Neutrality of Switzerland and Austria and their Applicability to Lebanon?
The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), in collaboration with the Embassy of Switzerland and the Embassy of Austria, held a conference about neutrality and Lebanon’s foreign policy on 20 November at the Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut. (Watch Video)
Following the end of the civil war in 1989, Lebanon’s foreign policy was largely influenced by Syria under the slogan that the “two countries share the same foreign policy track and destiny”. After the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the subsequent protests and withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, the Lebanese government tried to adopt a more independent foreign policy, known as “positive neutrality”. With increasing polarization between political parties generated by regional instability and the subsequent alliances with opposing regional and international actors, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati privileged a policy of dissociation. This policy, commonly referred to as the Baabda declaration, is proving to be challenging to uphold.
The main themes that were discussed in the conference included:
After an introduction by Mr. Sami Atallah, Executive Director of LCPS, H.E. Ruth Flint, Ambassador of Switzerland and H.E. Ursula Fahringer, Ambassador of Austria, the invited experts and political representatives, Dr. Fadia Kiwan, Dr. Lorenz Langer, Dr. Franz Cede, Mr. Rami Rayes, Mr. Sejaan Azzi, H.E. Mohammed Chatah, H.E. Ghassan Moukheiber, and Mr. Pierre Bou Assi presented their positions. The representative of the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc, H.E. Ali Fayyad, was unable to attend due to the attack on the Iranian embassy the previous day. The presentations were followed by questions for the audience.
Dr. Fadia Kiwan, Director of the Institute of Political Science at the Saint Joseph University, identified five obstacles in Lebanon’s history that so far have prevented it from preserving neutrality after independence:
1. Switzerland: Building the Tradition of Neutrality
Moderator and Discussant: Mr. Neemat Frem, President and CEO of INDEVCO Group and President of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists. (Watch Video)
Dr. Lorenz Langer, Managing Editor of the Swiss Review of International and European Law, provided an outline of the origins, development and current practice of Swiss neutrality. Subsequently he explained five functions and benefits of Swiss neutrality, which were as follows:
1. Neutrality was a means to shape and develop a distinct Swiss identity in an ethnically and linguistically diverse country;
2. It safeguarded independence, having powerful neighboring countries who respected its neutrality;
3. Swiss neutrality was not seen as a threat because it has a balancing function;
4. It enables Switzerland to offer space for dialogue to conflicting powers. Many peace conferences and international organizations are seated in Geneva;
5. Neutrality also has positive economic implications, although this is less relevant in a context of increasing international regulations and participation in economic sanctions.
The first four points are relevant to Lebanon, because they demonstrate that Switzerland was not always peaceful and unified. There were significant religious divisions, and only after a civil war and a French invasion was neutrality fully established and did it become a unifying factor. Neutrality relies on a balance of powers, internally and externally. It is also important to note that neutrality is a flexible concept, and that it can take an integral, differential, or active form. (Watch Video)
Mr. Rami Rayes, Progressive Socialist Party, argued that there are two factors that have prohibited Lebanon from achieving neutrality and consensus on several important issues. Although consensus has been reached at times, for instance in the national 2006 dialogue and in the 2012 Baabda declaration, it has failed in practice. Lebanon’s confessional system produces a divided country with a weak state, unable to agree on internal or external issues. Moreover, the regional context, meaning an increasingly intertwined relationship between religion and state, a significant rise of non-state actors, and a conflict between the Saudi and Iranian axes, stands in the way of Lebanon achieving neutrality. (Watch Video)
Mr. Sejaan Azzi, Kataeb Party, stated that his party was the first to officially propose the concept of neutrality in 1961 after the 1958 crisis. The party still supports “positive” neutrality and Islamic-Christian co-existence, because these concepts will be Lebanon’s savior. He also maintained that positive neutrality will not detach Lebanon from its surroundings and does not prohibit Lebanon from taking positions for instance in relation to the Palestinian cause, but it does prohibit military bias or intervention. Moreover, neutrality should not be seen as an ideology, but a tool. For 93 years, Lebanon has adopted the “alliance” policy: Alliances to the French, English, Egyptians, Saudis, and Americans. This has led to the disruption of the state constitutionally, the collapse of the most important free economy in the region, and the springing of religious strife. He stated that that if the Lebanese do not neutralize Lebanon now, he doubts they will be able to safeguard the unity of Lebanon. The Lebanese entity cannot be preserved in the current situation of multiple allegiances. He concluded that neutrality will not be adopted without a consensus on all sides. (Watch Video)
2. Austria: Navigating Regional Conflict Dynamics
Moderator and Discussant: Dr. Karam Karam, Senior Researcher at the Common Space Initiative. (Watch Video)
Dr. Franz Cede, Former Austrian Ambassador and Senior Advisor to the Austrian Institute on Europe and Security Policy, described how, following its defeat after the Second World War and its occupation by the Allied powers, Austria’s primary goal was to recover full sovereignty. To this end, it was compelled to adopt neutrality in 1955 as a way to restore Austria’s freedom, independence and sovereignty. Austria’s neutrality is a child of the Cold War and the country seized a window of opportunity in 1955.
Austria’s foreign policy is one of active neutrality. Austria joined the UN and plays an active role in the organization. In this context, neutrality does not mean ideological neutrality. In 1995 Austria joined the EU and therefore complies fully with European common foreign and security policies, which changed the neutrality position significantly.
Dr. Cede identified key points and lessons that can be learned from the Austrian experience: one cannot use the Austrian example and apply it directly to another context; the choice for neutrality has to fit the geopolitical context of the time; in Austria, unlike Sweden, neutrality is governed by international law; and Austria’s neutrality is not based on an outside agreement or guaranteed by any other state, but is based on a domestic treaty (1955). (Watch Video)
H.E. Mohammed Chatah, Future Movement, started by acknowledging that in Lebanon, talking about neutrality has been a taboo for many years. He argued that currently, Lebanon needs to adopt a policy of neutrality, already having the Baabda declaration to refer to, in order not to descend further into conflict. This process essentially includes three issues:
1. Lebanon should be neutral towards regional conflicts formally;
2. Lebanese non-state groups should not take part in external violent conflicts, and under no circumstances should there be armed groups in Lebanon as to not threaten the sovereignty of the state;
3. Other countries should neither use Lebanon as a theater of conflict nor use Lebanese groups for their own ends. In order to neutralize Lebanon, there is a need for internal and external balance, which is currently lacking.
However, there is also a window of opportunity for neutrality. In terms of a domestic balance, it was an important sign that the Baabda declaration gained so much public support. The Lebanese people might be divided, but they do not want to be involved in foreign conflicts. Moreover, many negotiations concerning current conflicts and involving the main powers in the region and the UN are taking place. These should have Lebanese neutrality on their agendas. Lebanese neutralization will not occur from the bottom up, but on a higher level, with the help of UN support, the current circumstances could transform into a moment of opportunity for Lebanon. (Watch Video)
H.E. Ghassan Moukheiber, Change and Reform Bloc, while voicing his own opinion, he stated his support for neutralizing Lebanon and also maintained that neutrality is not an objective in itself, but rather a means to an end, namely achieving full independence for Lebanon. He presented three pillars that are necessary for the best implementation of neutrality, namely:
1. An effective military system so that it becomes the sole defender of the Lebanese territory;
2. An effective democratic system, so that the Lebanese will not resort to external actors to strengthen their internal positions;
3.The establishment of a civil state. Today, the values of the Lebanese are too closely connected to religion and confessionalism.
Furthermore, he also identified five challenges that obstruct neutrality:
1. Firstly, what is the nature of neutrality? Should it be partial (e.g. only in regards to Syria), or total?
2. Neutrality vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict is a short-term, urgent necessity. However, can neutrality be applied to political conflicts as well, or only security ones? Even though neutrality would prohibit Lebanon to involve itself militarily, it still is allowed to voice its opinion about the conflict;
3.There is the issue of the state’s neutrality and that of non-state actors. The state is responsible for maintaining neutrality on all sides;
4. Neutrality means that Lebanon would have to choose between strengthening its military capacity, and eliminating it;
5. Internal consensus on neutrality is essential, which leads to another question: should an internal consensus on neutrality be accompanied by official regional recognition or acceptance and international guarantees? (Watch Video)
Mr. Pierre Bou Assi, Lebanese Forces, maintained that neutrality is a potential possibility, not a definitive solution. A national dialogue ought to happen to decide on the best formula for the stability and the development of Lebanon. Neutrality demands internal agreement, regional recognition and international support. The biggest impediment to its implementation is a lack of sovereignty. In order to achieve this, three types of sovereignty should be achieved:
1. Geographical sovereignty;
2. Political sovereignty, meaning an end to resorting to external forces;
3. Security sovereignty, meaning that there cannot be a co-existence of the state with other armed factions.
Finally, the Lebanese need to engage in a national dialogue to discuss whether neutrality is the best solution. He stated that the Lebanese Forces see neutrality as an option that is on the table and should be discussed further. (Watch Video)
Neutrality: Parties Willing to Engage in Further Discussion
The conference opened the debate on Lebanon’s willingness and ability to adopt a neutral foreign policy in light of the cases of Switzerland and Austria. These two countries have successfully managed to uphold neutrality in their foreign affairs and in the meantime secure domestic stability. As the conference demonstrated, various parties seem to be willing to engage in a dialogue exploring the possibilities of employing neutrality as means to achieve peace, independence and stability in Lebanon. Whether Lebanon is able to implement a policy of neutrality remains to be seen.