Neutrality No More? Switzerland Joins the United Nations. (World in Review)

By Sheehan, Genevieve | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Neutrality No More? Switzerland Joins the United Nations. (World in Review)


Sheehan, Genevieve, Harvard International Review


In a national referendum on March 3, 2002, Switzerland voted to join the United Nations. This move is in significant contrast to a similar 1986 referendum in which the proposal was defeated by a three-to-one majority. The country's main concern about joining the supranational organization is that UN membership would compromise the celebrated Swiss neutrality. However, given Switzerland's current role in the international community, such fears are largely unfounded. The reluctance to join the United Nations is based largely on the conservative, isolationist views of rural German-speaking Swiss, a sector of the population that has yet to recognize that UN membership will benefit Switzerland without significantly changing the country's standing. The successful vote to join the United Nations shows that Switzerland is moving away from such a traditional perspective, but Switzerland is not likely to further compromise its autonomy in the near future.

Taking Sides on Neutrality

The vote for UN membership did not pass by a landslide; of the general population, only 55 percent of the voters (more than expected) approved the referendum proposal. The vote was even closer in the second test of votes in Switzerland's direct democracy system, with 12 cantons in favor and 11 against. The divide in Swiss voting revealed a well defined split between the urban west and the rural, mountainous east. The voting system favors the smaller German-speaking cantons, giving their populations a greater voice in deciding Swiss affairs. Such regions as the tiny half-canton ofAppenzeli Inner-Rhoden returned a "No" vote with 68 percent of the voters-less than 5,000 people- voting against. In contrast, the highest "Yes" vote came from the French-speaking Geneva Canton, where 67 percent of a population of 420,000 were in favor of the proposal-no surprise, since many UN agencies are based in Geneva. AntiUN sentiments are found mostly in Switzerland's eastern heartland; the government is now left to allay the f ears of these conservative cantons.

The campaign to negate the proposal for UN membership was led by Christoph Blocher, a prominent Swiss politician and billionaire industrialist who heads the Zurich wing of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) and successfully led the campaign against UN membership 14 years ago. This right-wing populist party has gained momentum in recent years, capturing 22 percent of the parliamentary seats in the last election. In 2002, Blocher made the referendum vote close by focusing on smaller rural cantons and playing on fears of threats to Swiss autonomy. Those in favor of UN membership ran a straight-forward campaign, holding hundreds of town meetings around the country to argue the factual merits of joining. Blocher took a less subdued tone, running under such slogans as "Yes to the Red Cross and Peace, No to the UN and War" and plastering the country with posters depicting an axe breaking apart the word "neutrality." Such tactics played on the concern of the Swiss population that the country's independent spirit would be compromised by UN membership. The main concern is that Switzerland will come under the yoke of the UN Security Council, which is dominated by its five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Blocher spoke for the more conservative Swiss voters when he said, "the Security Council has nothing to do with justice. It is purely a power machine. Switzerland should not subject itself to the Security Council and as a neutral country definitely should not join [the United Nations]." Blocher's determined campaigning, however, failed to convince the majority of the Swiss population, who found the arguments in favor of UN membership more appealing than those against.

While Switzerland historically has projected an air of alooffiess from world affairs, joining the United Nations will not alter much of what is already common practice. …

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