A key concern about joining the United Nations was that it would undermine Switzerland's neutrality.This content was published on September 5, 2002 - 16:28
But two UN members, Finland and Austria, are held up as examples of countries that can be part of the UN without taking sides.
Opponents of UN membership in Switzerland feared the country's cherished neutrality would be compromised by joining the world body.
Yet Finland and Austria joined the UN in the mid-1950s, and both countries say their neutrality is firmly intact, and that UN membership has actually strengthened their powers of self-determination.
"Our neutrality has never hindered our activities as a member of the UN," insists Finland's ambassador to the UN, Marjatta Rasi. "On the contrary, it has proved very useful; inspiring trust in other countries."
Austria's ambassador, Gerhard Pfanzelter, says his country has had a similar experience. It joined the UN in 1955 and "since that time, we have not experienced any conflict between our neutral status and our membership of the UN".
Instrument of foreign policy
For Finland, neutrality has not been an end in itself but rather an instrument in its geo-political relations. Sharing a long border with Russia, the country was in the uncomfortable position of being buffer state between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
That did not stop it becoming a UN member in 1956, and subsequently joining the European Union. "Nowadays, we see ourselves as a non-aligned country - we do not belong to any military grouping or alliance," Rasi told swissinfo. "Over the years, the world has changed and our neutrality has had to adapt."
Rasi maintains that UN membership has "proved very useful, inspiring trust in other countries. We have never had any ulterior motives, but has always tried to build bridges and act as mediators between nations."
A model for Switzerland?
Rasi dismisses suggestions that smaller countries are reduced to role on onlookers when dealing with powerful nations which control the UN. "Being a small country has definite advantages at the UN making it easier to act as a mediator between nations. I am convinced this could also be true for Switzerland."
Austria's UN ambassador, Gerhard Pfanzelter, believes that, within the UN, Switzerland could play a role comparable to Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and the other Scandinavian countries.
"The UN would benefit enormously from Switzerland's special knowledge, and the country's position would be strengthened and its influence increased."
He points out that Austria has given the UN a secretary general [Kurt Waldheim], taken part in peacekeeping missions, and played other key roles.
"A member country can assume leadership in areas which are vital to its interests. Switzerland, for example, could have taken the lead in organising the 'International Year of Mountains' in 2002."
"We now in live in a global world," says Finland's Marjatta Rasi. "We need each other, we must co-operate. The UN is the only global forum where it is possible to discuss matters of universal importance, such as the struggle against terrorism, poverty and the degradation of the environment."
For his part, Austria's Gerhard Pfanzelter advises the Swiss not to be overly defensive about neutrality. "Nowadays, with globalisation, neutrality is no longer a primary consideration. What matters most is a nation's status but its readiness to contribute and its determination to act. And a member state has more to offer that a mere observer."
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