Image of a courtroom at the International Court of Justice in The Hague
Courtroom at the International Court of Justice in The Hague © UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ

The significance of Switzerland’s commitment

Globalisation has increased the importance and complexity of international relations. Switzerland, which is not a major political or military power, is committed to ensuring that the dialogue between states is based on law and not force. Switzerland takes an active part in the development of international law. In so doing, Switzerland also safeguards the country’s interests, one of its foremost foreign policy objectives.

Accepting and complying with international norms

States must comply with the norms of international law to which they have decided to subscribe. Such decision touches upon their very sovereignty. In Switzerland international treaties are in principle subject to the approval of the two houses of the Federal parliament and, by mandatory or optional referendum, the people. For example, agreements which contain legal prescriptions are, like Federal legislation, subject to optional referendum.

What is international law?

International law encompasses the body of internationally binding laws in force. It provides a basis for peace, stability and the protection of human beings and simplifies and gives greater certainty to international cooperation. It is derived from treaties, customary international law and general legal principles.

International law was, traditionally, conceived by states for states. Over time, the role of international organisations has increased. Not only are they now vested with rights and obligations under international law but nowadays it is also where the majority of multilateral legal instruments are negotiated. As a general rule, other international organisations such as non-governmental organisations, transnational companies and individuals do not have rights and obligations under international law. Since the middle of the twentieth century however, exceptional cases have been multiplying. For example, the laws applying to the protection and accountability of individuals have seen considerable growth in respect of human rights, international humanitarian law and international criminal law.

International law, a vehicle for results

Law improves the effectiveness of international cooperation in numerous areas, such as:

  • trade: the Swiss economy, which earns every second franc abroad, benefits from a stable legal system
  • the environment: the rules for climate protection and preserving natural resources must be observed by a great many states for them to have global impact
  • the fight against terrorism and other transnational crimes: cooperation to fight against these threats is based on international conventions
  • telecommunications: a telephone call abroad would be impossible without international regulations
  • transport: international treaties are essential for ensuring the safety of international travel


All the above terms are interchangeable and refer to an agreement concluded between states or between states and international organisations to establish international regulations in a specific field

Customary law

International customary law refers to certain repeated practices adopted by states in the conviction that they are complying with an obligation, even where there is no treaty-based requirement. A customary law is formed when states consider an established practice as a legal obligation and not just a simple moral duty or courtesy.

Last update 26.01.2022


FDFA Directorate of International Law (DIL)

Kochergasse 10
CH – 3003 Berne

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