IR - One Definition A Day: NeutralityUnlike neutralism with which it is often confused, neutrality is a legal concept which involves established rights and duties, both for the state which refrains from taking part in a war and for the belligerents themselves.
Like other international legal concepts, the laws of neutrality were formed mainly by treaties in the 17th and 18th centuries, subsequently entered customary law and were then codified by judicial rulings and international conventions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Under the UN Charter, although neutrality is recognized no member can assume the posture of a neutral if the security council has sanctioned a proposed action against an aggressor. In this sense, it can conflict with notions of the Just War.
Generally, a state is presumed neutral if by word or deed it has not declared support for one or other of the belligerents. In that case, certain specific rights and duties are delineated. For example, belligerents must not violate the territorial integrity of neutrals. Their commercial activities on land, sea and in the air are to be respected so long as they are sanctioned by international law. In return, neutrals are to remain impartial, they are not to aid any of the belligerents directly or indirectly and they are expected not to allow their citizens to do so.
In particular, they should not permit neutral territory to be used for war purposes. Clearly these rights are always enjoyed precariously and neutrality must not be confused with demilitarization. In fact, because of the conditions imposed by international law, neutrality involves the ability to defend one's territorial integrity.
Neutrality can be proclaimed in unilateral declarations, as the US did in 1793, but also in multilateral treaties. In 1815, for example, The Perpertual Neutrality of Switzerland was guaranteed by the Congress of Vienna. This was later reaffirmed by the Versailles Treaty in 1919, and by the League of Nations in 1933. In 1830 the London Conference proclaimed the neutrality of Belgium (it was in violation of this that the UK formally entered the First World War).
In 1907 the Second International Hague Peace Conference reaffirmed the territorial inviolability of neutrals and codified their rights and obligations at sea. Difficult areas in this respect involve the laws of blockade, the definition of contraband and the whole process of neutral shipping plying between ports of the belligerents. The issues of trade and commerce are notoriously thorny and the general rule of thumb is encapsulated in the phrase notoriously 'free ships give freedom to goods'.
In other words, the nationality of a ship determines the status of its cargo. Enemy goods on a neutral ship, if they do not fall into the category of contraband, are thus not subject to seizure. However, as with so many things 'contraband' often lies in the eye of the beholder, and belligerents have rarely hesitated to intervene if there is any possibility at all of neutral activity giving aid and succour to the enemy.
The rights of neutrality have been largely ignored in both World Wars and few states - with the continuing exceptions of Switzerland and Sweden - saw neutrality as a viable policy for maintaining independence. In total or nuclear war conditions, neutrality appears a very quaint proposition. However, in 1955 the Austrian Peace Treaty provided for the perpetual neutralization of Austria. Although technically this was self-neutralization, it was directly promoted by the Soviet Union and agreed to by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The extent of Austrian autonomy rather than mere acquiescence in this regard is difficult to assess.
Other concepts associated with neutrality are 'neutral territories' and 'neutral zones'. The former usually refers to uninhabited territories that divide two states and which are under joint supervision, for example, the desert territory on the borders of the Iraq and Saudi Arabia or that between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (which was in fact divided in 1965 after the discovery of oil pools). 'Neutral zones' refer to sanitary or security zones formed during a war, to protect civilian populations under the supervision of the International Red Cross.
These were first established at Madrid during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 and have since become common practice especially in conflicts in the Middle East. Article 14 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 provided for the establishment and recognition of sanitary and security zones which were specifically designated for the wounded and the sick (whether they were combatants or non-combatants) and for the protection of civilian populations. In similar fashion, 'safe havens' were declared by the UN and the Allies in Bosnia and Iraq respectively during the conflicts in Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf War.
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