photo credit: ICAN / Anastasia Karpenko

Will Switzerland stand up for its humanitarian tradition and join the TPNW?


Despite being one of the most prominent supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons during its negotiations, Switzerland has not yet acceded to the TPNW. However, the Federal Council is currently reassessing whether to join. Together with the Institute of European Studies at the University of Zurich, ICAN organised a well-attended event on 20 February 2023 to feature a discussion nuclear weapons, their humanitarian consequences and misconceptions around the TPNW. Speakers included Alexander Kmentt, President of the  first meeting of states parties to the TPNW, and Martin Dahinden, former Swiss ambassador to the United States.

During the presentation and discussion, the anomaly of Switzerlands reluctance to adhere to the TPNW became evident. Switzerland has long been committed to a world without weapons of mass destruction. In this spirit, it also participated in the negotiations for a ban on nuclear weapons within the framework of the United Nations. Signing the treaty would therefore be the continuation of a principle of Swiss foreign policy that has been established for decades and has also long been confirmed in official government reports and strategies on arms control and disarmament.

Participants also emphasized the TPNWs complementarity to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT remains the cornerstone of global efforts against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The states parties to the TPNW are committed to the goals of the NPT, as expressed very clearly at the first meeting of state parties of the TPNW. There is no provision in the TPNW that leads to a weakening of the obligations under the NPT. Moreover, the states parties to the TPNW are all also states parties to the NPT and see the TPNW as an impetus for the nuclear disarmament obligations set out in the NPT.

The war in Ukraine has called into question the security order in Europe and beyond. It is precisely the nuclear threats by Russia that make a ban on nuclear weapons particularly urgent. The first meeting of states parties to the TPNW has condemned these and all threats to use nuclear weapons becoming  the first multilateral forum to do so. The adopted language was later used by leaders of states not party to the TPNW, such as German Chancellor Scholz, Chinese President Xi and the G20 at their 2022 summit in Indonesia.

The current state of international relations is no reason to slacken efforts towards nuclear disarmament. History proves that times of tension can also offer opportunities. The experience of the Cold War has shown that breakthroughs in nuclear arms control occurred precisely in times of highest tension, for instance, after the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world stood on the precipice of a nuclear war talks were begun that led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty and later the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Switzerland is committed to initiatives aimed at reducing nuclear risks. This commitment is important and should definitely be continued. However, it is no substitute for helping realise the long-term goal of a world without weapons of mass destruction, nor is it a wise compromise between a ban on nuclear weapons and the stance of the nuclear-weapon states.

Switzerlands decision on the TPNW will also be made in light of its close cooperation with NATO. Participants at the conference argued that Switzerland's accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons would not affect deepening cooperation with NATO, pointing to the example of Austria and Ireland that have also remained NATO partner states with cooperation programmes after joining the TPNW. There is also an increasingly constructive engagement with the TPNW in NATO countries. Germany, for example, has announced that it will play a bridge-building role between NATO and TPNW member states. 

Switzerland joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offers opportunities for Switzerland as a host state of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament. It can act as a bridge builder, including to states of the global South that have so far been insufficiently involved in international arms control efforts. Because nuclear weapons violate fundamental norms of international humanitarian law, it would be difficult to understand if Switzerland, as depositary state of the Geneva Conventions and seat of the ICRC, were to stay away from the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. By becoming a state party to the TPNW, Switzerland would call on all nuclear-weapon states to conduct negotiations at a time when nuclear disarmament is more important than ever.

Further, public and political support for signing the TPNW is high. Both chambers of the Swiss parliament voted to join the treaty with a cross-party majority. The largest Swiss cities have signed the ICAN Cities Appeal and called upon the federal government to sign and ratify the treaty. 34 prominent Swiss personalities, including former federal councillors, state secretaries and presidents of the ICRC, have signed an appeal to the same end. It is time the Federal Council follows suit and joins the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.