The Swiss military is based on the militia concept, an idea that permeates other institutions of Swiss government as well. For example, most Swiss government positions are not full-time jobs, and members of the Swiss Parliament are not career politicians. Citizen-soldiers serve their country by providing disaster relief and territorial security. For more than 150 years, Switzerland has relied on compulsory military service for all able-bodied men to fill the ranks of its armed forces.
The Constitutional Mandate
Switzerland is made up of 26 sovereign cantons bound together by a national constitution. Article 58 of that constitution makes military service mandatory for male citizens. The country doesn't have a standing army; rather, militias fulfill the constitutional mission of permanent readiness should disaster strike. To this end, once soldiers have completed their basic training, they keep their uniforms and weapons at home so they can be mobilized rapidly. In 1996, the Swiss amended their constitution to allow alternative civil service for young men who oppose military service for ethical reasons. By statute, this civil service lasts 1.5 times as long as military service.
Preservation of Neutrality
Switzerland established its concept of armed neutrality in 1815. As a neutral state, the country prefers to be able to repel any attack on its territory using its own resources. Depending on other countries to defend it would mean entering military alliances that would compromise Swiss neutrality. Although in the 21st century Switzerland is surrounded by peaceful democracies, many Swiss believe the country's militia system with its mandatory service requirement serves as a strong deterrent and has kept the country safe in times of war.
The Process of Recruitment
Service begins for Swiss citizens on Information Day. At this time, 18-year-old male citizens are given their date of recruitment, along with the approximate date they will begin recruit school if they pass the recruitment tests. The recruitment process involves medical and psychological exams, physical fitness evaluations, intellectual capacity tests and a background check. About 36 percent of male citizens don't qualify for the armed forces based on these tests. Of those, approximately 19 percent are recruited for non-armed civil protection services. Those who qualify for the armed forces spend between 18 and 21 weeks in basic training the year they turn 20 years old.
Controversy Over Conscription
Switzerland's draft has become an anomaly in Europe, and many pacifist groups believe the country should convert to all-volunteer forces. As of 2013, two-thirds of all the states in the European Union have professional, volunteer militaries. Since the end of the Cold War, most European militaries focus on peacekeeping or peacemaking missions abroad within integrated international entities such as NATO or the UN. In September of 2013, Swiss voters weighed in on the third proposal in two decades to eliminate the draft. However, conscription is well-entrenched in Swiss culture as a right of passage, and more than 70 percent voted to continue mandatory service.
- Issam Fares Center for Lebanon: Fellay Speech -- Organization of the Swiss Armed Forces
- Bloomberg Businessweek: Swiss Vote to Maintain 165-Year-Old Military Draft
- Law Library of Congress: Global Legal Monitor: Switzerland -- Military Conscription
- Swiss Broadcasting Service: Mandatory Draft -- Support Wanes for Conscript System in Europe
- New York Times: Swiss Vote to Keep Mandatory Army Service
- Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images