Government hails UN victory

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, (left) and the Swiss economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, following the UN vote results Keystone

The decision by Swiss voters to join the United Nations has been welcomed by the government with a mixture of relief and joy.

This content was published on March 3, 2002 minutes

However, opponents of UN membership said they were extremely disappointed, adding that they had been up against the concerted might of the government, media and the business community.

The final result, which showed 55 per cent of voters in favour, means that the way is clear for Switzerland to take up its seat in the autumn as the 190th member of the UN - the last country bar the Vatican to join the world body.

Throughout the day, the outcome remained a cliffhanger because the ballot needed the support of a majority of Switzerland's 26 cantons. In the end, the cantonal vote was carried by a majority of one. Turnout was unusually high at 58 per cent.

The close result was in stark contrast to the last vote in 1986, when voters decisively rejected joining the UN.

"A big step for Switzerland"

The government thanked voters for their support and said Switzerland was now in a position to promote its interests and values on an international stage. Foreign minister Joseph Deiss hailed the move as "a big step for Switzerland".

"I'm proud to be Swiss because I felt during the whole campaign that our citizens wanted to defend their independence, their values, their sovereignty," he said.

"And on the other hand this 'yes' to the UN signifies that nevertheless we are prepared to play our part on the international stage."

Deiss added that it was now up to the government to win over opponents to UN membership.

Global decision making

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he was pleased with Sunday's result. He said it was a vote of confidence in the work and ideals of the UN and a commitment by Switzerland to the values of the world body.

Basil Eastwood, the British ambassador to Switzerland, said he was delighted to be able to welcome the Swiss into the UN "where it belongs, taking part in global decision making".

Eastwood insisted concerns that Switzerland would be drawn into military conflicts - a key argument of opponents to UN membership - were totally unfounded.

"Nobody is forced by the Security Council to take part in any military activities unless they wish to do so," explained Eastwood. "So I think those fears were exaggerated."

Opposition to membership

Right wing politician Christoph Blocher, figurehead for the "no" campaign, said the decision would weaken Switzerland and tarnish its cherished neutral status.

Blocher argued throughout the campaign that Swiss neutrality would be compromised by membership because the country would be forced to obey the US dominated UN Security Council, including becoming involved in foreign conflicts.

Another key objection from the no campaign was the cost of membership. However, the government pointed out that Switzerland already pays about SFr470 million ($275 million) per year. Full membership would cost an additional SFr70 million.

Luzi Stamm of the Swiss People's Party, which fought against joining the UN, expressed surprise at just how much support there had been for the "no" campaign.

Watching the government

However, he warned that opponents would be monitoring the government's every move. "Now that we are in the UN we have to watch closely how the representatives of Switzerland will behave in the UN," said Stamm.

Political analyst, Julian Hottinger, said the vote showed that Switzerland is slowly opening up to the world. "Gradually public opinion is changing and there is a will to integrate into what's become a global society," he told swissinfo.

However, Hottinger predicted that the government would have to tread cautiously at first since the vote showed that there was "strong opposition" to UN membership.

Switzerland is already a major contributor to the UN, paying up to SFr500 million ($293 million) a year, and has taken part in the activities of many UN agencies including the World Health Organization. The UN's European headquarters are based in Geneva.

by Adam Beaumont and Urs Geiser

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