Why did Switzerland only join the United Nations in 2002?

Why did Switzerland only join the United Nations in 2002?

Despite Switzerland being a pillar of the international community, and housing United Nations institutions in Geneva, it only chose to join the organisation in 2002. In the lead-up to joining, tensions over the prospect of membership were felt all across Switzerland. Here’s why Switzerland took 57 years to join the UN and why it joined in 2002.

Why was joining the United Nations so controversial in Switzerland?

The debate that arose in 2002 was centred around how joining the UN would impact Switzerland’s neutral policy. Opponents of the decision argued that by joining the organisation, the country’s status as a neutral nation would be compromised. Those in favour of membership stated that Switzerland could use the platform to make its voice heard internationally. 

In the end, Switzerland did what Switzerland does best: a referendum. The vote saw 54,6 percent of the electorate back the country’s UN membership, with 13 out of the 26 Swiss cantons voting to join the organisation. From here, Switzerland began its journey within the UN as a full member. 

Swiss neutrality means the country rarely joins international organisations

One of the reasons why the decision to join the UN was so tough for Switzerland is that the country is usually not a member of international or regional organisations, due to its policy of neutrality. The country is not, for example, a member of the European Union (EU) like neighbouring Germany, France and Italy and is also not a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), although it does have strong ties to each and is a member of the Schengen border agreement. 

Despite not being a member of many international bodies, Switzerland is an active participant in many organisations and often uses its neutral stance to foster relations between countries that are at diplomatic odds with one another - for example, between the US and Cuba, or between Iran and Canada. 

What were the advantages of joining the UN for Switzerland?

There are many advantages for Switzerland of having joined the organisation, but the main one is simply that it made the most sense given how many other nations were already part of it. While Switzerland remains militarily neutral, many nations around the world - big, or small - are UN members because the organisation gives countries the opportunity to discuss global and regional issues in an international forum. 

Switzerland ultimately decided that joining the UN would benefit the country more than remaining outside the organisation. The UN has allowed the country to exercise its diplomatic strengths to help tackle issues such as human rights, public health, human security and environmental issues between nations, as well as express its own grievances to the international community. 

Switzerland celebrates 20 years of UN membership

After 20 years of settling in as a member of the UN, Switzerland has now taken on a new challenge at the organisation. From the beginning of 2023, Switzerland has become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UN’s primary decision-making body for issues relating to global peace, stability and security.

The council has 15 members, of which five are permanent members - the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France and China. The other 10 members take up membership of the council on a two-year rotating basis. 

Switzerland became a Security Council member on January 1, 2023. In August 2022, the country confirmed that it would make a special effort during its membership to push for greater transparency at the organisation, as well as climate change security, promoting long-lasting peace and protecting civilians in armed conflict. 



Emily Proctor

Former Editor at IamExpat Media.

Read more



Leave a comment