At a Saybrook College Master’s Tea Wednesday, Swiss ambassador to the United Nations and UNICEF president Jeno Staehelin spoke about the positive global impact of the United Nations as well as his country’s decision to become an active United Nations member after 54 years of neutrality.
Citing the changing political landscape and the emergence of non-political global problems, Staehelin said neutrality was no longer an option for the Swiss.
“The main reason for Swiss observer status in the U.N. was for a long time the concept of permanent neutrality and the fear of being dragged into conflicts,” Staehelin said. “But [the Swiss] are aware that there are global problems such as AIDS, drugs and pollution that have nothing to do with neutrality.”
Switzerland decided to become an active United Nations member after passing a popular referendum calling for the abandonment of neutral status. Staehelin said the vote reflected the changing attitudes of Swiss citizens toward the United Nations.
“The positive result of the vote is a confirmation in the view of the Swiss citizens that the U.N. is relevant,” Staehelin said.
Saybrook Master Mary Miller praised Staehelin as “the architect” of the transformation of Switzerland’s role in the United Nations. Staehelin, who led a year-long campaign in favor of the referendum, stressed the importance of the everyday work of the United Nations, but added that this work is often overshadowed by more publicly visible actions.
“The strength of the U.N. lies in unspectacular long-term work,” Staehelin said. “But the short-term, spectacular issues dominate the popular media.”
Staehelin said the focus of the popular media on “immediate” issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict diverts attention from certain matters of equal, if not greater, significance.
“24,000 people die every day from hunger,” Staehelin said. “This should be worth a headline every day, but it is impossible to name a specific person or government responsible for this.”
Praising the long-term successes of the United Nations, Staehelin pointed out that deaths resulting from hunger are down from just 10 years ago, when 35,000 people died of hunger daily. Staehelin said in spite of such successes, public opinion of the United Nations is swayed more by its immediate failures.
“If the benchmark of the effectiveness [of the U.N.] is solving armed conflict immediately, the record is not very good,” Staehelin said. “But the long-term looks a lot better.”
Staehelin said the future of the United Nations depends largely on relations with the United States. Citing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a turning point in these relations, Staehelin said the onus is on the United States to choose between moral and military authority.
“9/11 has traumatized the only superpower and as a result it is acting more unilaterally, which of course has an effect on relations,” Staehelin said. “For 60 years the U.S. was by and large a benign power and carried moral authority. Will it be a country that inspires admiration or will military power be more important than moral authority?”
Staehelin said the success or failure of the United Nations in years to come will reflect those of the world itself.
“The U.N. is the mirror of the world. One may not like what one sees, but don’t accuse the mirror.”
Clemens Raemy ’06 praised Staehelin’s ability to focus on Switzerland’s decision to become an active member of the United Nations.
“I think he presented the information really nicely,” Raemy said. “He had a good focus on Switzerland, especially why it joined the United Nations.”