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International law governs relations between states. It provides the basis for peace and stability and aims to protect and ensure the wellbeing of humankind.
Globalisation has not only increased the importance of international law but also the complexity of international legal issues. Switzerland, which is not a major power politically or militarily, is committed to ensuring that international relations are governed by law and not by force. For this reason, it takes an active part in the development of international law. This is in fact one of the main objectives of Swiss foreign policy: to safeguard the country’s interests.
International law encompasses the various fields, including:
- The prohibition of the use of force: States must resolve their differences by peaceful means.
- Human rights: Every individual can demand certain fundamental rights (the right to life, freedom from bodily harm, personal freedom, freedom of opinion and conscience, etc.).
- The protection of individuals during wars and armed conflicts: International humanitarian law defines the rules of war and especially those concerning the protection of civilians, the wounded and prisoners of war.
- The fight against terrorism and other serious crimes: Efforts to deal with such threats can only be effective if they are founded on international law.
- Environment: The more universal the rules on protecting climate and preserving natural resources are, the more efficient they are.
- Trade and development: The Swiss economy earns every second franc abroad. A stable international order is an essential prerequisite for achieving this.
- Telecommunications: A telephone call abroad would be impossible without a body of international law.
- Transport: International treaties are essential for ensuring the safety of international air and rail travel.
International law is binding on a state inasmuch as it agrees to comply with specific international obligations. This condition is inherent in state sovereignty. In Switzerland, it is the two houses of the federal parliament and, through the institution of the obligatory or optional referendum, the people who decide on whether or not to accept international laws. For example, international treaties which affect national law are, like federal laws, subject to an optional referendum.