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Joining the family of nations – five years on

On September 10, 2002 Switzerland became the 190th member of the world body Keystone Archive

After years on the sidelines, the Swiss flag was finally raised in New York on September 10, 2002 alongside the 189 flags of the other United Nations member states.

This content was published on September 9, 2007 - 21:02

This symbolic event marked Switzerland's decision to join the UN and the end of its self-imposed isolation. Swiss UN experts look back at this historic moment and examine the country's UN track record over the past five years.

According to Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN in New York, Peter Maurer, and political analyst Albert Stahel, if you ask around in the corridors of the UN headquarters, the answer to whether Switzerland was right to join the UN is a resounding ‘yes!’.

Switzerland has managed to gain respect and advance innovative new ideas, and it works hard.

And opening up its foreign policy has also made other countries sit up and pay serious attention to what it has to say, they argue.

“Our profile has grown. Our commitment to the UN enables us to present our culture, traditions and policies internationally, and therefore strengthens our national identity,” Maurer told swissinfo, dismissing arguments that Switzerland might have lost some of the very things that make it so distinctive.

“We are taken more seriously,” he continued. “Our policy of armed neutrality is in no way endangered, even though it’s not always very well understood.”

Joining the UN opened up new perspectives for Switzerland, introducing it to new networks and alliances.

“It was worth it. We have access to much more information and it’s very important,” said Stahel, director of Zurich University’s Institute of Strategic Studies.

Sharpen up

Today, Switzerland is in a much better position to show off its attributes.

“But the truth is that its influence remains rather modest,” admitted the Zurich expert.

Stahel would like the government to sharpen its foreign policy strategy.

“Sometimes I feel that by spreading our ideas too thinly we lack coherence,” he commented, adding that Switzerland should focus less on areas like the Middle East.

“Let’s concentrate on the subjects that we have something to talk about, such as human rights, international humanitarian law or other humanitarian issues. In those areas we have built up experience through the Swiss traditions of neutrality and consensus politics,” noted Sahel.

But Maurer doesn’t agree: “I believe the government should tackle different subjects and take position on all kinds of issues.”

“Our country is extremely varied and has a multitude of different interests,” said the Swiss diplomat, adding that this is now being reflected in the country’s international strategy.

“I think our track record has been fairly good. We are more appreciated but not in a cliché kind of way. We have helped launch political processes, draw up expert reports and propose and develop new ideas,” he added.

UN reforms

But for Maurer, more can still be done, especially in the field of development aid.

Stahel, however, is sceptical about Switzerland’s support for an initiative aimed at improving UN working methods.

“It’s very difficult to reform a body such as this one and even harder to try to influence those kind of reforms,” he said.

But Maurer believes that Switzerland cannot just simply focus on human rights and long-term development issues. It also has to invest time and effort in reforming the UN.

Some parts of Swiss society don’t think very highly of the UN's lack of democracy and transparency, and the heavy bureaucracy it suffers from, he added.

“We have to take that seriously and propose proper solutions,” he said.

swissinfo, Rita Emch in New York

Switzerland and the UN

The debate over joining the UN began to gain some momentum in Switzerland towards the end of the 1960s. The government presented its first UN report in 1969, which concluded that it was too early to join.

It was not until 1977 that the government adopted membership as a goal. But the public and the cantons were not ready to follow suit: in March 1986 they overwhelmingly rejected the idea at the ballot box.

It was not until the mid-1990s that politicians tried again. In 1998 the government presented its fourth UN report, declaring membership as a “strategic goal”. Switzerland became the 190th member of the UN four years later.

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