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Geneva toasts Swiss decision to join UN

François Nordmann, Switzerland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, toasts the outcome of the vote Keystone

UN officials and local ministers in Geneva have expressed their delight and relief at the thumbs-up given to UN membership by the Swiss people.

This content was published on March 3, 2002 - 19:18

The new Director General of the United Nations in Geneva, Sergei Ordzhonikidze, said the UN "welcomes the decision very warmly".

"This is an important event. The United Nations is now truly universal," he told swissinfo. "Switzerland is a vivid example of peace, democracy, protection of human rights, the environment, development - exactly the values the UN stands for."

The verdict of the Swiss people is certain to give a shot in the arm not only to the Swiss government in its dealings with the world, but also to Geneva as a venue for international diplomacy.

Anomaly

It also ends the anomaly of having the UN's European headquarters in a country that is not a member.

"We're very happy. This is very important for the city of Geneva," Martine Brunschwig-Graf, of the cantonal government, told swissinfo.

Not surprisingly, Geneva - traditionally the canton most open to the outside world - posted the highest percentage yes vote with almost 67 per cent.

Brunschwig-Graf expressed satisfaction that Swiss public opinion had evolved since the last vote on UN membership, in 1986, when the people overwhelmingly rejected joining the world body.

Normalisation

Approval this time has sent an important message to the UN. Many diplomats and local officials expressed concern before the vote that a no-vote would be taken as a sign of arrogance and contempt for the international community.

"To remain outside the UN was indefensible. It made Switzerland look like a selfish country, not at all concerned by the problems of the world," says Christian Grobet, a left-wing Geneva member of the federal parliament.

A rejection of UN membership would have made it much harder for the federal government and the cantonal and city authorities to have attracted major international conferences to Geneva. In recent years it has seen a number of conferences it would have expected to host awarded to other cities.

"An obstacle has been removed," says François Nordmann, the Swiss ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

"It would have emphasised that we were not a member, had we voted no. And that would have posed problems for us when we wanted to attract major conferences. Now we can build a coalition to support our bids," he told swissinfo.

Normalisation

While the yes-vote will have a greater impact on Switzerland's role in New York, where the "political" organs of the UN are to be found, there will now also be a "normalisation" of relations between the Swiss and the UN in Geneva, Nordmann says.

The yes vote also increases the likelihood of other international organisations moving to Geneva. Already "international Geneva" is a major economic force in the canton, employing around ten per cent of the workforce.

Last year, the UN hosted no fewer than 9,000 international meetings - twice as many as the UN in New York. But in addition, the UN boasts that Geneva has become an important centre for "know-how sharing" - advising governments on a wide range of issues, from sustainable development to health, from trade to intellectual property.

by Roy Probert

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