Switzerland is starting to flex its muscles on the international arena since it voted to join the United Nations, according to the Swiss foreign minister Joseph Deiss.
Rather than just concentrating on handing out humanitarian and development aid to nations in need, Deiss told swissinfo that his week-long tour of South Asia had proved that Switzerland has a greater political role to play.
Active UN member
Deiss said the countries he visited, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bhutan and India, were eager for Switzerland to become an active member of the UN.
"One important element we saw through all these discussions, is that our decision to join the UN has been viewed as a very important step," Deiss said from Delhi, India.
"This visit showed that Switzerland can go beyond cooperation efforts, that we can also have political discussions while improving and deepening our relations in general with these countries," he continued.
Deiss wrapped up his South Asian tour by raising concern about the religious violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. He said Switzerland was an example of a country where several religious, linguistic and ethnic communities coexist.
The Swiss foreign minister urged the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to ensure law and order is upheld in the state, which has been the scene of bloody clashes between Muslims and Hindus.
India is among the countries earmarked for financial aid by the Swiss Development Agency, which has pledged SFr31.5 million this year alone.
UN aid projects
Deiss also held talks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bhutan last week and said that overall, the people he met were eager to see how Switzerland could enhance its aid work through the UN.
"We are prepared at all levels to look for cooperation opportunities within the UN," he said.
Extra funds for Afghanistan
During his brief stop-off in Afghanistan, Deiss announced an additional SFr1 million for humanitarian aid, a pledge welcomed by the interim government in Kabul.
The money is in addition to SFr20 million already earmarked by Switzerland for August.
Human rights in Bhutan
Human rights and national security topped the agenda in talks with the Bhutanese king, Jigme Singye Wankchuk.
Deiss also signed an agreement under which Switzerland will contribute SFr7 million upgrade the national teaching centre in the town of Paro.
Democracy in Pakistan
During Deiss' visit to Pakistan, he expressed his confidence that the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, was leading his people towards a modern democracy.
"We feel that Pakistan is moving progressively towards a return to democratic principles," he said.
Pakistan is to stage a referendum at the end of the month to decide whether Musharraf should be allowed to stay in power. Deiss promised that Switzerland would reconsider its development aid cooperation with the country following the election results.
In the wake of the nuclear test carried out by Pakistan and India in 1998 Switzerland stopped its aid to both governments. Instead the money went towards projects of non-governmental organisations in those countries.
In addition, the amount of aid to Pakistan was frozen at a level of SFr15 million ($9 million) per year.
by Samantha Tonkin and Vanessa Mock