland is amongst the world’s top producers of small arms. While it receives billions of euros for hosting humanitarian organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross, it ranked second in arms exports per capita in 2015 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In recent years, Swiss-made Mowag Piranha tanks have been deployed by Saudi Arabia to crack down on Bahrain’s peaceful uprising. Swiss-licensed sniper rifles were used against civilians in Ukraine. Other customers include the ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, the head of the 1999 coup in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, and the consecutive US presidents that have been at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria since the turn of the century.

“It is impossible to be neutral and at the same time sell arms or invest money in companies which are producing weapons,” says Eva Krattiger, a member of Bern City Council and the secretary of the anti-military organisation Group for a Switzerland without an Army (its official acronym, GSoA, is based on its spelling in German).

“As long as you are benefiting from businesses related to war, it means that you are profiting from war. For simple economic reasons, this equally means that you can’t be interested in achieving peace.”

And yet since 1972, the Swiss people have voted three times against bans on arms exports, most recently in 2009. It is almost as they agree with Raymond Clottu, a member of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who once said: “Banning Swiss arms exports would not bring peace on earth.”

War has always been a profitable business for Switzerland. Before defeat in the Battle of Marignano in 1515, the Swiss were one of the main sources of mercenaries in Europe. Nowadays, the last remaining members of the Swiss Guard serve the Pope in Vatican City, as one of the oldest military units in continuous operation.

During Medieval times, Swiss mercenaries fought in all major European conflicts. Sometimes, like in Louis XII’s Italian War of 1499-1504, they fought on both sides of the battle.

At the end of this era, the only European country in which citizens were allowed to carry a gun was the Swiss Confederation. All healthy Swiss men between the ages of 18 and 34 are still permitted to keep their service rifles at home. This helps to explain why Switzerland ranks third on the list of countries with the largest numbers of civilian gun ownership and is amongst the top 20 countries globally with the highest rate of firearm-related homicides per capita.

No to nuclear power plants, yes to nuclear weapons

Even though Switzerland stopped sending soldiers into battle 500 years ago, Swiss arms are still present in most conflicts all across the world. Moreover, every year, the Swiss public sector makes a profit from the global arms market.

In 2016, the Swiss National Bank made about US$800 million available to nuclear weapons producers. In the same year Swiss pension funds invested between US$4 and US$12 billion in armaments companies.

In response to these investments, this April GSoA launched a national campaign to try and stop the financing of war materials by public institutions in Switzerland.

“Our main goal is to ban Swiss financial institutions like the Swiss National Bank, pension funds, insurance companies and banks from investing in arms producing companies,” Krattiger explains.

“We demand a total ban on investments in the arms industry, regardless of the type of weapon. Investments of Swiss institutions in the production of nuclear or chemical weapons, conventional war material like tanks or ammunition, must be banned.”

Ironically, while the country’s national bank continues to invest in the production of nuclear weapons, the Swiss people voted to phase out nuclear power in favour of renewable energy in May.

“It’s more complicated than it seems,” says Krattiger. “Switzerland actually already has a law that forbids direct investments in manufacturing nuclear weapons. However, a loophole in the law still allows the indirect funding of companies that produce said arms.”

Deadly “training products”

Swiss investors in nuclear weaponry are not the only business people who can find a way around the list of prohibited trades and investments.

For example, on paper, Switzerland sells the Pilatus Aircraft for training purposes, but it can be easily adapted to carry bombs; that is what it has been used for in Myanmar, Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, Bolivia, Nigeria, Iraq, South Africa and Sudan.

“The Pilatus is just one example of Swiss training products which have been deployed in combat,” says the former CEO of a Swiss company which is active in the arms market.

“Swiss training grenades have also been used in battlefields,” says the CEO, who spoke to Equal Times on condition of anonymity. “Selling bullets is the same. There is no problem if a Swiss producer sells the bullets for training purposes.”

And yet despite all the scandals related to Switzerland’s arms trade, it has maintained a reputation as one of the most transparent arms exporters in the world.

“We are not too critical of Switzerland because the country has comparably high standard of arms control,” Patrick Walder, an arms control campaigner of Amnesty International, tells Equal Times.

According to the Swiss Federal Act on War Material, Swiss firms cannot sell arms to countries that “systematically and severely violate human rights”. However, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India are amongst the top importers of weaponry from Switzerland.

“It still happens from time to time, for example in Bahrain or Libya, that Swiss arms end up in the hands of those who violate human rights,” Walder adds. “Amnesty International condemned these incidents and also criticized the Swiss government’s decision to ease the ban on arms export to Saudi Arabia.”

Another ambiguity in Switzerland’s arms business occurs due to the various ways of interpreting statistics.

In 2015, the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) announced that Switzerland had reduced war material exports. However, this decline appeared only on paper because SECO excluded the number of exported “special military goods,” such as the Pilatus airplanes, in their reporting.

The actual size of the Swiss arms industry becomes even bigger when you add up the number of civilian goods that are used in the arms industry. The former arms CEO says that the firm he used to work for manufactures electronic devices with no direct combat usage. However, its only customers were arms producers.

“It is impossible to assume that the manufacturer of dual-use goods can guess for which purpose their products will be used,” he says. “But everyone in the arms market knows the main goal of manufacturing such products.”