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Swiss Narrowly Pass Vote to Join UN - 2002-03-04

In an historic referendum, the Swiss have narrowly voted to join the United Nations. By a razor thin margin, Switzerland has broken a centuries old tradition of political isolation to become the 190th member of the world body.

Nearly 55-percent of Swiss voters said "yes" to joining the United Nations. But that was not enough. To win approval, the referendum needed the majority of not only the public vote, but a clear victory in the country's 23 full cantons or states.

Cantons, traditionally the more conservative populace in the central and eastern part of the country, were reluctant to throw their weight behind the U.N. referendum. But in the end, the cantonal vote also came through by the narrowest of margins -- 12 to 11.

The Swiss Federal Government squarely backed the referendum on U.N. membership making it one of its top foreign policy goals. As such, a "no" vote would have dealt a major blow to its credibility.

Swiss Foreign Minister Josef Deiss says the government is "delighted" with the referendum's results. He says the vote will change Swiss foreign policy in two ways. "First, it will allow Switzerland to bring in fully its subjects, its concerns in the debate of the U.N. and on the other hand, of course, it will also allow Switzerland to defend more efficiently its interests in the international community," says Mr. Deiss.

Mr. Deiss says the government will carefully consider the reservations of those who voted "no," and ensure that Swiss sovereignty will not suffer from U.N. membership.

Opposition to joining the U.N. arose from staunch conservatives who argue that Switzerland's traditional neutrality will be undermined. They fear the country of some seven million people will simply become a pawn of the big powers on the U.N. Security council.

But Switzerland is already an active participant in a number of specialized U.N. agencies like the International Labor Organization and the World Health Organization. It also is one of the U.N.'s biggest financial contributors. The Swiss city of Geneva also serves as the European base for the international organization.

The head of the U.N. based in Geneva, Sergei Ordjonikidze, welcomed host-country Switzerland's membership in the international organization. He says Switzerland's voice will be better heard and its influence more strongly felt across the full range of the U.N.'s work. "Switzerland in many ways is a vivid example of what the United Nations stands for: a tolerant and peaceful, multicultural society built on democratic principles," says Mr. Ordjonikidze.

Although Switzerland already contributes some $294 million to U.N. agencies, many believe that U.N. membership will finally give it the voice it deserves in helping make major global decisions