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Swiss apply formally to join U.N.

Switzerland is to join the U.N. after five decades sitting on the sidelines  

UNITED NATIONS -- Switzerland, which had been neutral for 200 years, has formally applied for membership of the United Nations.

Switzerland's U.N. observer Jeno Staehelin handed the letter from President Kaspar Villiger to Secretary-General Kofi Annan following the "yes" vote in a referendum in March.

The position of Switzerland -- which is already home to the second largest U.N. centre -- had become an ironic one but nationalists had argued that membership meant a loss of independent sovereignty.

The country will now become either the 190th or 191st member of the world body depending on whether the U.N. deals with Switzerland before or after it handles an application from East Timor.

"Switzerland is in many ways a vivid example of what the United Nations stands for -- a tolerant, peaceful and multicultural society built on democratic values," Annan said. "I look forward to Switzerland's constructive participation in the work of the organisation."

Switzerland's membership must now be approved by at least nine of the 15 members of the Security Council -- without a veto by any of the five permanent members, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. That vote is due to take place this month.

Two-thirds of the General Assembly's voting membership must then give final approval.

It is not clear whether the General Assembly will take up the Swiss application before or after that of East Timor.

In its first act after becoming independent in May, East Timor's legislature voted to sign the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and join the United Nations. Its letter requesting admission has already been approved by the Security Council, but it asked to delay a General Assembly vote until September.

Only the Vatican now remains outside the world body.

Switzerland has been a longtime observer at the United Nations, but membership will allow it to vote in the General Assembly, to introduce resolutions, and to be elected to and serve on U.N. bodies.

Annan noted that Geneva is already the second-largest U.N. centre and that Switzerland has been a member of many U.N. agencies and has ratified many U.N. treaties.

"So one might say that by virtue of this experience, Switzerland has a head start in knowing what it takes to be a member of the U.N. family," he said. "I am sure that as a full member, Switzerland will put this knowledge to good use and will make its voice heard across the breadth of our work."

In March Swiss voters narrowly approved joining the United Nations in Sunday's referendum after five decades of sitting on the sidelines.

Tallies from all precincts showed a nationwide margin of 55-45 percent 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.

Nationwide 1,484,818 people backed the government by voting "yes," compared with 1,236,067 against.

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.


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