Practice Relating to Nuclear Weapons
Switzerland’s Regulation on Legal Bases for Conduct during an Engagement (2005) states:
232 International law does not explicitly prohibit recourse to nuclear weapons, but in the framework of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons the majority of States have already renounced possession of such weapons. In consideration of the principles of the international law of armed conflict (cf. in this respect the four basic principles of the international law of armed conflict, para. 158 et seq.
), legitimate recourse to nuclear weapons is, however, severely restricted.
Switzerland’s Federal Law on War Equipment (1996), as amended to 2013, states:
Article 7 Nuclear, biological and chemical weapons
1 It is prohibited:
a. to develop, produce, broker, acquire, transfer to anyone, import, export, carry in transit, or store nuclear, biological or chemical weapons (NBC weapons) or to possess them in any other way;
b. to incite anyone to carry out an act mentioned in letter a above;
c. to assist anyone to carry out an act mentioned in letter a above.
2 The foregoing prohibition does not apply to acts that are intended:
a. to enable the destruction of NBC weapons by the agencies responsible therefor; or
b. to provide protection against the effects of NBC weapons or to combat such effects.
3 The prohibition also applies to acts carried out abroad, irrespective of the law at the place of commission, if:
a. the acts violate international law agreements to which Switzerland is a party; and
b. the perpetrator is Swiss or is domiciled in Switzerland.
In 1996, during a debate in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, Switzerland stated:
The Swiss authorities are also following with interest all initiatives that can serve the goal of a safer world in which the possession of nuclear weapons will no longer be necessary. The recent progress made with the extension of nuclear-weapon-free zones in Africa, South-East Asia and in the South Pacific is encouraging. The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice of 8 July 1996 on the illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, as well as proposals for the elimination of nuclear weapons made by the Canberra Commission, are other examples.
Switzerland’s ABC of International Humanitarian Law (2009) states:
This category of weapon includes atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs (thermonuclear) and neutron bombs. While atomic bombs such as those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 are not banned as such by international law, they are affected by other bans – on testing, manufacture, stockpiling, etc. According to a 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the use of nuclear weapons is usually a violation of international humanitarian law due to the scale of their impact, even though there is no comprehensive ban in Customary international law, nor indeed in international treaty law.
… Although not expressly prohibited, the use of Nuclear weapons is in basic contradiction to international humanitarian law, in particular with regard to the principles of Distinction and Proportionality.
Weapons of mass destruction
The definition of weapons of mass destruction includes Nuclear weapons
as well as Biological
and Chemical weapons
. They differ from other Weapons
in their capability to injure and kill people and destroy property on a massive scale, as well as to cause extensive and lasting damage to the environment.
In 2009, in its Report on Foreign Policy, Switzerland’s Federal Council stated:
Disarmement and non-proliferation
The current world still knows large arsenals and the risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. With changing relations of power in the world, disarmament and non-proliferation are of particular importance. This is a domain in which Switzerland has always been strongly engaged; it will continue to pursue and intensify its efforts, particularly on the issue of nuclear non-proliferation.
[emphasis in original]
The Federal Council further stated in the section on disarmament and non-proliferation:
Switzerland’s second priority focuses on the total elimination of all weapons of mass destruction and the prevention of their dissemination … The absence of progress, in particular on nuclear and biological weapons, more and more erodes the value of the instruments concerning them.
… This is the reason that Switzerland seeks to reinforce the multilateral aspects of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and supports the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to prevent nuclear proliferation. … In view of the NPT [1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] review conference in 2010, it will also seek to achieve a balanced compromise between disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. …
In order to contribute to the reinforcement of the multilateral disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation structure, Switzerland presented in 2007 and 2008, with five other States, a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly calling for the reduction of the alert status of nuclear weapons. The issue of “de-alerting” is being further considered through a study requested by Switzerland, the review of which will be carried out in the medium term.
Switzerland foresees the intensification of its engagement in the field of nuclear disarmament in the following years. It will offer its good offices in disarmament negotiations and will engage in favour of the prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons and the transparency of nuclear arsenals.
[footnotes in original omitted; emphasis in original]
In 2010, in its Report on Foreign Policy, Switzerland’s Federal Council stated:
Nuclear weapons: the  Treaty on [the] Non-Proliferation [of Nuclear Weapons] (NPT) is an essential part of maintaining the stability and security of the international system. This treaty has unfortunately experienced a certain erosion during the last decade. …
The fact that the NPT Review conference of 2010 was able to adopt a final consensus document … is … a positive event. … [T]he final document establishes for the first time a link between the use of nuclear weapons and the need to respect international humanitarian law, and alludes for the first time to the negotiation of a convention on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. In contrast, the final document does not contain a precise calendar for the disarmament actions to be undertaken … In any case, the final document and the action plan it contains provide a new basis for the work in the years to come.
Convinced of the need to move forward on the road of nuclear disarmament, Switzerland … notably established an interdepartmental task force
in 2008, which concentrated on several Swiss initiatives in this domain. This applies, for example, to the issue of dealerting
– reduction of the alert status of nuclear weapons – where Switzerland and a group of States introduced a new resolution before the United Nations General Assembly in 2007.
[emphasis in original]
The Federal Council further stated: “As the Federal Council indicated in its Report on Foreign Policy 2009 and its Report on Security Policy 2010, nuclear disarmament will be a top priority.”
In 2011, Switzerland’s Federal Council issued a “Communiqué on the continuation of measures promoting peace and human security 2012–2016”, which stated:
Unlike other weapons of mass destruction – chemical and biological weapons – nuclear weapons are not yet prohibited. Still, their use would not spare the civilian population and would violate humanitarian law. The moment to open the negotiations on a convention prohibiting nuclear weapons has yet to come. Nevertheless, the ground could and should be prepared to facilitate such negotiations. It is a question of delegitimising the use of nuclear weapons, highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of such use and the resulting breach of humanitarian law. Switzerland promoted this approach at the Eighth Review Conference of the  Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NTP) in 2010 and will reinforce its action in this field.
In 2012, in its Report on Foreign Policy 2011, Switzerland’s Federal Council stated:
In Switzerland, the interdepartmental taskforce
, established in 2008 to support various activities in the area of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, has stepped up its work. It promotes initiatives that aim to challenge the legitimacy of nuclear weapons by emphasizing the humanitarian impact that any recourse to these weapons would trigger and resulting violations of international humanitarian law. The taskforce equally supports highly practical initiatives aiming to achieve progress in the short-term, such as decreasing the alert level of nuclear weapons or application of the principle of irreversibility in nuclear disarmament.
In 2012, Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs issued a press release entitled “Official visit to Bern by the Israeli Foreign Minister”, which stated: “Switzerland has declared its positions in favour of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. In this context, it has in particular mentioned the objective of holding a conference in the coming months on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.”
In 2012, in a statement before the First Committee of the UN General Assembly on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament, made on behalf of a number of countries, the ambassador of Switzerland stated:
The sheer horror of the use of nuclear weapons informed the very first resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 and was later reflected in key multilateral documents. The NPT Preamble refers to the “devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples”. The First Special Session of the General Assembly devoted to Disarmament (SSOD-1) stressed in 1978 that nuclear weapons pose the greatest danger to mankind and to the survival of civilization. Several decades after their adoption, these expressions of concern are as pertinent as ever and will remain so for as long as nuclear weapons remain.
If such weapons were to be used, be it intentionally or accidentally, immense humanitarian consequences would be unavoidable. As the ICRC has already concluded, international organisations providing emergency relief would be unable to fulfill their mandates. In addition to the immediate fatalities, survivors of the horrendous effects of a nuclear explosion would endure immeasurable suffering. Studies have shown that the radiation released by even a single nuclear weapon would affect populations, agriculture and natural resources over a very wide area and also constitute a very real threat for future generations. Further studies conclude that even a “limited nuclear exchange” – in itself a contradiction in terms – would cause a global climate change with such a serious and long-lasting impact on the environment and food production that it could cause a global famine affecting over a billion people.
The grave humanitarian concerns resulting from the unique destructive capacity and uncontrollable effects in space and time of nuclear weapons also raise important legal issues. All rules of international humanitarian law apply fully to nuclear weapons, notably the rules of distinction, proportionality and precaution, as well as the prohibition on causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering and the prohibition against causing widespread, severe and long-term damage to the environment. In November last year, the Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a Resolution emphasizing not only the incalculable human suffering resulting from any use of nuclear weapons but also stressing that it is difficult to envisage how any use of nuclear weapons could be compatible with the rules of international humanitarian law.
It is of utmost importance that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances. The only way to guarantee this is the total, irreversible and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, under effective international control, including through the full implementation of Article VI of the NPT [1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons]. All States must intensify their efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons and achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. Civil society plays a crucial role in raising the awareness about the devastating humanitarian consequences as well as the critical IHL implications of nuclear weapons.
The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons concern the community of States as a whole. Accordingly, the United Nations General Assembly has a particularly important role in addressing this matter in a comprehensive fashion.
In 2012, in a report on Switzerland’s arms control and disarmament policy, Switzerland’s Federal Council stated: “Switzerland is in favour of the prohibition of all types of weapons of mass destruction, as these pose heavy threats against international security as well as against populations”.
In the report, Switzerland’s Federal Council also stated:
Switzerland has been working for a long time to stigmatize the use of nuclear weapons, following the example of the recourse to chemical or biological weapons, as well as to prohibit, in a verifiable way, the possession of nuclear weapons. It encourages and supports unilateral and bilateral efforts aiming at abandoning the existing stockpiles.
… Switzerland views the following aspects of the final document [of the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons] as of key importance:
- At the initiative of Switzerland, special mention has been given to the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament: the conference declared itself profoundly concerned about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that the use of nuclear weapons would have and called on all States to respect applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.
… Furthermore, within the framework of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD) which has been deadlocked for years, Switzerland pursues formal adoption of a work plan to negotiate other legally binding instruments on nuclear disarmament.
With the progress achieved in the area of disarmament within the existing institutional framework remaining generally unsatisfactory, together with other like-minded countries Switzerland has started to work on the development of approaches to nuclear disarmament that would lead to effective and credible results. That is why it pursues its efforts to delegitimize nuclear weapons and continue to demand a global approach to the problem of nuclear weapons.
In the report, Switzerland’s Federal Council further stated:
In the nuclear area, [Switzerland] shall focus in particular on preparing the ground for the prohibition of nuclear weapons. The disarmamament perspective in its “classic” understanding must be extended in order to integrate humanitarian aspects. It will be necessary to delegitimize both the possession and the use of nuclear weapons by highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of such a use and the violation of international humanitarian law it entails.
In 2013, in its Report on Foreign Policy 2012, Switzerland’s Federal Council stated:
In 2012, Switzerland continued in its efforts to redefine the terms of the debate on nuclear disarmament, placing the humanitarian question at its heart. On the basis of a Swiss proposal, this dimension was introduced in the review process of the  Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 2010. During the First Session of the Preparatory Committee of the 2015 NPT Review Conference (Vienna, April-May 2012), Switzerland and sixteen other States issued a joint statement. In October 2012, during the session of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, this group has expanded to include 35 States, showing a growing interest in this topic, which, furthermore, has been reinforced by a study financed by Switzerland about the concrete negative effects that even a limited use of nuclear weapons would have on the global climate and, by extension, on food production and security. Moreover, the humanitarian imperative of nuclear disarmament was underlined by Switzerland during the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul and at the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago.
In 2013, in a statement at the Fourth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the ambassador of Switzerland stated: “[C]luster munitions have been now classified in Swiss law in the category of prohibited arms, which already include nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as well as anti-personnel mines.”
In 2013, in a statement before the First Committee of UN General Assembly, the permanent representative of Switzerland stated:
Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and achieving a world free of such arms remain objectives that the international community must pursue with resolution and determination. Recent efforts have underlined that the use of nuclear weapons would have devastating immediate and long-term effects that could not be effectively addressed. Such humanitarian consequences would be unacceptable.