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"Arms control and disarmament are currently going through a turbulent period"

The global power structure is in flux. New technologies and the nature of conflict are changing radically. This is highlighted by the crisis in Ukraine and unresolved issues concerning Europe's security architecture. In the Federal Council's Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy, President of the Confederation Ignazio Cassis indicates that Switzerland wishes to continue tried-and-tested approaches while also adopting innovative new ones. This contributes to greater security and strengthens Switzerland’s role.

Image showing rockets flying in different directions with planet Earth in the background.

Rapid technological advances are changing the means and methods of warfare. More actors are gaining access to new types of weapons – a situation that creates challenges for arms control. © shutterstock

"Switzerland … wants … to participate actively in the elaboration of norms to regulate the use of new technologies in conflict – such as autonomous weapons," writes Ignazio Cassis, President of the Swiss Confederation, in the foreword to Switzerland’s first ever Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy 2022−25.

Switzerland attaches great importance to preserving and developing the international arms control and disarmament architecture. It wants to lend fresh impetus to stalled processes and play an active role.

One example of this is Switzerland's commitment as part of the Stockholm Initiative, where it has drawn up a package of measures aimed at containing nuclear weapons risks. Twenty-five states have already given their support to the Swiss proposal.

Switzerland wants to participate actively in the elaboration of norms to regulate the use of new technologies in conflict – such as autonomous weapons.
Ignazio Cassis, President of the Swiss Confederation

New technologies raise fundamental questions about the future of humanity

Lots of drones flying over a military facility near a forest.
The Federal Council's new Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy aims to shape the agenda and contribute towards developing rules and designing innovative instruments. © shutterstock

Technological breakthroughs can make the world a safer place and save human lives. Some applications can nevertheless undermine key norms and values and destabilise the world. Warfare in the age of robotics, autonomous weapons and genetic engineering raises fundamental questions about the future of humanity. There is still time to avoid the dehumanisation of armed conflicts and to prevent technology from becoming a driver of conflict.

The new strategy aims to shape the agenda in this respect. Switzerland wants to contribute internationally to developing clear rules and designing innovative disarmament instruments. The strategy adopts this approach in various fields of action.

In the strategy, the Federal Council focuses on the challenge presented by autonomous weapons and fulfils postulate 21.3012, of 25 January 2021, submitted by the National Council's Security Policy Committee. Switzerland is committed to working towards an international agreement to ensure human control and prevent autonomous weapons that do not comply with the law. 

Switzerland – an innovative actor and credible bridge-builder

Switzerland's first ever disarmament strategy positions it as a bridge-builder and credible actor that seizes the initiative in this policy area. It endeavours to achieve viable solutions and contributes towards improving security in Europe and worldwide. It is committed to ensuring that compliance with international law, including international humanitarian law, takes precedence over political or military power.

The strategy seeks to consolidate tried-and-tested approaches, while also providing fresh impetus to adopt new ones and to take advantage of existing strengths and upcoming opportunities, such as Switzerland’s candidacy for the UN Security Council for 2023–24.

The domestic political dimension is also taken into account: there is political debate over how the goal of nuclear disarmament can best be achieved under current conditions. In this respect, Switzerland has decided to defer accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). It will re-evaluate the matter in light of further developments in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and after participating in the first TPNW Conference of State Parties as an observer. Switzerland will advocate for constructive, synergy-based collaboration and will continue to emphasise that humanitarian consequences must remain a driving force for disarmament.

Re-thinking arms control and developing new solutions

Night sky and a rocket leaving a tracer in its wake.
Through its new Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy, the Federal Council is seeking to raise its profile in a number of dossiers, one of which is outer space. © FDFA

The Federal Council attaches great importance to maintaining and further developing the international arms control and disarmament architecture. Eliminating weapons of mass destruction and the reducting of the impact of armed violence remain among its goals.

"These are turbulent times for arms control and disarmament," explains the President of the Swiss Confederation. On the one hand, new global power relations – particularly the geopolitical rivalry between major powers – are making these efforts more difficult. On the other, new technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of conflict and crisis management. "This means we must both re-think arms control and develop innovative solutions," he adds.

Switzerland must contribute to the considerations on how to address the changes in disarmament due to rapid technical progress – also in view of the polarisation and erosion tendencies, for example the termination of and non-compliance with agreements or attempts to drag out negotiations.

The Federal Council is continuing its commitment in cyberspace in the aim of achieving stability. With regard to outer space, it aims to strengthen its positioning, revive stalled processes and generate fresh momentum. 

Harnessing full potential by adopting a whole-of-Switzerland approach

The disarmament strategy concerns all departments and was drawn up as part of a broad-based consultation process with the various competent authorities. Partner states, international organisations, NGOs and representatives of academia were also involved. Annual joint monitoring is planned.

The strategy will be implemented by of a whole-of-Switzerland approach, "to enable Swiss foreign policy to realise its full potential in the field of arms control and disarmament," emphasises the President of the Swiss Confederation.

The strategy will be implemented by a whole-of-Switzerland approach to allow Swiss foreign policy to realise its full potential in the field of arms control and disarmament.
Ignazio Cassis, President of the Swiss Confederation

Digital hub in Geneva: leveraging even more synergies for disarmament purposes

Rapid, sometimes groundbreaking, technological developments over the past 20 years have dramatically changed the framework for arms control and disarmament and continue to do so. Digitalisation and new technologies present opportunities as well as challenges. That also applies to Switzerland and International Geneva.

Geneva is well positioned as a global hub of digital governance. This provides an ideal platform for utilising synergies even more effectively for disarmament purposes

The Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy's five fields of action

This first disarmament strategy starts by outlining its relevance to Switzerland and looking at past developments. It then explores the changes in the geopolitical environment and the major lines of technological development. Next it sets out the principles governing Switzerland's action as a credible and proactive actor and the goals and measures in the five fields of action:

  • Nuclear weapons
  • Chemical and biological weapons
  • Conventional weapons
  • Autonomous weapons
  • Cyberspace and outer space

This strategy represents the Federal Council's fulfilment of postulate 21.3012, of 25 January 2021, submitted by the National Council's Security Policy Committee. The postulate tasks the Federal Council with assessing how an operational doctrine for future autonomous weapons systems and artificial intelligence in security infrastructure could be formulated, taking account of international ethical standards, and with identifying opportunities for Switzerland to promote relevant ethical standards internationally.

Arms control has various dimensions. In addition to ceilings and reducing arsenals, entire categories of weapons, or their use, can also be prohibited. A key element of arms control is 'non-proliferation', as disarmament can be made sustainable by preventing proliferation. This means that the two terms 'arms control' and 'disarmament' in the strategy's title encompass the 'non-proliferation' of weapons and their components (ADN).

Actively contributing to greater security worldwide

The Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy identifies five areas of action and sets out specific measures in each one of them. Here are a few examples. 

Stockholm Initiative: building blocks for nuclear disarmament

With a view to the 10th Review Conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), set to be held this year, Switzerland is working with the Stockholm Initiative. This group meets at ministerial level. It aims to give the NPT fresh impetus and promotes specific and pragmatic steps towards disarmament. A working paper by the group includes a set of stepping stones for advancing nuclear disarmament.

Success in combating chemical weapons

The States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) approved a decision put forward by Australia, the US and Switzerland by a large majority at the end of 2021 in The Hague: the use of chemicals that attack the central nervous system is prohibited under national law enforcement. This is a major step towards strengthening the ban on chemical weapons, which has come under pressure.

Pioneering role in ammunition management – at bilateral and multilateral level

The improper management of ammunition makes it easier for unauthorised recipients, such as armed groups, to obtain it. This also increases the risk of unintended explosions in ammunition stockpiles with often far-reaching consequences for the civilian population, infrastructure and the environment.

Switzerland supports partner states, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, by providing expertise, donating materials and making financial contributions to help them assume responsibility for ammunition management in accordance with international standards.

Switzerland is also playing a pioneering role multilaterally: It attracted international attention through an initiative in Geneva from 2015 to 2018, contributing to the UN's decision to specifically address the issue. 

Demining makes land usable for the population again

Anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants of war indiscriminately kill and injure people long after conflicts have ended. They contaminate the land, prevent economic activity and hinder the return of displaced persons. Around 60 states and regions are still affected by them.

In 2020, Switzerland contributed around 17 million francs to support 15 countries with humanitarian mine action activities. For example, an SDC project contributed to the handing back of over 15 square kilometres of land to the local population in Cambodia, benefiting over 116,900 people. In addition, Switzerland sent 12 demining experts from the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) to support UN missions. 

New disarmament strategy makes Swiss foreign policy more coherent

In relation to the Foreign Policy Strategy 2020−23 (FPS 20−23), the new Arms Control and Disarmament Strategy 2022–25 focuses on the FPS' 'Peacebuilding and security' thematic focus area.

To make Switzerland's foreign policy more coherent, the FPS 2020–23 and its follow-up strategies form a strategy cascade. In this vein, the disarmament strategy fleshes out the FPS 2020–23 in greater depth as the fourth thematic follow-up strategy.