Ex-diplomat warns Switzerland about UN Security Council bid

Jenö Staehelin, seen here during his time as Swiss ambassador to the UN, has witnessed first hand the type of political pressure that can be exerted by superpowers. Keystone / Dorothea Mueller

Switzerland would subject itself to unwelcome political pressure should it get a seat on the UN Security Council, says a former Swiss ambassador to the UN. Jenö Staehelin doubts the small alpine nation could resist overtures from superpower states.

This content was published on September 18, 2020 - 14:30

“I am not a fan of running for the Security Council,” he told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper. Staehelin, now retired, was the first Swiss Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York from 2002 to 2004.

Since 2011, Switzerland has been campaigning to get a non-permanent council seat for 2023-2024. Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis believes Switzerland could handle the responsibility if it is chosen in June 2022. He is convinced that “the benefits outweigh the risks”.

But other people believe the move would compromise Switzerland’s political neutrality. Staehelin believes Switzerland could maintain a broad neutral stance but is worried about the pressure powerful states could bring to bear at individual crunch votes by the Security Council.

The experienced diplomat witnessed the pressure exerted by the United States on Chile and Mexico in the build up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “It is naive to think you will not face tricky positions in these two years,” Staehelin told the NZZ. “When you go on a trip, you don't just think about what will happen when the weather is good. But also, what you do if there is a thunderstorm.”

Banking secrecy example

Switzerland buckled under the tax evasion storm unleashed by the US following the financial crisis. It led to banking secrecy being abolished. Staehelin views this as a salutary reminder of how vulnerable Switzerland could be to the will of a superpower.

“Based on my experience, I cannot assume that Switzerland would defy attempts to exert pressure during delicate situations and to stand up for its principles,” he said.

He also fears that China could use the free trade deal to leverage favourable Security Council votes from Switzerland. And this could lead to uncomfortable political and social implications at home.

“You must be prepared for attempts to pressure by great powers on the international stage and for heated debates in Switzerland. Because foreign policy is domestic policy, even more so in our direct democracy,” warns Staehelin.

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