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Up, Up, and Away For Swiss Law on Planes

Remaining neutral isn't as easy as it seems. And Switzerland, a country that has jealously guarded its neutrality for centuries, is taking steps to ensure it remains so by tightening exports of one of its domestically manufactured planes.

By international definition, a neutral country is forbidden to sell arms to belligerent countries. But recent reports indicate that the Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus, based in the city of Stans, might be pushing the legal limit.

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"Ninety-five percent of the time the plane is only used for the training of military and civilian pilots," says Andr Duvillard, chairman of a committee assembled by parliament to investigate this. "But some countries where it has been exported have abused this. So we need to give parliament the right to intervene."

For years Pilatus, which manufactures planes of the same name, hasn't had to comply with federal laws concerning exports of war material. This despite the fact that the PC-7 and PC-9 planes are exported with hard points, or anchors, under the wings to which bombs, rockets, and missiles can be attached. But the view held that because these silver-bodied aircraft are used to train both civilian and military pilots, they are not specifically war materiel.

But recent Swiss military reports of the airplane's use in military engagements in Angola, Burma, Guatemala, and Mexico caused the committee to vote that the plane can no longer be excluded from the list of war materiel.

Such sales threaten Switzerland's neutral status, says Eric Rochat, a member of the committee. Not only could Switzerland's credibility with its allies be undermined, but, according to international law, a neutral country becomes a belligerent if it sells weapons to one party in an armed conflict. If that happens, "international embargoes against Switzerland for violating codes of neutrality could be justified," says Mr. Duvillard.

According to the new article, which will be officially amended to the federal Constitution in December, parliament has the right to prohibit exports of the plane, thus preserving Switzerland's internationally recognized neutrality. Oscar Schwenk, president of Pilatus, declined to comment on the legislation.

This new legislation comes at a time when arms sales have diminished in Europe. In Switzerland, 1987 weapons exports were about $702 million, but in 1996 they dropped to about $170 million, according to the Federal Bureau of Statistics.

Outside Switzerland, some governments consider the new Swiss legislation quite important. The US Defense Department follows sales of Swiss aircraft and knows Pilatus sells these aircraft with hard points.

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However, where the Swiss laws governing double use may be gray, they are quite clear in the US. The PC-7 and PC-9 planes would automatically be on the export munitions list in the US, with tight restrictions governing both the exporter and end-user, because even though the plane is intended as a trainer, it can be used to train the armed forces of another country. The fact that it can later be outfitted with weapons becomes irrelevant.

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