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Swiss make formal bid for UN membership

Switzerland's ambassador to the UN, Jenö Staehelin, met Kofi Annan at the UN's New York headquarters Keystone

Switzerland has presented a formal request for United Nations membership to Secretary General Kofi Annan.

After receiving the formal request for membership, Annan described Switzerland’s decision to join the UN as a “wonderful and wise decision”.

His comments came after a closed door meeting in New York with Swiss ambassador to the UN, Jenö Staehelin, where the application was handed over.

The application is little more than a formality, and its acceptance a fait accompli, but that does not diminish the significance of Wednesday’s meeting.

Staehelin formally handed the application for Swiss membership to Annan, marking the first time since the Second World War that Switzerland has voluntarily sought to align itself with an overtly political organisation.

The first step will be to endure the lengthy process of becoming a member, which will culminate on September 10 – six months after the Swiss voted to join the world body.

Annan delighted with application

Staehelin said Annan was delighted with Switzerland’s membership application – a document printed with the words: “Switzerland will continue to remain neutral as a member of the United Nations”.

Upon handing over the application Staehelin said his government wished that “Switzerland could join the United Nations as a neutral country and contribute to the work of the organisation as a neutral country”.

“We really look forward to working with Switzerland as a member of the United Nations,” Annan said.

Between Sweden and Syria

Before they can secure their place – between Sweden and Syria (seats are in alphabetical order) – the Swiss must participate in all the necessary rituals and ceremonies required of new members.

These are based on decades of diplomatic traditions that often seem inexplicable to outsiders like – well – the Swiss.

The application, which carries the signature of the Swiss president, Kaspar Villiger, will now be sent to the president of the Security Council.

“The Security Council is then going to constitute a small working group which is going to look into this application and then decide whether to forward it to the General Assembly,” Staehelin said.

Important decision

“On September 10, the General Assembly has to decide formally – and that is going to be the important decision – whether they accept Switzerland’s application,” Staehelin said.

“And of course they will, but the formal decision will have to be taken based on their resolution, which is introduced by member states.”

Staehelin is confident the General Assembly will not even vote on the application. “I don’t expect a vote to take place. I think it’s going to happen by acclamation.”

Switzerland’s accession to the UN is unique, both because it is the last country to join [bar the Vatican], and because it is the only country to seek membership on the back of a popular vote.

“I think we can be proud of that,” Staehelin told swissinfo.

Switzerland is already a member of several UN agencies, such as Unesco and the World Health Organisation, but voters had resisted full membership, chiefly over fears that it would compromise the country’s much cherished neutrality.

A quiet start

And what is to be expected once Switzerland takes its seat? Staehelin said the country was not intending to open its membership “with a bang”.

“Don’t expect Switzerland during the first assembly to bring forward lots of new initiatives. We also have to learn how things work…[and] we have to become actively involved in areas where we have experience and a certain credibility. We will, I guess, be much more active in the years to come.”

Staehelin expects his workload to increase, largely because Switzerland will be expected to have a view on issues and UN appointments.

“I will have to get involved in all the issues that are now on the agenda of the General Assembly. Up to now we chose certain areas which we considered to be of interest to us [to comment upon].”

It means longer hours and a fuller briefcase for Staehelin but for once he, and Switzerland, won’t be waiting outside when the world meets.

by Jacob Greber and Ramsey Zarifeh

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR