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Switzerland Mulls Possible UN Membership - 2002-03-01

Swiss voters head to the polls on Sunday to decide whether their country should finally join the United Nations. Fifteen years ago, the Swiss public rejected the idea, but this time around, the Swiss seem more likely to approve U.N. membership.

At the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations, the red and white flag of host country Switzerland has long been absent from the entrance display of member flags, but that might change after Sunday's referendum on U.N. membership.

The latest opinion polls show that 54 percent of the Swiss public want Switzerland to become a member of the world organization. Thirty-seven percent are opposed, and nine percent are undecided. To win approval, the referendum must gain the majority of the popular vote, as well as a majority in at least 13 of Switzerland's 26 cantons.

However, no one is taking a yes vote for granted. Analysts say conservative cantons in the central and eastern portions of the country could block a yes vote. These areas have traditionally been wary of involvement in international organizations and fear Swiss neutrality would be jeopardized by U.N. membership.

One of Switzerland's best-known politicians, billionaire businessman Christoph Blocher, is basing his campaign against U.N. membership on the neutrality issue. This strategy has been successful for him in the past. By raising fears that it would compromise the country's neutrality, he was instrumental in stopping Switzerland from joining the European Union in 1992.

Mr. Blocher has charged that the government, which is solidly in favor of the referendum, has failed to gain assurances from the United Nations that it would recognize Switzerland's full-fledged neutrality. He has warned the U.N. might try to force the country to join in U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world.

Backers of U.N. membership has said these charges are baseless. They point out that the U.N. charter states that no member country can be forced to participate in peacekeeping activities.

Pierre Schifferli, a top official in Mr. Blocher's Swiss People's Party, has feared Switzerland will become a pawn of the big powers running the U.N. Security Council and will be swept along with its decisions.

"What would be the position of the Swiss delegate? Would he just have to follow the orders of some super power or would the delegate of Switzerland be able to take a position based on the neutrality of Switzerland? So we don't see why we should join in order to create problems or just to abstain from our vote," Mr. Schifferli says.

Switzerland's foreign minister, Josef Deiss, has said that Swiss neutrality will not in any way be affected by U.N. membership.

Mr. Deiss said no neutral countries ever had any problems with the Security Council, citing the example of Ireland, whose neutrality, he says, has never been challenged by the U.N. If Switzerland approves the referendum, the foreign minister has said it will continue to be free to speak its mind, but as a U.N. member.

Right now, Switzerland is one of only two countries that has observer status at the United Nations, the other being the Vatican.

Supporters of the referendum say Switzerland already plays an active role in the United Nations. It belongs to specialized U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization and invariably abides by U.N. sanctions. It is also one of the largest financial contributors to many U.N. programs and has provided logistical help to U.N. peacekeeping operations. It even pays dues to various U.N. organizations.

Claude Ruey represents Vaud canton in French-speaking, western Switzerland. He says Sunday's vote will give the Swiss a chance to eliminate once and for all Switzerland's image as a country that wants to be aloof from the rest of the world.

"The central cantons in the mountains, for example, are a little bit afraid of foreign organizations. We here in the western part of Switzerland are all for the yes vote," he says.

In addition to government leaders, the referendum has the backing of Swiss industry, banks, religious and labor groups.

Foreign Minister Deiss says since Switzerland already pays U.N. dues, the time has come for it to have a few rights too.