Frequently asked questions: Switzerland and the UN

When did Switzerland join the UN?

Switzerland became the 190th member of the UN on 10 September 2002. It followed a popular initiative, which was held on 3 March 2002, in which 1,489,062 (54.6%) voted in favour of membership compared to 1,237,719 against (a slender cantonal majority of 12 to 11). In 1986 a referendum launched by the Swiss government on this issue was defeated.

Why did Switzerland wait until 2002 to join the UN?

One of the features that set Switzerland apart from other countries is that it lets its citizens have a say on decisions of major importance. During the Cold War, the UN was often the scene of disagreements between the superpowers, and as such held little appeal to Switzerland as a neutral state. Nevertheless, Switzerland was sufficiently pragmatic to participate in a number of specialist UN agencies despite its non-membership. In the ten years following the end of the cold war, however, the UN rediscovered its universal vocation, making full Swiss membership possible.

Are there other countries that joined the UN as the result of a popular referendum?


What were the arguments for and against Swiss membership?

Supporters said that membership would offer Switzerland the opportunity to demonstrate its solidarity and to accept its share of responsibility for bringing a positive influence to bear on world affairs. They also said that non-membership could politically sideline Switzerland and tarnish its image abroad. Opponents cited the high cost of UN membership. They also said that joining the UN would serve no purpose, with some opponents believing membership to be incompatible with Switzerland’s neutral status.

What does the UN offer Switzerland?

Switzerland and the UN share similar values and goals: poverty alleviation, the respect for human rights, democracy, peaceful coexistence among peoples and the conservation of natural resources. The objectives of Swiss foreign policy, as set out in the Federal Constitution, dovetail with those of the UN Charter. The UN offers Switzerland an authoritative and multilateral forum in which it is able to pursue its objectives and defend its interests.

What goals does Switzerland pursue within UN? Is Switzerland an influential member?

What Switzerland lacks in political muscle, it makes up for with its global presence. As such, it relies on legal certainty and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Switzerland believes that there is more to be gained from the “power of the law” than from the “law of power”. Switzerland wants a stronger United Nations, which is why it plays an active part in efforts to make the organization more efficient and effective. During its first ten years as a full member, Switzerland has supported the creation of the UN Human Rights Council (2006). It has also called for strengthening the rule of law in relation to sanctions as well as for more streamlined management and administration within the UN itself. In the UN every member state has one vote, which represents an advantage for small countries.

What does Switzerland want to achieve within the UN over the next 10 years?

Switzerland wants to help the UN go from strength to strength, as this will allow it to defend Swiss foreign policy interests even more effectively. This will require ongoing reforms of UN organizations. A well-functioning United Nations is the best means of ensuring peace, international security and relations among States based on respect for international law. Switzerland has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2023/24 which provides it with an opportunity to make a contribution to this organization too.

What is the financial cost of UN membership for Switzerland?

In 2016, Switzerland contributed a total of CHF 110 mn to the regular budget of the United Nations, to UN peacekeeping operations, to the international criminal courts and to the costs of renovation work in UN headquarters. A set of criteria, including GDP, are used to calculate how much each member state must contribute to the UN budget. Switzerland is the 17th largest contributor, accounting for 1.140% of the UN budget. It also makes voluntary contributions to help fund other UN activities.

Is UN participation compatible with neutrality?

Yes. UN membership since 2002 has not damaged Swiss neutrality. In other words, UN membership is compatible with Switzerland’s status as a permanently neutral state. According to international law, a neutral state may not play an active part in an armed conflict between States. It is also prohibited from providing military support to any side involved in a conflict. In peacetime, a permanently neutral State may not enter into any legal commitments which, in the event of conflict, would prevent it from honouring its neutrality obligations.

Can Switzerland take part in UN peace-keeping missions?

Yes. Swiss military legislation permits the deployment of the Swiss army in foreign missions insofar as these are subject to a UN Security Council mandate. The Swiss government and parliament ultimately decide whether or not to contribute Swiss troops to a UN peace-keeping mission. In early 2017 the number of Swiss citizens deployed abroad totalled 36.

What is the role and importance of Geneva for the UN?

Geneva is the European headquarters of the UN. It hosts 175 permanent representations, 34 international organizations (of which seven are specialist UN agencies), and no less than 250 international non-governmental organizations. The Economic and Social Council holds its annual meetings alternately in Geneva and New York. Geneva is also the headquarters of the UN Human Rights Council. More international conferences and meetings are held in Geneva than in New York. Every year the Swiss city hosts an average of 2,700 meetings, involving close to 173,000 delegates and experts from across the world. International Geneva is therefore an important foreign policy instrument for Switzerland.

What does “International Geneva” mean for Switzerland?

Tens of thousands of influential politicians, as well as government and civil society representatives, have stayed in Geneva and are therefore familiar with Switzerland. This is very useful when we need contacts abroad that understand our concerns and can therefore intercede on our behalf. Geneva is home to a 40,000-strong international community, of whom some 20,000 are employed in international organizations. A recent study estimated that the presence of international organizations generates global economic benefits of around CHF 3.3 bn per year.

Does Switzerland have any high-profile figures in the UN and, if so, what role do they have?

Over 1,500 Swiss nationals work for international organizations, of whom around 70 hold high-ranking posts. Swiss nationals also have played prominent UN roles. In 2010, Joseph Deiss, a former federal government minister, was elected as President of the UN General Assembly for one term. Nicolas Michel was legal advisor to the Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs from 2004 to 2008, making him the UN’s top lawyer. There is also Swiss Ambassador Peter Maurer, who chaired the 2009/11 General Assembly Budget Committee.

The Security Council is often criticised for being undemocratic. Is Switzerland doing anything to address this criticism?

It is true that the Security Council no longer reflects present-day geopolitical realities, and that support among its members is on the wane. However, reforming the Security Council is a complex issue which must be tackled with a high degree of pragmatism. One of Switzerland’s priorities as a UN member is to improve the working methods of the Security Council. Together with our partners in the “Small Five” (Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein and Singapore), Switzerland has actively worked towards greater transparency and closer cooperation with States which are not members of the Council. Swiss efforts have borne fruit: noticeable progress has been made in a number of areas (more open debates, systematic briefings on monthly programmes and more regular exchanges between the Council and troop-contributing members).

Why should Switzerland belong to an “imperfect” organization?

Because the UN is the only organization in the world capable of providing a forum where the many issues of global importance can be discussed. Swiss lack of involvement would benefit neither the UN nor Switzerland, as it would rob the country of a valuable opportunity to voice its foreign policy interests and concerns, as well as to influence decisions that affect them. Since joining the UN, Switzerland has been committed to making the UN a more effective and efficient organization.

Why should Switzerland enter into dialogue with countries that do not share its values and those of the UN?

It is pointless if only countries with similar convictions and views talk to one another. Dialogue is about working out solutions with countries that have different views and values. Many cross-cutting issues that were once the preserve of domestic policy, such as climate change, tackling crime, financial and economic crises, and poverty reduction, demand an international response. Globalisation restricts the decision-making scope of nations, which means that they must act quickly to defend their interests on the international stage. The United Nations offers a platform for discussion. After all, cooperation and dialogue are two of the UN’s goals.

Since 2008 and the global economic crisis, the UN has faced competition from the G20, which pre-empted key multilateral decisions. Should Switzerland not try to join the G20 rather than invest its energies in the UN?

The UN is still and will continue to be relevant. With its 193 members, it is universal in a sense unmatched by other organizations. However, its universal character constantly challenges its efficiency and effectiveness. Thanks to its pared-down structure, the G20 is able to respond swiftly to emerging problems and harness the expert knowledge of the relevant international institutions specifically for the benefit of its own goals and interests. However, this increased efficiency should not blind us to the fact that the legitimacy of the G20 is seriously flawed due to its lack of legal foundations. Its agenda focuses almost exclusively on economic and financial issues, not to mention working methods that are less than transparent. Also smaller states – particularly those with important financial centres and developing countries – are underrepresented in the G20. This is why the G20 should be considered as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, the UN.

The UN General Assembly elected Switzerland to the Security Council on 9 June 2022. What does that mean?

On 9 June 2022, Switzerland was elected to the UN Security Council by the UN General Assembly in New York with 187 of 190 votes. Since Switzerland joined the UN in 2002, no country in the Group of Western European and Other States has been elected with a better result. It is a clear vote of confidence and an indication of the support enjoyed by Switzerland in the international community.

How does Security Council membership benefit Switzerland?

UN Security Council membership offers Switzerland a platform on which to safeguard its peace-keeping interests. Switzerland enjoys a high degree of credibility and trust when brokering agreements that seek to avoid the use of force. The membership of the UN Security Council gives Switzerland access to important international contacts and fosters the development and maintenance of its international networks.

Is Swiss involvement in the Security Council compatible with neutrality?

The law of neutrality applies exclusively to armed conflict between two or more States. According to this law, the Security Council is not a belligerent party. Its role is to apply international law and to maintain peace and international security. The law on neutrality therefore does not apply to measures taken by the Security Council in virtue of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Force will only be used as a last resort and must always be proportionate. It would be up to Switzerland alone to decide on whether to take part in such operations.

Small countries have no influence over major powers. What then can Switzerland actually do within the Security Council?

Countries with a seat on the Security Council contribute in many ways to safeguarding peace and international security. Of course, the five permanent members play a dominant role. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that other members, regardless of their size, cannot bring their influence to bear. First of all, they are called on to vote on all Security Council decisions, which is a key responsibility. It also offers them an opportunity to advance a specific vision of peace and security through initiatives with which they can win the support of other members. Thanks to its image as an independent country which is committed to humanitarian values and peace, Switzerland is well-placed to forge alliances and thus to act effectively on the Security Council.

What are Switzerland’s priorities as a Security Council member?

On 31 August 2022, the Federal Council adopted four thematic priorities for Switzerland's term on the Security Council. Switzerland intends to represent its foreign policy values and interests in the Security Council. It seeks to build sustainable peace, protect civilians in armed conflict, address the impacts of climate change on security and improve the Council's effectiveness. By serving on the Council, Switzerland will be able to fulfil its constitutional mandate to work for the long-term preservation of natural resources and a just and peaceful international order to even greater effect. Furthermore, it will be able to search for solutions between conflict parties and create added value for the international community.

Why is Switzerland so heavily committed to disarmament?

The central aim of our arms control and disarmament efforts is to improve the stability of the international system, thereby bolstering security in Switzerland. Any conflict, whether near or far, can adversely affect our domestic security and national interests. Moreover, there is a direct link with Switzerland’s status as a permanently neutral state. Given that it is not a member of a military alliance, Switzerland alone is responsible for its security. This is why it is in its interests to work towards arms control and disarmament with a view to safeguarding international peace. Finally, Switzerland’s commitment to disarmament is in keeping with its long humanitarian tradition and allows it to demonstrate its solidarity with the international community. Human safety is a centrepiece of the Swiss security agenda, hence our keenness to promote, strengthen and improve the relevant UN machinery, such as the Geneva Disarmament Conference.

What does the Human Rights Council do (HRC)?

The HRC was created in 2006, with strong backing from Switzerland, to replace the former Commission on Human Rights and become the organization within the UN in charge of protecting human rights. It is made up of 47 states and has its headquarters in Geneva. The HRC enjoys a high degree of credibility thanks to its swift response to certain human rights situations, such as those arising in connection with the Arab Spring protests. The HRC discusses and condemns human rights violations committed throughout the world. It commissions experts and committees of inquiry to monitor the human rights situation in selected countries and to develop key themes (e.g. torture, right to water, minorities). One of the specificities of the HRC is that every State in the world regularly must undergo a review of their human rights situations. This mechanism is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”.

What role does Switzerland play in the HRC?

Switzerland has actively contributed to the creation of the HRC, which is based in Geneva. It therefore makes sense that Switzerland joined the HRC and has shown a deep commitment to its work. Switzerland’s top priority within the HRC is to combat a bloc mentality by promoting respectful but frank dialogue to enable the HRC to carry out its mission properly. Switzerland also makes an active contribution to specific issues such as transitional justice and dealing with the past. As a result of Swiss efforts, the HRC appointed a Special Rapporteur for these two areas. Switzerland was also behind the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education. Switzerland underwent its first Universal Periodic Review in 2008. Its second UPR is scheduled for 2012.

Last update 30.09.2022

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