by Armando Mombelli, swissinfo.ch
On March 3, 2002, the Swiss population narrowly voted to join the United Nations – a historic decision.
It came after more than half a century of refusing to be part of the body, out of fears linked above all to safeguarding Switzerland’s cherished neutrality.
“The Swiss have arrived. We have waited a long time,” said the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, as he welcomed the Swiss delegation ten years ago.
Switzerland’s decision not to join the UN had been viewed with incomprehension by the rest of the world. How come a country which had actively participated in the League of Nations before the Second World War and which hosted many parts of the UN afterwards, didn’t want to join?
To fully understand this “Swiss paradox” requires a step back in history – to June 26, 1945 when 51 countries signed the UN Charter in San Francisco.
Switzerland felt disappointed by the failure of the League of Nations and viewed its successor, the UN, as a kind of “winners’ club”. Let the big powers get on with it and then we’ll see, was the prevailing opinion of the time.
The main reason was, however, linked to the concept of neutrality which had been carefully nurtured by the authorities in Switzerland.
When it joined the League of Nations in 1920, the Swiss government opted for a differentiated view of neutrality – the country remained politically neutral but could participate in economic sanctions. But, in 1938, as the threat of war grew, it returned to complete neutrality.
“This vision of complete or absolute neutrality became mythologised during and after the Second World War. People thought, or pretended to think, that it was above all neutrality which had saved the country from conflict,” said Zurich University historian Carlo Moos.
“This was spread for propaganda reasons across the country, but was also to defend Switzerland from attacks from abroad.”