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UN's newest members are poles apart

For the Timorese UN membership is an affirmation of a long and bloody fight for independence RTS

East Timor and Switzerland are poles apart in terms of geography and wealth. But they join the United Nations as equals.

This content was published on September 5, 2002 - 15:05

For Switzerland, though, there will be no sentimental attachment to the world's newest nation.

Switzerland joins the "family of nations" on September 10. East Timor follows suit on September 27.

For the UN, this is hugely symbolic: with the exception of the Vatican City, every country on Earth will be part of this global family.

Switzerland and East Timor will have one vote each in the UN General Assembly.

Each will be called upon at some point to sit on the Security Council. Yet these two newest UN members could not be more different.

Happy coincidence

One is a prosperous, 700-year-old democracy. The other is less than four months old, having just emerged from centuries of occupation, and can be counted among the poorest nations in Asia.

It is something that Sergio Vieira de Mello - head of the UN transitional administration in East Timor until independence and who shortly takes up the post of UN Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva - calls a "happy coincidence".

East Timor is still scarred by the conflict that followed the people's vote for independence in 1999.

A semblance of stability has come under UN administration, but now this fledgling state is on its own.

"We have succeeded in building democratic institutions from scratch," de Mello told swissinfo. "The fundamentals are there, but it will require a great deal of assistance for many years to come."

Economic concerns

Despite the optimism, very real concerns remain. "There is a very, very big need for long-term development aid," says Pascal Rouget, a member of the Geneva-based Biblio-Lorosae Association, which has built and stocked a public library in East Timor's second largest town, Baucau.

Rouget says the economic situation has started to worsen. "When the UN left, many jobs were lost," he explains.

"People are happy to be independent. But there's some bitterness. You can already hear people saying things were better under Indonesia."

He says that after Portuguese colonial rule, Indonesian occupation and UN administration, one of the most important lessons the Timorese have to learn is doing things for themselves.

While this half-island is more or less self-sufficient in agriculture, industry is almost non-existent.

Rich gas deposits lying off the southern coast have provoked an unseemly battle with Australia, while tourism - a potential big earner - will be stifled until proper infrastructure is put in place.

Not a priority

Despite the country's needs, Switzerland will not be diverting any funds to East Timor. The fact that the two countries are joining the UN at roughly the same time apparently creates no emotional bond.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation told swissinfo that East Timor is not viewed as a "priority" country, and that it has no ongoing projects there.

De Mello points out that, under the UN administration, Switzerland played an important role, providing funding and expertise in the fields of human rights and broadcasting.

"Switzerland has not been absent from East Timor. Of course, it could do more, and I would welcome a special interest on the part of Switzerland as a result of this happy coincidence," says de Mello.

Pascal Rouget agrees, saying that Switzerland's political system, born out of its cultural and language diversity, would have provided an interesting model for the Timorese, who speak not only Indonesian and Portuguese, but also more than 20 indigenous languages.

But, according to the Swiss foreign ministry, there is only a limited amount a country of Switzerland's size can achieve, and its development aid policies must be determined by criteria other than misty-eyed sentimentality.

"We have to define our priorities. We have to concentrate our cooperation on these countries," says Erwin Hofer, the foreign ministry official in charge of relations with the UN.

swissinfo, Roy Probert

UN facts

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