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UN vote exposes different views of neutrality

Opponents believe UN membership would compromise Swiss neutrality Keystone

Neutrality goes to the very heart of Swiss identity. For many, UN membership would sound the death knell for this most cherished idea.

Neutrality – as rooted in the 1907 Hague Conventions – is one of the pillars of the Swiss state, and the guiding principle of its foreign policy. But the government says the classical concept of Swiss neutrality has not been valid since the end of the Cold War and it now has to be adapted to the realities of a changed world.

Switzerland is the only state, apart from the Vatican, which is not a full UN member. It is a position, the cabinet believes, which has left the country marginalised.

The challenge to neutrality has been the central argument used by those pushing for a no vote on March 3, notably the populist wing of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. For them, the campaign is nothing less than a fight to preserve the essence of Switzerland’s independence and unique identity.

“Neutrality is forever”

“Our neutrality is not for certain occasions. It’s forever. We must never take sides in a conflict,” says Ulrich Schlüer, a Swiss People’s Party member of parliament and leading figure in the no campaign.

For the no camp, only the strictest interpretation of the term is acceptable. Without neutrality, they say, Switzerland would not exist. They take the view that its peculiar set of values has kept this diverse, multicultural country together, particularly when war was raging in neighbouring lands.

The no camp claims that, as a member of the UN, Switzerland would be dragged into conflicts and be required to do the bidding of the five permanent members of the Security Council, especially the United States.

Security Council “undemocratic”

“The Security Council is not a democratic institution. The five big powers have a veto. The Security Council can decide whether diplomatic relations with a country should be cut. That must remain a decision for Switzerland,” Schlüer says.

“It is a long tradition that we are not party to the decisions of the big powers,” he adds. “In the specialised agencies, every member has the same rights. There aren’t a couple of countries who wield all the power.”

Switzerland is already a member of many specialised UN agencies, such as the World Health Organisation, the UN High Commission for Refugees and the International Labour Organisation. But membership is justified on the basis that every member has one vote in these “technical” institutions.

Nevertheless, the government says it has discovered that being part of the technical bodies and staying out of the UN’s political apparatus is untenable. “There’s no longer a distinction. The world has changed,” says Switzerland’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, François Nordmann. He uses the example of AIDS, a health topic that has been dealt with by the Security Council and General Assembly.

Reform from within

Many Swiss who are backing a yes vote agree that the Security Council is undemocratic. “But maybe it’s better to try to reform the system from within,” says Giorgio Malinverni, a Geneva University politics professor and member of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Opponents of UN membership say that, under the UN Charter, the world body can oblige its members to take up arms in its name – that Swiss conscripts could be forced to fight in conflicts that do not concern them. But the government and most constitutional and legal experts dismiss the suggestion as scare mongering.

Nordmann says the article in the UN Charter which mentions the obligation to provide troops was a compromise that has since become a “dead letter”. No country can be compelled to participate in military sanctions, he says.

“In practice, this article has never been used. There are a lot of safeguards. If it were reactivated, any invitation by the Security Council to send troops would be met with a flat no from the Swiss government,” the Swiss ambassador explains.

Swiss already part of sanctions regime

However, UN members are required to impose non-military sanctions, something that Switzerland has done systematically since 1990 – first against Iraq, and then subsequently against the rump Yugoslavia, Unita rebels in Angola, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone and Liberia.

This is consistent with the government’s position of using neutrality, not as an end in itself, but as a means of maintaining security and defending Swiss interests.

“Our policy of neutrality is but an instrument in the hands of the government that can be modified according to circumstances,” says Nordmann.

His view, like that of other neutral countries which are UN members, is that neutrality must be dynamic and evolving, not some untouchable dogma.

Constraint on neutrality

“We have never felt that UN membership has been a constraint on our neutrality,” says the Finnish Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Pekka Huhtaniemi. “If you are faced with a difficult decision, you can abstain.”

He says UN membership was seen as a way of giving Finland a higher international profile and a greater say in international affairs. It is also important, he believes, to have countries like Finland and Switzerland within the UN system, to advance the cause of justice and peace.

“It is useful for the United Nations to have small, neutral, well-resourced countries playing a role in the system. The UN has a tremendous need for mediating forces, impartial special representatives who can foster consensus, actors who are outside the focus of crises,” Huhtaniemi says.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR