For members


Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


‘Impfdurchbruch’: What does the 2021 Swiss German word of the year mean?

On Tuesday, this year’s Swiss German word of the year was announced. What is ‘Impfdurchbruch’ and why was it given the nod?

Protesters hold flags and banners during a protest against the current measures to tackle the spread of the coronavirus, Covid-19 health pass and vaccination, in Lausanne on November 20, 2021.
Vaccination protests and discussions over Covid measures have been a major influence on this year's Swiss words of the year.Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Every December, the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) names its words of the year for each Switzerland’s linguistic regions. 

While over time these have tended to capture a social or cultural norm or quirk – with words chosen which have become more popular or regularly used – over the past two years the announcements have taken on a Covid flavour. 

What is this year’s Swiss German word of the year?

2021’s Swiss German word of the year – Impfdurchbruch – translates literally to ‘vaccination breakthrough’. 

ZHAW said the word was chosen to reflect a variety of sometimes inconsistent feelings expressed during the pandemic. 

While early on people were confident that the vaccines would provide a societal ‘breakthrough’ against the pandemic, the ability of the virus to ‘breakthrough’ to infect vaccinated people and even to make some sick led to fear and despair. 

“The virus cannot simply be vaccinated away, rather it breaks through again and again – be it with new variants or so-called vaccination breakthroughs,” ZHAW wrote. 

READ MORE: How many vaccinated and unvaccinated people have died from Covid in Switzerland?

“People react to it in different ways: for many, anger begins to break out, for some the ground falls out from under their feet and they fall into a depression, while others hope for the liberating blow from the booster that will finally bring the longed-for breakthrough.”

In second place was ‘Starkregen’ – translating as strong or heavy rain – while the bronze medal went to ‘entfreunden’, which means ‘unfriend’. 

ZHAW said Starkregen was chosen to reflect the massive rainfall felt across Switzerland this year, while entfreunden reflected how “friendships were put to the test by the vaccination debate”. 

UPDATE: How Switzerland’s flood planning helped it avoid disaster

What about in other linguistic regions? 

The French word of the year – iel – was chosen, which is a personal pronoun used to refer to people regardless of gender. 

This is defined by the authors as a “personal subject pronoun in the third person singular and plural, used to refer to a person regardless of gender”.

The authors said the word was chosen to reflect the consistent evolution of the French language, while also encapsulating the paradox of a word created for the purpose of inclusivity which has had the effect of polarising and dividing some parts of society. 

The Swiss Italian word of the year – certificato – means certificate and also has a Covid flavour, with the authors saying the choice was reflective of the now central place Covid certificates have in society. 

The Romansh word was ‘respect’ which has the same meaning as in English and is reflective of the need for social cohesion to deal with the Covid crisis.