Neutrality: a changing concept?

Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres during a conference in Beirut, Lebanon, last December (Reuters)

Did you know that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has declared the International Neutrality Day? Presented by Turkmenistan, Resolution 71/275 of 2017 declares December 12 as the International Day of Neutrality – and invites all Member States to mark its observance. In more substantive terms, it suggests that the General secretary continue to cooperate closely with neutral States, with a view to implementing the principles of preventive diplomacy, while using those principles in their mediation activities (all with only voluntary contributions, of course!).

So what does neutrality really mean in 2021? Surely everyone will think first of Swiss, the State most unequivocally committed to permanent armed neutrality, and in Geneva, headquarters of the Red Cross International and home of the ONUG, as well as numerous UN programs and agencies. Swiss neutrality formally dates back to Congress of Vienna of 1815, and Swiss it has long prided itself on its good offices and its role as a protective or mediating power. For the Red Cross, its basis in Swiss neutral reinforces its impartiality and, therefore, its effectiveness in caring for the victims of the conflict.

However, neutrality, even in SwissIt is not a static concept. When I was UNOG Chief of Staff – quite some time ago – the Swiss electorate shocked us by voting by a three-to-one margin not to enter the HIM-HER-IT. It was in 1986, and one of the main reasons given was that joining the HIM-HER-IT would endanger the neutrality of Swiss. Even in Geneva, 70% were against accession. However, 15 years later, in another referendum, the Swiss electorate decided – in a tight vote – to enter the HIM-HER-IT. Apparently, UN membership was no longer considered incompatible with neutrality. And now, Swiss is willing to enter Security Council next year as a non-permanent member. It would take a much longer article than this to analyze the changing motivations behind these various positions, but it is clear that it is not possible to point to a hard and fast definition of neutrality beyond the basic premise of “not taking sides in a conflict”. ”.

The other leading neutral states of EuropeAustria, Sweden, Finland e Ireland– they had no such qualms about joining the UN, and they all take a different approach to neutrality. As a young diplomat serving in Vienna (also quite some time ago), I was frequently reminded of the demands of the Austrian State Treaty, the 1955 agreement with the four occupying powers (Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France and United States) that forced Austria not to join any military alliance, and which led to Austria to declare its permanent neutrality, while that same year it joined the UN. Austria stated that it would pursue a policy of “active neutrality”, offering his good offices for matters East West. And now, Vienna has, of course, become the third seat of the UN, after New York Y Geneva.

In Sweden, the question of neutrality is a fairly live topic today, although not with respect to the UN. Sweden has long defended the HIM-HER-IT and sees no problem with the country’s neutrality status. In fact, the most famous of all the general secretaries of the HIM-HER-IT maybe it’s swedish Day Hammarskjold. The current discussion of Sweden it revolves around a closer partnership with NATO, the Western military alliance with which the country already has some degree of cooperation. Membership in NATO, unlike the universality of the nations united, would clearly put an end to neutrality, but there are many voices in the country that would opt for membership in the OTAN as a realistic policy in the current problematic geopolitical situation, as well as many others that would lean toward neutrality.

Finland e Ireland they are other European states that have opted for neutrality at one time or another in their national history and maintain this option today. Like Sweden Y Austria (Y Cyprus Y Malta, two other states declared neutral), are members of the HIM-HER-IT and of the EU, but not from the OTAN. And these affiliations raise questions: Is it strictly neutral to support the sanctions imposed by the UN on another state? Perhaps the characteruniversal” from HIM-HER-IT allow this type of action without endangering neutrality, but what about the EU, with its growing initiatives in the framework of a Common Security and Defense Policy? At least Costa Rica and other neutral countries beyond Europe They don’t have these problems.

The first Secretary General of the UN, Trygve Liedeclared that international organizations and neutrality were on two different planes. Now we have the UNGA promoting respect for neutrality as an instrument of preventive diplomacy. Woodrow Wilson, bitterly frustrated by the refusal of the United States Congress to join the Society of nations, dismissed armed neutrality as “pretty ineffective at best”, although the international solidarity shown by some of the main neutral countries –Sweden, Austria and Switzerland– has been exemplary for a long time. Ultimately, this is a political question, not one of international law.

The neutrality debate is linked to domestic political debates pitting isolationists against interventionists – a debate that has long been going on in state United and that crosses the lines of the parties of the left and right. And when we discuss humanitarian intervention and national sovereignty, we raise some of the same questions. Furthermore, on various historical occasions, for example during the WWII, neutrality may have been more a matter of survival than free choice. The way to see neutrality today depends on changing political currents, on alliances that change with new conditions, on new threats and challenges in the face of which no one can remain “neutral”, but this is far from the strictly political neutrality understood by that Resolution 75/170, with which we began.

* Michael Stopford is a former member of the UN Secretariat and UNOG Chief of Staff. Article originally published in UN Today.

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