Amnesty International Sudan: a child holds bullets in his hand. Amnesty International Switzerland

The issue of arms exports is a highly political one in Switzerland. There is a conflict of interest between the economy, security policy, and peacebuilding that neither legislation nor the allocation of responsibilities in the administration can overcome. Swiss civil society has a crucial role to play at both a national and international political level as well as in project countries. Exchanging information via platforms like KOFF helps develop a joint strategy to influence arms export policy from a peace policy point of view.

According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), worldwide arms sales between 2011 and 2015 climbed by 14% compared to the previous five years. The arms industry is growing and Swiss businesses such as RUAG (a federally owned defense company) are playing a part. Figures from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) reveal that Swiss companies exported CHF 446.6 million of war material to 71 countries in 2015, including to Saudi Arabia and its allies involved in the Yemen conflict after the export moratorium ended in April 2016.

Selling arms to other countries is a highly political issue, leading to heated debates in Switzerland amid tensions between the economy, security policy, and peacebuilding. This all revolves around assessing the integrity of potential buyers. Although all parties involved fundamentally share the same objective of promoting security, peace, and good living conditions for everyone, there is an ongoing debate over how best to achieve it. Economic considerations are of central importance to the arms industry, which sees the free market, job security, and Switzerland’s ability to compete as an industrial center as top priorities. Advocates of a military security policy believe that the army, the arms industry and the arms trade are important mainstays of state sovereignty and lay the foundations for stability and defense in Switzerland. For representatives of peacebuilding in civil society and politics, protecting human rights is key to the definition of security. They highlight the serious consequences of Swiss companies exporting war material to countries that are involved in military conflicts, that sell arms on to other countries at war, or that use them against their own people.

Legally, Swiss exports of arms or war material are regulated by the Swiss Federal War Material Act and the Goods Control Act. The War Material Act aims to fulfill Switzerland’s international obligations and the respect of its foreign policy principles by means of controlling the manufacture and transfer of war material. However, at the same time, a certain amount of capacity must be maintained in the arms industry in order to safeguard the country’s security. The scope for interpretation in the law correlates with the tense framework in which decisions relating to peacebuilding and security policy are being made.

Specific terminology used in legislation and further technological developments are also giving rise to controversial debates. For instance, Switzerland draws a distinction between war material and “specific military goods”, which are not subject to the strict export and licensing regulations under the War Material Act but to the more lax provisions of the Goods Control Act. The War Material Act only covers munitions and equipment that are not also used in civil contexts. However, technological developments have increased the potential for civil goods being converted and used for military purposes and it is the buyer who ultimately decides how these so-called dual-use goods will be employed. Subsequent inspections by Swiss authorities to check their use can be carried out under a non-re-export declaration. These are meant to prevent arms from being sold on to third countries that will use them against the civil population. However, they can only be contractually agreed for arms. The entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in late 2014 has relaxed the relatively strict legal framework even further.

The licensing procedure in arms exports is also complex. In principle, SECO decides on licenses for exports of war material. However, it is the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) that has the expertise to evaluate the human rights situation in the recipient country. If different federal offices reach different conclusions, SECO can present export deals to the Federal Council. With the legal provisions leaving a great deal of room for interpretation and weighting, there is a risk that individual parties could assert their own interests.

Swiss civil society therefore plays an important role in this respect: Swiss organizations involved in humanitarian aid, development cooperation, or peacebuilding are seeing the consequences of the presence of arms and their effects on the population every day. They have an in-depth insight into the situation on the ground and can document it with facts and figures. Organizations that advocate stronger controls on the arms trade in Switzerland and at international level can take advantage of this key information when they want to denounce specific war material exports or call for stricter enforcement of legislation and transparency in licensing practices. This also helps to actively engage public opinion.

A platform like KOFF offers such diverse actors a valuable opportunity to discuss these kinds of issues. In debates on topics such as the arms trade and its relevance to peace policy, experiences can be shared and the various points of view and strategies considered despite differences of opinion. This is a sign of a healthy democracy. KOFF also helps break through the silo mentality and reinforce a coherent peace policy that takes human rights seriously: jointly developed solutions have a greater potential to influence arms export policy.