The war in Ukraine has reshuffled the cards of diplomacy and pushed certain historically neutral states to review their position. As of 2022, Finland and Sweden have decided to revise their tradition of non-alignment by applying to become members of NATO.

If 28 of the 30 members of the alliance, including the United States, have already ratified the entry of the two Nordic countries, Hungary and, above all, Turkey have used all their weight to curb these memberships. Conversely, some countries, including Switzerland, cling to their neutrality. Invoking a legal interpretation stricto sensu of its Constitution, Bern refuses that its ammunition can be used in Ukraine. This does not prevent German Chancellor Olaf Scholz from urging the Swiss authorities to change their minds and get on the right side of history.

These contemporary events raise questions about the robustness of the notion of neutrality in the face of realpolitik and the play of the great powers.

During the First World War, the British, in order to bring their military aid to the Serbs, landed by force in Salonika and deposed King Constantine who, in vain, invoked the neutrality of Greece. In 1940, in a similar context, the Swedes, demonstrating both flexibility and opportunism, made their railway available to Nazi Germany.

A few months later, in August 1941, the Red Army and the British forces violated the sovereignty of Iran even though the United States had, a few months earlier, affirmed the sacrosanct nature of this principle. The reason given? The threat constituted, according to the Allies, by the presence of a German colony on their territory. In reality, Emperor Reza Shah’s Iran is far from being an ally of the Axis powers, but the “neutrality” displayed and claimed by the old kingdom does not prevent it from being drawn into the gears of war and the play of powers, particularly because of its geopolitical position and its strategic resources, particularly oil.

At the time, few were moved by the violation of Iranian neutrality even if, on the spot, the Allied intervention aroused popular anger. Some other neutral nations, Switzerland in the lead, are timidly worried that this principle, which will be one of the foundations of the United Nations Charter, will be violated. Iranologist and specialist in the law of neutral countries, Joan Beaumont recognizes today that “there is a discrepancy between the use of force by Great Britain against Iran, its conduct during the occupation and its claim to represent a higher moral order in the conduct of international relations”. But isn’t history written by the victors?

Anxious to make people forget this non-respect of Iranian neutrality, Winston Churchill and the Allies gave this operation the name of “Bridge of Victory”.

In their eyes, the scandal is all the greater because during this same war, the British left full freedom to the Spaniards, Turks and Afghans, also non-belligerent, to freely maintain relations with the Third Reich. . Turkey declares war on Germany just days before the end of World War II without its sovereignty ever being questioned by the Allies. As for Afghanistan, Hitler maintained his legation in Kabul until 1945, four years after the occupation of Iran, without the Allies opposing it.

Other examples show the fluctuating nature of international respect for state sovereignty during the Second World War. In a similar context to that of Iran, King Farouk’s desire to keep Egypt out of the world conflict is seen by Britain as a sign of treason to the Allies. London pretends to see in this concern for neutrality proof that Farouk is linked to the Axis forces. Sometimes it is the States themselves which, without scruples, decide to violate their own neutrality. Thus, in 1943, Portugal rented the Azores archipelago to the Americans for the duration of the war. To use the expression of Richard Werly, the question arises today as to whether Swiss neutrality will be the next “collateral victim” of an international conflict.

All these examples illustrate the relative precariousness of the status of neutrality in the context of major world conflicts and seem to indicate that international law does not have much weight when the great powers exercise the law of the strongest.