Switzerland’s blood money

September 26, 2012, 6 Comments

Grenades in Syria. Tanks in Bahrain. Bullets in Libya. All Swiss made. And all used in the past year in domestic conflicts and civil wars. Not exactly the best advertisement for Swiss neutrality. Of course the Swiss government and arms’ manufacturers say that they were sold in good faith to third parties, and it’s not their fault if the products are then re-sold or misused. But how naive is that? Talk about sticking your head in the sand, and in the Middle East there’s an awful lot of sand to hide in.

When it comes to selling weapons, there are no shades of grey, just black and white. Life and death. So why does Switzerland, that famously neutral country that hasn’t fought a war in centuries, sell arms? The standard answer is that it’s supporting a domestic arms industry, which is apparently needed so that the Swiss armed forces can avoid being dependent on foreign powers (except for fighter jets, which are coming from abroad). But it’s not really about that, is it? It’s all about money, and jobs. Both of which are in very short supply and under constant threat in Switzerland, aren’t they?

Never mind that Switzerland is one of the world’s richest countries with one of the lowest rates of unemployment. If any country can, literally, afford to take a moral stand against the arms trade, it is Switzerland. But what are morals when money there is to be made? It’s something the Swiss have been doing for centuries, pretty much ever since September 1515 when they lost the Battle of Marignano to the French and decided to become neutral and give up fighting. Or did they?

On the surface, yes, but it in reality all the Swiss did was let other countries fight the wars while they made money by selling soldiers. Swiss soldiers, and not just one or two but whole battalions hired out by the cantons, complete with officers. They fought for anyone who would pay them and died for every king and emperor in Europe. One of Switzerland’s most famous monuments, the mournful Lion of Lucerne (pictured above) commemorates the hundreds of Swiss guards who died defending the French king at the Tuileries Places in 1792. These mercenary armies were abolished by the Swiss government in the 19th century so that the last remaining Swiss Guard is the one in the Vatican City.

So instead of selling their men, as that just wouldn’t do these days, the Swiss now sell their guns, and bullets, and tanks, and grenades to 68 different countries, earning a tidy CHF 873 million last year. Not a lot compared to Britain, China or America, but none of those countries profess to be neutral or hold themselves up as impartial mediators in conflicts where their arms are killing people. How hypocritical. How sanctimonious. It’s a wonder the Swiss President, Eveline Widmer Schlumpf, could keep a straight face at the UN this week when she talked of innocent people dying, “caught in the crossfire between the Syrian army and the armed opposition.”

Every time Swiss weapons turn up in ‘forbidden’ places, the government acts surprised, investigates and blames someone else. Those naughty foreigners, buying our arms and then breaking our rules by doing whatever they want with them. How dare they! Whether is bullets via Qatar, tanks via Saudi Arabia, or most recently grenades via the UAE, it’s always someone else’s fault that they get used in conflicts. Can anyone in the Swiss government, or in Switzerland, truly believe that these weapons are bought for peaceful purposes?

If Switzerland can be bold enough to give up nuclear energy, surely it can find the moral fibre to stop selling arms and exporting death? Until it does, then Swiss jobs will appear more important than Syrian lives. Until it does, then Switzerland’s offers of mediation and condemnation of conflicts, and indeed its own neutrality, are all tainted – with blood money.



6 Comments on "Switzerland’s blood money"

  1. Alistair Scott Wednesday September 26th, 2012 at 01:39 PM · Reply

    Thanks Diccon … this aspect of Switzerland is well-hidden and needs revealing.

    I have had a small taste of this myself. A few years ago I was on the point of collaborating with someone in an entirely different field – writing – and publicising her work when, purely by chance googling, I discovered that her husband was an arms dealer. It was a shock. Her husband’s business website was appalling, extolling the sniping virtues of the high-velocity rifles he sold, and the different types of ammunition to go with them.

    It was a difficult decision as she’s not responsible for what her husband does. But, even so, I dropped the connection with her.

  2. John Samuelson Thursday September 27th, 2012 at 11:11 AM · Reply

    Regarding the Piranha tanks – I fail to see how Switzerland or MOWAG can be held responsible if Saudi used or provided the vehicles in/to Bahrain. The tanks were not sold to Bahrain. If somebody in the Swiss government or at the company was aware that these tanks were actually meant for Bahrain, then they should be held accountable for that.

    The fact is, that end-user certificates are a nonsense and countries often re-export arms and equipment to countries that would not have been able to buy them directly. The entire system is flawed and the real naivety as you rightly say is expecting a different outcome.

    In researching my reply I have also found that Switzerland has held a referendum no less than THREE times on banning arms exports which was rejected each time, most recently in 2009. So, with a turnout of roughly half, the majority of people in Switzerland who care either way are in favour of exporting arms.

    And no matter what we think from a moral or humanistic perspective, there is a geopolitical balancing act at play here as well. Control is exerted and balance is maintained through the provision of arms, usually you will find, to both protagonists in a conflict. The balance of conventional forces between India and Pakistan, for example, is critical to avoiding a possible nuclear war.

    Let us also not forget that Syria was a secular ally of the US in the “war on terrorism” until very recently.

    Secundum quid. While I agree with your sentiment your post is a gross oversimplification. I do believe that responsibility should be taken and I am disappointed by limp-wristed UN dithering while people die.

    Let me ask you this though – simplistically – if the FSA took Damascus and gained control of the country thereby largely ending the conflict, would you not support the re-arming and re-supply of them in order that they maintain that control and to defend against Assad loyalists, Iranian guerrillas, Salafist jihadists and Al-Qaeda terrorists all rushing into the vacuum?

    And to Alistair – it is not well hidden just because you personally were not aware. There is a list of arms companies in Wikipedia and the most cursory of Google searches will enlighten immediately!

  3. Pascal Wednesday October 3rd, 2012 at 02:44 PM · Reply

    I generally agree with your position BUT – with all due respect it has to be noted that :

    1) Switzerland makes a very small amount of its GDP with arms sales – especially compared to many other developed countries.

    2) Countries like the US, Russia, China, France, Germany and yes, your home country the UK make up for the vast majority of arms sales worldwide, not to speak of all the wars these countries are directly and indirectly engaged in.

    So the whole article smells a bit of hipocrisy and double standard to me.

    My own experience in Switzerland: On the 1st of May 2003 I was among people protesting to arms sales to the US who had just invaded Iraq under Bush’s so-called ‘war on terror’. Switzerland has a law forbidding arms exports to countries in war. The official (center-right) goverment’s argument why arms sales to the US were then exempt form this law?

    -> These arems and ammunitions were not for the Iraq war, but to REPLACE the arms and ammunitions used there. So it was O.K. to sell arms before the war since ‘there was no war’, after the war because ‘there no longer was a war’ and during the war because ‘it wasn’t really for the ongoing war’.

    Frank Kafka would have loved this Catch 22.

  4. Pascal Wednesday October 3rd, 2012 at 02:49 PM · Reply

    P.S. Your Blog colapsed the blank lines in my comments. Makes it difficult to read… 🙁

  5. Swiss Guy Thursday December 22nd, 2016 at 08:08 PM · Reply

    Let them make money! Why reveal it?

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