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Monday, March 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neutral Swiss vote to join United Nations

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GENEVA — Small, landlocked Switzerland voted yesterday to join the United Nations, finding the prospect of a greater role in today's interlinked world more compelling than fears it would threaten the nation's centuries-old tradition of neutrality.

The country, which has been formally neutral for almost 200 years, will become the United Nations' 190th member. Only the Vatican remains outside the world body.

The Swiss have practiced neutrality on and off since the 13th century, but the principle was laid down formally in the 1815 Treaty of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars. In that pact, European powers guaranteed the "perpetual neutrality" of Switzerland.

The Swiss themselves made it part of their 1848 constitution. Treating both sides in a war evenhandedly has remained a guiding principle since, although recent historical reviews have said Switzerland went too far in helping the Germans in World War II, agreeing to buy gold from the Nazis — much of it looted from conquered countries.

Yesterday's popular vote gave the bid for U.N. membership a comfortable 55-45 percent approval, but the crucial second hurdle — approval by at least half the country's cantons, or states — received a 12-11 result.

The referendum had the highest turnout in a decade, with 58 percent of qualified voters participating. Switzerland's three or four annual referendums often draw only 40 to 50 percent of voters.

Small mountain cantons, most of them German-speaking, voted heavily against the United Nations. But the French-speaking cantons of the west and key German-speaking cantons of central Switzerland supported membership.

It was a sharp reversal of a similar vote in 1986, when 75 percent rejected U.N. membership, backing opponents who said East-West polarization during the Cold War would compromise Swiss neutrality.

The government pushed the latest initiative, believing the political climate has changed and that it was time for the 7.3 million Swiss to play a full role in the world. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might have influenced the vote by shattering the Swiss sense that their country could remain immune from world events.

The attacks took a toll by grounding Swissair, the national airline, which already was suffering from financial woes. The sense of vulnerability was heightened Sept. 27, when an armed man entered the regional parliament in Zug, killing 14 people in the country's worst mass killing.

Opponents said joining the United Nations would undermine Swiss sovereignty and make the Alpine country a pawn of the world's great powers, especially the United States.

"Everyone stands to gain from this," said a statement from the governing Cabinet. "Switzerland will now be better able to safeguard its interests and assume its responsibilities in the world."

Swiss industry and banks had feared rejection would make the nation an international outcast with a selfish and uncaring reputation. In recent years, Switzerland has suffered criticism for the role its banks played in secretly holding the accounts of Holocaust victims. And Swiss banks were forced to begin opening their books to outside inspection, as governments from Congo to Indonesia tried to find billions spirited out of their countries by dictators.

Switzerland has not moved to join any military alliance, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the government does have a longer-term goal of joining the European Union, a move expected to encounter even tougher resistance, given the closeness of the vote.

"There can be no talk of a clear commitment to opening up foreign policy," Swiss Radio commented. "This seems to take a lot of time in Switzerland. The myth of Switzerland as a special case is not overcome yet."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had urged Swiss voters to approve membership, welcomed the vote, saying it took the United Nations closer to universality. Switzerland still must go through the formality of being accepted by the U.N. membership.

Switzerland did join the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, in 1920 and has U.N. observer status. It is a dues-paying member of some specialized U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization, and Geneva is home to the U.N.'s European mission.

It also participates in U.N. sanctions, on Iraq, for example, and contributes some modest logistical help for peacekeeping operations.

In opposing U.N. membership, the nationalists plastered the country with posters calling it a waste of money. The government says membership should cost $42 million a year, but dismisses that amount as minimal compared with the $1.8 billion a year brought to Switzerland annually by the presence of the U.N. European headquarters.

Economists say the vote is unlikely to have a major impact on stocks, interest rates or the Swiss franc, although rejection would have underscored Swiss independence and thus the franc's role as a safe-haven investment at times of crisis.

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