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Parliament in favor of Switzerland’s pioneering role in debate on reparations

Updated at 07 Mar 2024 9:10 pm

Parliament wants Switzerland to get involved in the debate on the international legal basis for the confiscation of Russian state assets. This was decided by the Council of States on Thursday. It was preceded by a debate on questions of international law.

The small chamber adopted five identical motions from the National Council by 21 votes to 19 with three abstentions.

The text of the motion calls on the Federal Council to take measures to ensure that the international legal basis for a reparations mechanism is developed at international level. This should make it possible to legally transfer frozen funds from the central bank of an aggressor or the assets of state-owned companies to an attacked state.

Specifically, it concerned reparation payments to Ukraine from Russian state assets - and in particular the frozen funds of the Russian central bank.

The National Council adopted the motions in the fall session. Five members of the SP, Greens, GLP, Center and FDP parliamentary groups had submitted them before the October 2023 elections. The Federal Council agreed with the mandate. It can now set about implementing it.

"I urge caution"

The Legal Affairs Committee of the Council of States (RK-S) voted 7 to 5 in favor of rejecting the motions. Majority spokesman Pirmin Schwander (SVP/SZ) said that it was undisputed that state assets were protected under international law by sovereign immunity. It was not in Switzerland's interest to water down this principle.

The majority of the Commission was also of the opinion that the motions were unnecessary, as Switzerland is already involved in the debates at international level on a reparations mechanism.

International law protects the small states, not the big ones, said Daniel Jositsch (SP/ZH): "We need to strengthen international law." However, the motions and the efforts already underway by the Federal Council were going in the opposite direction. "I therefore urge caution".

Beat Rieder (center/VS) also emphasized that the motions should be rejected from a legal perspective. This was not about a moral assessment: "Morally, we all want to help Ukraine."

Open questions

Like Jositsch, Rieder also pointed out that claims could also be made against Switzerland in the future. The Councillor of States from the canton of Valais also pointed out numerous unanswered questions in connection with reparations. For example, it is unclear how a state should function if it is deprived of the necessary assets. It was also unclear how a state could be forced to pay without triggering a war.

Minority spokesperson Andrea Caroni (FDP/AR) countered the opponents of the motions by stating that it was not disputed that Ukraine itself could access Russian assets. "Anyone who unlawfully causes damage to another state must compensate it. That is a basic principle."

The Council of States from Ausserrhoden outlined a possible line of argument according to which the Russian war of aggression not only harms Ukraine, but the entire international community, which has an interest in peace. The international community could therefore possibly also make claims against Russia. Caroni emphasized that the motion did not anticipate an answer to this question.

Contributing skills

According to the FDP politician, it is a matter of sounding out the existing legal framework and, if necessary, developing it further. Switzerland should contribute its competencies: "If Switzerland can hold up one flag, it is that of international law." Caroni also pointed out that rejecting the motions would be a more problematic signal than accepting them.

Carlo Sommaruga (SP/GE) said that it was also the will of the UN General Assembly, which had described Russia as the aggressor in a resolution, that Moscow should pay for the war damage in Ukraine. Discussions at international level are already underway.

Sergei Garmonin, the Russian ambassador to Switzerland, described the confiscation of Russian state assets on X (formerly Twitter) as inadmissible. The Russian state leadership regards this "as pure robbery". If it ever came to that, it would damage the global financial system and Switzerland's reputation.

©Keystone/SDA

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