7 - 13 March 2001

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Opinion

On Neutrality


Antoine Grima focuses on the meaning of neutrality and takes a closer look at the Swiss model

Several factors induce a country to adopt a policy of neutrality; this can be either to avoid political or ideological affiliations with major power blocs; as a security measure to preserve its territorial integrity by keeping out of war; and to promote peace and discourage war. More popularly, neutrality has been perceived as a measure taken during a time of war through which a state indicates that it has no intention to participate in the hostilities and will take no sides with the belligerents.

As a concept, neutrality matured during the nineteenth century particularly by the part played by the United States as a neutral in the Napoleonic Wars, and enhanced further through the permanent neutralisation of Belgium and Switzerland. Furthermore a series of international treaties, emanating from a series of international conferences held at The Hague between 1899 and 1907 started a process of clearly defining the rights and duties of neutral states.

It is not enough for a state to declare itself neutral, but other countries have to recognise such neutrality both in peace and when in a state of war. Switzerland did not choose to remain neutral but, rather, that there was an international understanding that it should remain so. The settlement at the Congress of Vienna produced an international declaration of November 20, 1815, that Switzerland should be "permanently neutral." This status implied obligations for both Switzerland and other states. Switzerland was supposed to refrain from unneutral activities and other states were not to invade the country or interfere with its sovereignty. A rather similar status was imposed on Austria in 1955.

As one of its duties a neutral state must be able of preserving its territorial integrity, that is, not to allow other states to impinge upon its soil or the airspace above it to conduct their warlike activities. Belligerents may not use a neutral's territory as a base of operations or engage in hostilities therein. This right applies not only to neutral territory and water but extends to air space above that territory as well. Switzerland was not invaded during World War II by either side. However, there were incursions into its airspace by both sides. As for the Allies, they overflew the country on many occasions. The Swiss were rarely able to intercept these flights, often because they lacked radar and night fighters. Swiss cities were blacked out for a time so as to avoid guiding the raiders. For their part, the Germans, during the French campaign in the spring of 1940, sent Luftwaffe units across western Switzerland as a convenient short cut to targets in the area encompassing Dijon and Lyons. Following their neutral duties, Swiss pilots scrambled to meet the challenge. Aerial combat resulted and aircraft were shot down by each side, with the advantage faling to the Swiss.

The First World War has also shown that that a neutral state may be affected economically and may also be drawn into war to protect their neutral rights such as the United States. Germany's submarine fleet intensified its blockade of Britain during 1915. In February Germany announced that the waters around Great Britain, including the English Channel, were in the war zone. In addition, Germany clearly stated that merchant ships found in this zone would be destroyed. This included the ships of neutral nations. During the Gulf War, apart from the fact that both Iran and Iraq were responsible for laying mines in the Gulf waters, they conducted hundreds of attacks on neutral tankers or merchant vessels and on the neutral warships by which these were escorted or protected. But do all neutral countries have the capability to re-enforce such rights? In the absence of this what alternatives may such countries adopt to sustain their economic activities?
One of the classic activities of a neutral is the furnishing of good offices to the warring parties. This is a principle much sought after in international relations. Several neutral states invoke such a possibility. The Mediterranean is littered with numerous localised conflicts. The slow and cautious process towards European political integration is refraining the European continent from becoming a relevant political player, it is powers such as the United States, Russia and Egypt which are still perceived as intermediaries and eventual guarantors of stability. Incidentally, it was Norway, a country alien to the Mediterranean basin, which started off the Middle East peace process some six years ago.

It is evident that although it is relatively not difficult to declare neutrality it is difficult to consolidate it within an international context. A declaration of neutrality has to be respected by all not only during times of peace but particularly during war. Although technological improvements may have rendered the quest for territorial expansion obsolete, history shows that if the territory of a neutral state falls within the interests of one of the belligerent states, unless that neutral state is able to defend its territory and status, it may have to give in to external pressure. The question is, by declaring itself neutral what is a state actually seeking, security during times of peace or war? Is neutrality enough to provide such security during times of war?



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