Neutrality: a changing concept?

In 2017 the UNGA declared the International Day of Neutrality. But what does this mean today?
December 2021 | Opinion Article
By Michael Stopford, Founder and Managing Partner at ANCORED

Did you know that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has declared an International Day of Neutrality? Introduced by Turkmenistan, Resolution 71/275 of 2017 declares 12 December the International Day of Neutrality – and invites all Member States to mark its observance. More substantively, it suggests that the Secretary-General should 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 only with voluntary contributions, of course!).

So what does neutrality really mean in 2021? No doubt everyone’s thoughts will first turn to Switzerland, the state most unequivocally committed to a permanent armed neutrality, and to Geneva, the seat of the International Red Cross and home to UNOG, as well as numerous UN programmes and agencies. Swiss neutrality formally dates back to the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and Switzerland has long prided itself on its good offices and its role as a protecting power or a mediator. For the Red Cross, its base in neutral Switzerland reinforces its impartiality and hence its efficacy in caring for victims of conflict.

Is it strictly neutral to go along with UN sanctions imposed against another state?

Finland and Ireland are other European states which have elected for neutrality at one point or other in their national history and maintain this choice today. Like Sweden and Austria (and Cyprus and Malta, two other professedly neutral states), they are members of the UN, the EU, but not of NATO. And, these memberships do raise questions: Is it strictly neutral to go along with UN sanctions imposed against another state? Perhaps the ‘universal’ nature of the UN allows for such action without jeopardising neutrality, but what of the EU, with its growing initiatives under a Common Security and Defence Policy? At least Costa Rica and other neutrals beyond Europe have no such issues.

The first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, declared that international organisations and neutrality were on two different planes. Now we have the UNGA encouraging respect for neutrality as an instrument of preventive diplomacy. Woodrow Wilson, bitterly frustrated by the US Congress’ refusal to join the League of Nations, dismissed armed neutrality as “ineffectual enough at best”, yet the international solidarity demonstrated by some of the core neutral countries – Sweden, Austria and Switzerland – has long been exemplary. Ultimately, this is all about politics, not international law. The debate over neutrality is linked to domestic political debates pitting isolationists against interventionists: a debate long current in the US and one that straddles party lines of left and right. And, when we debate humanitarian intervention and national sovereignty, we raise some of the same sets of issues. Moreover, in several historical occasions, for example during World War II, neutrality may have been more a question of survival than of free choice. How we view neutrality today depends on shifting political currents, on alliances changing 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, where we began.

About the author(s)

Michael Stopford is the Founder and Managing Partner of ANCORED. He has led strategic communications and managed reputations for some of the world’s most famous names: from Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil, to the United Nations, NATO and the World Bank

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