Geneva's United Nations HQ a ghost town under lockdown
The United Nations building in Geneva has been deserted since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. British photographer Mark Henley has ventured into the historic complex to capture the unique ghost town atmosphere.
- Deutsch Der Palais des Nations in Zeiten der Pandemie
- Español Un Palacio sin Naciones a causa de la pandemia
- Português Um palácio sem nações devido à pandemia
- 中文 疫情下的联合国：万国宫里无一国
- Français Un Palais sans Nations pour cause de pandémie
- عربي في جنيف.. قصرٌ مُقفرٌ بلا أمـم جـرّاء جائحة
- Pусский Дворец без наций: что пандемия сотворила со штаб-квартирой ООН в Женеве
- 日本語 無人の国際連合ジュネーブ事務局
- Italiano Un Palazzo senza Nazioni a causa della pandemia
The corridors and meeting rooms of the sprawling Palais des NationsExternal link, the UN’s second-biggest headquarters after New York, are usually full of hustle-and-bustle. The complex hosts 1,500 UN staff and regularly welcomes thousands of officials, experts and journalists for meetings. Each year, 2,500 international conferences and meetings are held in the western Swiss city, attended by around 200,000 delegates, including 4,500 heads of state, government and ministers.
But this year, on March 13, Covid-19 put a stop to business as usual at the Palais. The main session of the UN Human Rights Council was forced to suspend its work. Emergency restrictions were imposed on staff and the premises, in line with those in the rest of Switzerland. The huge 853,000m2 building became vacant overnight as most people decided to work from home.
This is not the first time the Palais has stood empty. At the end of the 1930s the League of Nations, the forerunner to the UN, was forced to abandon the building when the Second World War broke out.
Today it’s a pandemic, not a war, that has restricted its activities.
The urgency of the global health crisis and its widespread economic damage demand that member states work together despite the huge challenges facing the multilateral system.
States have shown that this is possible. Last week officials came together – virtually – for the World Health Assembly, which is normally held in Geneva. The results of the two-day online conference, notably an agreement on a Covid resolution crafted by the European Union, demonstrated a semblance of international unity during the current crisis.
Back to the office
Back at the Palais, the empty corridors may start filling up again soon. On May 22, UN Geneva Director-General Tatiana Valovaya announced that, as the virus situation was improving, staff working from home could start returning to their offices on a voluntary basis in early June. Social distancing and hygiene measures will continue to apply. Signs have been added around the building to restrict movements and a limited number of people will have access to meeting rooms.
Provided the Swiss government goes ahead with the third phase of easing lockdown, bigger conferences can also take place from mid-June at the Palais, but with formats adapted to the evolution of the crisis.
Despite this, in the coming months economic damage and funding concerns threaten to cast a long shadow over Geneva. The collapse in the number of conferences and visitors has already resulted in huge losses for local hotels and businesses. The long-term funding of the UN, international organisations and the extensive network of NGOs in the city could be at risk if states seriously tighten their purse strings.
Life is due to return to the Palais des Nations, but there is no guarantee of better days ahead.
Twice named Swiss Press Photographer of the Year, Mark HenleyExternal link is based in Geneva at the United Nations. Having spent many years on the road, examining the effects of economic and social change around the world, his recent work observes the structures and organisations effecting those changes, many of them operating from his adoptive hometown.
He has also worked extensively on the refugee crisis, both of refugees moving through Europe and those seeking asylum in Switzerland, cooperating with UNHCRExternal link and the Hospice généralExternal link.
The project 'Bank on UsExternal link' on the Swiss banking industry has won several awards including Swiss Press Photographer of the Year in 2012. He won this award a second time in 2014 for his observation of the diplomatic negotiations leading to the Iranian nuclear deal in Geneva, 'Waiting on a dealExternal link'.
Born in Oxford, UK, he studied literature at the University of York and lived for ten years in Asia. He is represented by Panos PicturesExternal link in London and Jiji Press PhotosExternal link in Tokyo.
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