10 September 2002


Press Briefing


Speaking at a Headquarters press conference today on the occasion of Switzerland's admission to the United Nations, Kaspar Villiger, President of the Swiss Confederation, and Joseph Deiss, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed the continued importance of neutrality for the Swiss, but pointed out that membership in the United Nations reinforced another Swiss value, that of solidarity.

The speakers were introduced by Shashi Tharoor, Under-Secretary-General for Information and head of the United Nations Department of Public Information. President Villiger told correspondents that both Switzerland and the United Nations valued freedom, humanity, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and were committed to the fight against poverty, suffering, violence and the destruction of the natural elements of life.  He added that Switzerland had made financial contributions to the Organization and played an active role in all United Nations agencies for many years.  Those shared values and that intensive cooperation had helped convince the Swiss people to vote for membership in the United Nations.

It was important that the principle of neutrality, which helped to ensure the internal cohesion of pluri-cultural Switzerland, was maintained, said Mr. Villiger.  However, that did not mean turning a blind eye to the fight against poverty and injustice, or to international crime and terrorism.  Swiss neutrality related to the taking of sides in times of war between peoples; there was no neutrality in the face of crime.

On the subject of 11 September 2001, President Villiger said the attacks showed how interconnected and vulnerable the world was.  As any assault on civilization had consequences for all, the terrorist attacks were also aimed at other open societies sharing the same basic values.  Switzerland had redoubled its efforts in the fight against international crime and terrorism, and one of the main Swiss goals was to fight the financing of international crime and terrorism.

Also addressing Switzerland's long-standing participation in the work of the specialized agencies of the United Nations, Mr. Deiss remarked that Switzerland faced no major problems with membership, as the goals of the United Nations were the goals outlined in the Swiss Constitution.  In the past, he reiterated, Switzerland had implemented United Nations sanctions and made financial contributions.

Mr. Deiss gave examples of three particular issues on which Switzerland supported the efforts of the United Nations -- the International Criminal Court (ICC); the Convention Against Torture; and the implementation of "smart" sanctions.  On the first issue, Switzerland was active in supporting the ICC, wanting it to be as strong and universal as possible.  Allowing immunities to individual States would undermine the Court.  On the second, Switzerland

supported regular visits by experts to detention locations, an issue which had been raised originally by Geneva residents.  On the third, Switzerland wanted to improve the effectiveness of sanctions, to insure that they had direct effect on the leaders of countries while sparing the civilian populations.

In response to a question on the content of the Middle East initiative submitted by the Swiss government, Mr. Deiss said that, as the repository state of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland had supported an initiative to promote better respect for international humanitarian rules in the region, which would reduce violence and tensions. 

Questioned about the Swiss position on Iraq, Mr. Deiss stated that Switzerland maintained the same position as the Secretary-General.  She would help the international community to combat the development of weapons of mass destruction, but stressed the importance of exploring all peaceful means of doing so.  The weapons inspectors should be allowed to return.  Any military action against Iraq could only be given legitimacy by the Security Council.

Responding to a question on how the Swiss government could maintain confidence in the principle of neutrality when faced with partial issues, Mr. Villiger stressed again the distinction made earlier that the principle of neutrality applied to taking sides in wars between peoples, and that there was no neutrality in crime.  While in modern times there were differing concepts of war, Switzerland would rely upon the definition of war provided by international law when addressing such issues.

Explaining how the vote for membership in the United Nations broke down, Mr. Villiger said that, in order to change the Swiss constitution, a majority of both the population and the cantons needed to vote in favour of membership.  While 56% of the population had supported membership, the cantons had voted 12-11 for membership.  The Italian-speaking canton of Tessin had voted against, while the French-speaking cantons had supported United Nations membership.  Among the German-speaking cantons, the vote was mixed.  He thought that the end of the Cold War and the creation of more opportunities for the United Nations to act effectively now explained the change in Swiss opinion on the subject of United Nations membership.

On other topics, both Mr. Villiger and Mr. Deiss stated that, in spite of having conducted the press conference in English, all four cultural and linguistic influences in Switzerland were important.  They spoke English in tribute to their New York hosts, but would be speaking in French during sessions.  On the Swiss flag, Mr. Villiger said the flag was square, not rectangular like the vast majority of Members' flags, but it would be flown unaltered at the United Nations.   

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For information media. Not an official record.