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The changing face of International Geneva

International Geneva is an important multilateral hub. Yet the multilateral system has faced heavy pressure in recent times, notably from the former US government of Donald Trump, but also due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has led to dramatic changes in the way of working in International Geneva. Will things return to “normal”, or will digital diplomacy become “new normal”?

This content was published on August 17, 2021 - 15:27
Skizzomat (Illustration)

The corridors and conference rooms of the Palais des Nations, the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva, used to be buzzing with delegates and press from around the world. But during the first semi-confinement in Switzerland in spring 2020 it turned into a “Palace without Nations” remaining almost empty. Many of its activities are still being conducted online. This is the case in many of International Geneva’s institutions. The way officials, organisations and states do business may be totally transformed in the future following the pandemic.

In addition to UN organisations and government missions from around the world, International Geneva also hosts many international NGOs and academic institutions. These create a “fertile eco-system” for international research and decision-making, say the authorities. While some NGOs and even the UN may be threatened by the knock-on effects of the pandemic, the Swiss government is supporting new, futuristic Geneva “platforms”. These include the Swiss Digital Initiative and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy AnticipatorExternal link, which can be found in the “Biotech Campus” buildingExternal link that houses forward-looking start-ups.

WHO in the eye of the storm

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the World Health Organisation (WHO), a UN body founded in 1948 and also based in Geneva. Some have criticised its handling of the crisis, and it is facing calls for reform.

As the world has grappled with the pandemic, the WHO has been in the eye of the storm. It has faced criticism that it was too slow to react and -- notably from the former Trump administration -- that it was too close to China.

But the WHO has also been at the centre of a new initiative to bring Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries, the COVAX vaccine pool. COVAX is co-led by the WHO, Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Despite facing many challenges, COVAX started rolling out vaccines to poorer countries in the first quarter of 2021.

Another Geneva institution criticised by Trump and now at the centre of a struggle over whether to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines is the World Trade Organization (WTO). This body is also facing calls for reform.

Trump moved to pull the US out of the WHO and WTO, as well as the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, and to cut off funding. International Geneva heaved a collective sigh of relief when Joe Biden was elected in his place in November 2020 and reversed this policy. But it remains to be seen what changes the return of the US will bring to these UN institutions.

Funding problems

Financial pressures are a huge concern for organisations in Geneva, made worse more recently by the coronavirus pandemic, which has tested the limits of the multilateral system. UN agencies, international organisations and NGOs have scrambled to respond under lockdowns. Meanwhile, the fate of cash-strapped NGOs is unclear, and will depend largely on donors, according to Geneva cantonal authorities.  

The long-term trend may be for big international agencies to transfer certain resources from expensive Geneva to the field or to cheaper locations, but the city’s pull-factor remains strong for other reasons.

One is that donors, decision-makers and experts are already there. Geneva is not only home to the UN European headquarters and 39 international organisations, but also to 431 non-governmental organisations and 177 diplomatic missions, according to the International Geneva websiteExternal link of the cantonal authorities. There are also research institutes and 19 platforms bringing together International Geneva expertise.

More recently, they have been joined by teams of international justice investigators and experts based at the UN to discretely gather and preserve evidence and prepare possible future criminal cases on serious international crimes committed in Syria, Myanmar and now Sri Lanka.

As the UN turned 75 in 2020, it was time not only to look at its past and its ties to International Geneva…  

…but also to think about its future in uncertain times.

Peace, human rights and international justice remain key focuses. From Geneva, the Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body within the UN system, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, supported by a myriad of NGOs and academics, promote and protect human rights around the world. 

“As long as the UN and the international system is open to civil society, there is a pull effect here in Geneva,” said Julien Beauvallet, head of the NGO Service of the International Geneva Welcome Centre (CAGI).


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