Switzerland is becoming the newest member of the United Nations - a move it avoided for decades because of its tradition of neutrality.

After more than 50 years of being an observer on the sidelines, Switzerland formally joins the United Nations as its 190th member. Celebrations Tuesday include concerts and the opening of an exhibit featuring the work of the country's best-known artist, Hans Erni, at the U.N.'s European headquarters.

Switzerland's top official for home affairs, Ruth Dreifuss, who presided at the exhibit's opening, says the Swiss are delighted to finally become a member of the community of nations at the U.N..

"We have experience we want to share with the whole community," she said. "This experience is on the one side the humanitarian tradition, the Red Cross tradition. But in the other sense also the importance of finding ways of living together with different cultures. I think [this] will be the problem to be solved in the next century."

Last March, the Swiss people voted by a 55 percent majority to join the U.N. Six years ago, the Swiss had rejected membership, saying the country's revered neutrality would be endangered.

Switzerland has hosted the U.N.'s European headquarters and several of its agencies in Geneva, but was never a member of the world body. Home Affairs Minister Dreifuss explains why it took Switzerland so long to join the United Nations despite its active involvement in many of its agencies.

"Switzerland is the only country which will join as a full-member of the U.N. system by a general ballot, by a vote of the whole population," said Ms. Dreifuss. "And this takes time to convince everybody and to have the strong support of the whole people."

The Swiss people heeded the government's campaign endorsing U.N. membership saying that formal neutrality had become increasing irrelevant since the end of the Cold War. Switzerland will now be able to vote in the General Assembly, introduce resolutions and be elected and serve in U.N. organizations.

At the U.N.'s New York headquarters, diplomats will be treated to gifts of Swiss chocolate and sporty Swatch watches emblazoned with the country's red and white flag. In perhaps a final gesture of the Alpine country's independent nature, the square Swiss flag will be hoisted among the sea of rectangles along the U.N. Plaza.