Campaign of the Month: Popular Initiative for a Ban on All Swiss Arms Exports

The popular initiative is an instrument of the direct democracy in Switzerland. If 100,000 people with voting right sign a political request, the authorities are obliged to effect a referendum, the result of which is binding for the government.

2007, the GSoA (Group for a Switzerland Without an Army) filed over 100,000 signatures of citizens asking for a ban on war material export from and transit through Switzerland. A referendum is schedule to take place on the 29th of November 2009. It will be the third time for the Swiss population to vote on this issue - in 1972, 49.7% voted in favour of the ban, but in 1997 the support had faded to 22.5%. If the majority votes for a ban, it will be binding for the government. The GSoA was founded in 1982, with the main goal of "civilizing" Swiss society by abolishing its army. In 1989, over one third of the Swiss population supported this proposal in a federal referendum, shaking profoundly the country's militaristic convictions. Since then, the GSoA has launched several “popular initiatives” (leading to national referendums), aiming at downsizing the army and its budget or proposing civilian alternatives. Currently, the group has around 20,000 members and supporters.

The government opposes the ban, arguing that exports are vital to the Swiss arms industry, which in turn plays an essential role in the defence of the country, it says. Whereas it is true that without access to the international weapons market, arms production in Switzerland would be more difficult, it should also be acknowledged that the trend of integration and mergers in this sector is already pushing many Swiss firms to relocate their production abroad, and the largest Swiss weapons producers are already being taken over by foreign corporations. The national defence argument is not realistic, as the weapons industry has shown in the past that even in times of war, it sells its products to any costumer who can pay.

Arguments Against Arms Trade

Although Swiss weapons represent a small portion of the warfare material out in the world, they are still being used to kill people, including civilians. For example, Switzerland is world's second largest export country for small arms ammunition. Although a manufacturer is not directly responsible for the way in which its products are used, it is highly hypocritical to sell dangerous products and at the same time blame those misusing them.

Swiss foreign policy officially pursues the prevention of armed violence, conflict resolution and peace consolidation. It invests in development and cooperation, in order to foster peace and security in Switzerland and abroad. However, the negative impact of arms trade (causing human and environmental destructions, and diverting resources from civilian needs, especially in southern countries), hampers gravely such efforts. Exporting arms is incompatible with the promotion of human security and of a stable global community.

War material represents only some 0.4% of the total value of Swiss exports. If the ban is accepted, the government will financially support the civilian conversion of the armament industry. Such conversion is already taking place with the evolution of markets, so it would be wise to invest already now in sectors such as green technologies and energies that are likely to provide more sustainable jobs.

Finally, arms exports are not very lucrative for the country as they are highly subsidized (the government covers the export risk which is quite high when selling weapons to poor countries; the purchase of military equipments from foreign countries is often tight to contracts for domestic industries, implying that their economic survival relies heavily on high expenses by the department of defence).

Help Us Win This Vote!

We are currently working hard on the campaign, confident that we can win this vote. The arms industry might have the money, but we have the better arguments! Of course, we are very pleased about any help we get. Especially, we are grateful for any information on Swiss arms being sold and used anywhere in the world.