Invoking its principle of neutrality, Switzerland refuses to treat wounded Ukrainians


The war in Ukraine is once again testing the « perpetual neutrality » from Switzerland. It is moreover in the name of this principle that the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) refused to receive the wounded Ukrainians in its hospitals, according to the revelations of the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Monday, July 18. However, the cantons and hospitals were in favor of it.

This request was made last May by the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC), NATO’s crisis center responsible for coordinating humanitarian assistance in the event of natural or man-made disasters. It was about healing « Ukrainian patients reflecting the full range of treatments »soldiers as well as civilians, war wounded such as cancer patients or road accident patients.

Ukrainian wounded should be imprisoned in Switzerland

To justify itself, the FDFA invokes Article 37 of the 1949 Geneva Convention on the disembarkation of the wounded and sick in neutral countries – what is Switzerland. This provides that once restored, the « Wounded or sick shall, unless otherwise agreed by the neutral State with the Parties to the conflict, be guarded by the neutral State, […] so that they cannot again take part in the operations of war ». Thus, Switzerland would be obliged to imprison the soldiers. Or, alternatively, Russia would have to authorize their return to Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine puts Switzerland’s « perpetual neutrality » to the test

This article does not, however, preclude the reception of civilians. What Johannes Matyassy, ​​director of the consular direction of the FDFA, retorts to the Tages-Anzeiger : « It is almost impossible to distinguish civilians from soldiers. At the moment in Ukraine, many civilians are also taking up arms. »

Rather than treating Ukrainians on Swiss soil, the authorities prefer to help them directly « on the spot » and granting Swiss humanitarian aid to Ukrainian civilian hospitals. For Johannes Matyassy, « it doesn’t make much sense to transport patients across half of Europe if you can help them on the spot ».

A contradiction with the Swiss « humanitarian tradition »

There is no obligation for third countries to take in war wounded, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, contacted by the RTS. The FDFA’s decision to refuse to treat wounded Ukrainians on its soil nevertheless caused an outcry in Switzerland. « From a humanitarian point of view, it would have been desirable to welcome civilians »laments for his part Lukas Engelberger, president of the Conference of Cantonal Health Directors (CDS).

« How is it that Switzerland refuses to take in injured people? A country that habitually emphasizes its humanitarian tradition at every opportunity? », wonders The Tribune of Geneva. A country which also takes great pride in having been at the origin of the Red Cross. « Neutrality imposes duties on us and gives us rights »launches the former President of the Confederation Ruth Dreifuss in a column in the newspaper Time. « The obligation to care for the sick and wounded, military or civilian, who cannot be cared for because of a war, must prevail over any other consideration ».

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Switzerland distinguishes the right to neutrality – codified in the Hague Conventions of 1907 and concerning in particular non-participation in international conflicts – from the policy of neutrality. The latter is not governed by rules of law and « depends on an analysis of the current international context »indicates the FDFA on its website, which adds that Switzerland « adjusts its neutrality taking into account the needs of international solidarity, by putting it at the service of maintaining peace and prosperity ». So many parameters and variables that make the Swiss position complex.

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