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Switzerland - Foreign Relations

On September 10, 2002, Switzerland became a full member of the United Nations. Switzerland had previously been involved as party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice and member of most UN specialized agencies, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency. Switzerland has long participated in many UN activities, including the Economic Commission for Europe, UN Environment Program, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN Conference for Trade and Development, UN Industrial Development Organization, and the Universal Postal Union (UPU). Prior to its formal accession, Switzerland had maintained a permanent observer mission at UN Headquarters since 1948.

Switzerland also is a member of the following international organizations: World Trade Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, European Free Trade Association, Bank for International Settlements, Council of Europe, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In 1992, Swiss voters approved membership in the Bretton Woods organizations but later that year rejected the European Economic Area agreement, which the government viewed as a first step toward EU membership. Switzerland also is an active participant in the major nonproliferation and export control regimes.

The Swiss Constitution declares the preservation of Switzerland's independence and welfare as the supreme objective of Swiss foreign policy. Below this overarching goal, the Constitution sets five specific foreign policy objectives: further the peaceful coexistence of nations; promote respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; promote Swiss economic interests abroad; alleviate need and poverty in the world; and the preservation of natural resources.

Traditionally, Switzerland has avoided alliances that might entail military, political, or direct economic action, but in recent years the Swiss have broadened the scope of activities in which they feel able to participate without compromising their neutrality. Swiss voters first rejected UN membership by a 3-to-1 margin in 1986 but in March 2002 adopted it, albeit in a very close election, making Switzerland the first country to join the UN based on a popular referendum decision. In similar fashion, the electorate rejected a government proposition to deploy Swiss troops as UN peacekeepers (Blue Helmets) in 1994, but Switzerland joined NATO's Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1996 and 1997, respectively, and deployed Yellow Berets to support the OSCE in Bosnia. In June 2001, Swiss voters approved new legislation providing for the deployment of armed Swiss troops for international peacekeeping missions under UN or OSCE auspices as well as closer international cooperation in military training.

Switzerland maintains diplomatic relations with almost all countries and historically has served as a neutral intermediary and host to major international treaty conferences. Since 1980, Switzerland has represented U.S. interests in Iran. In 2008, Switzerland agreed to represent Russia in Georgia as well as Georgia in Russia. Switzerland played a key role in mediating an agreement, signed in October 2009 in Zurich, to provide a framework for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey.

Switzerland (mainly Geneva) is home to many international governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (whose flag is essentially the Swiss flag with colors reversed--the Red Cross historically being a Swiss organization). One of the first international organizations, the Universal Postal Union, is located in Bern.

Under a series of treaties concluded after World War I, Switzerland assumed some responsibilities for the diplomatic and consular representation of Liechtenstein, the protection of its borders, and the regulation of its customs.

The arrest at the Zurich airport of film director Roman Polanski was viewed by Calmy-Rey as putting a dent in Switzerland's international image. Nevertheless, she limited her criticism to remarking that the arrest lacked "finesse," and surely is aware that Swiss public opinion favors Polanski's extradition to the United States.

For a time, probably the biggest challenge on Switzerland's foreign policy front was its continuing crisis with Libya, following the July 2008 arrest of Muammar Gaddafi's son Hannibal Gaddafi in Geneva for allegedly brutally abusing his domestic staff. Swiss President Merz's ill-fated visit to Tripoli in late August, during which he publicly apologized for what by all accounts was a justified police action, failed to win the freedom of two Swiss businessmen that the Libyan government has refused to allow to leave Libya for over a year. The two Swiss citizens were refused departure purportedly because of visa irregularities, but it was clear to all that Tripoli viewed them as a bargaining chip in extracting maximum concessions from the Swiss. Moreover, after living under house arrest for a year, the two businessmen were taken by Libyan officials to an undisclosed location, further raising concern in Bern about their fate.

Foreign policy activism is not universally appreciated across the domestic political spectrum in Switzerland. Swiss views are colored by Switzerland's centuries-old tradition of neutrality. Issues that draw on the Swiss capacity for facilitation and mediation, such as Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, generally enjoy strong public support. On the other hand, foreign policy activism with a more partisan or "hard" security flavor, such as Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey's vociferous support for Kosovo independence, or her all out -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- effort to obtain a parliamentary mandate for Swiss military participation in the EU anti-piracy operation Atalanta, do not enjoy the same broad public support.

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Page last modified: 03-02-2014 19:21:20 ZULU