U.N. welcomes Swiss yes vote
GENEVA, Switzerland -- The United Nations has welcomed a Swiss vote to join the international organisation.
The decision in a referendum on Sunday marks the end of Switzerland's role on the sidelines of the United Nations.
Opponents had argued that become the 190th member of the U.N. would threaten the country's cherished neutrality.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the vote meant the U.N. was a step closer to universality.
Once Switzerland formally notifies Annan of its intention to join membership must be approved by nine of the 15 Security Council members, with no veto. Membership would then need to be ratified by two-thirds of the General Assembly.
General Assembly President Han Sueng-Soo congratulated the Swiss for the outcome of the vote.
He said it reflected "the will and aspiration of the people of Switzerland to enhance the cooperation with the world body in addressing the global challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century."
In the popular vote there was a 55-45 percent result in favour, but the crucial second hurdle -- approval by at least half the country's cantons, or states -- received a much narrower 12-11 result.
The division between cantons held at 11-11 for two hours until Zurich, the largest canton, weighed in on the side of the U.N. supporters, and ensuring their historic victory.
CNN's Robin Oakley reported that ministers were relieved by the result because they had had little concrete to offer the people as a result of joining up.
A government statement released after Sundays vote said: "Everyone stands to gain from this. Switzerland will now be better able to safeguard its interests and assume its responsibilities in the world."
But billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher -- a nationalist politician who led the opposition this time -- said he "deeply regretted" the outcome.
"It will lead to the weakening of Switzerland. Freedom and the rights of the people will be limited, and neutrality will at the very least be deeply damaged," he told The Associated Press.
Switzerland has long been a fee-paying member of some U.N. specialised agencies like the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.
But it had remained -- with the Vatican -- an observer state in the U.N. General Assembly.
Seventy-five percent of Swiss rejected U.N. membership in a similar referendum in 1986, backing opponents who said that membership would let East-West polarisation compromise Swiss neutrality.
But the government argued that the political climate had changed since the height of the Cold War, and that it is time for the 7 million Swiss to play a full role in the world.
Opponents claimed U.N. membership would force Switzerland to abandon its cherished sovereignty and submit to the political dictates of the five permanent members of the Security Council, such as the imposition of sanctions on countries like Iraq.
Under the Swiss constitution, membership needed a double approval -- not only a majority of those voting nationwide and but also a majority in at least 12 of the country's 23 cantons or states.
The government says membership should cost $42 million a year, compared with the $1.8 billion a year economic windfall from the presence of U.N. European headquarters in Geneva.
Switzerland already provides logistical help to peacekeeping operations and invariably follows U.N. sanctions.
Oakley said that a key question now is whether reformers will be back on the streets with another campaign, to get the Swiss to join the European Union, an idea they rejected last year. But that divides even those who campaigned for a "yes" on the United Nations.
"The real point is when do we join and when do we relaunch the debate on European integration and the Yes side, the majority of the Yes side will say now we really stay quiet, don't go with Europe yet," said Andreas Gross of the "Yes" campaign.
"I will be one of those who says Europe is now making a convention on the constitution, it is a great shame we are not there," he said.
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