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The changing face of International Geneva

International Geneva is an important hub for multilateralism. But with multilateralism under pressure and the Covid-19 pandemic driving meetings online, it is facing some unprecedented challenges.

This content was published on January 5, 2022 - 17:01
Skizzomat (Illustration)

The pandemic has put two of Geneva’s institutions particularly in the spotlight: The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

As the world struggled to cope, the WHO has been in the eye of the storm. Some have criticized its handling of the crisis, and it is facing calls for reform. Its continuing pleas for vaccine equality around the world have not prevented richer nations from hoarding, while health workers in some developing countries remain unvaccinated. At a special meeting in December 2021, WHO member states pledged to open talks on a new global treaty to better deal with future pandemics, but this is not likely to be ready for at least another three years.

The WHO, a UN body based in Geneva, was founded in 1948 to promote universal health care, set standards and coordinate the world's response to health emergencies. 

It also faces funding issues:

In an innovative move, the WHO launched an 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).  But COVAX has been forced to continually revise down its targets, due to lack of vaccine supplies.

World Trade Organization and vaccines

The WTO is another Geneva institution facing calls for reform. One of its most controversial debates throughout the year has also been around the vaccine inequality issue.

The WTO has 164 member countries and a long history:

In 2021 it got its first female and first African leader, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria.

A “fertile eco-system”

Geneva is home not only to the United Nations European headquarters and more than 40 international organisations, but also to over 700 non-governmental organisations, research institutes and 177 diplomatic missions. 

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

International Geneva’s plethora of international governmental bodies, NGOs and academic institutions gives rise to what has been called a “fertile eco-system” for international research and decision-making. 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”, such as the Swiss Digital Initiative and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy AnticipatorExternal link (GESDA) which can be found in the “Biotech Campus” full of forward-looking start-ups.

GESDA, a foundation launched in 2019 with funding from the Swiss government, city and canton of Geneva, held its first summit in October 2021, presenting publicly for the first time the work it has been doing:

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. 

Digital diplomacy in the pandemic era

The Palais des Nations, the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, has traditionally had buzzing corridors and conference rooms full of delegates and press from around the world. But during the first semi-confinement in Switzerland in spring 2020 it became a “Palace without Nations”. Many of its activities are still being conducted online. This is the case in many of International Geneva’s institutions. Future ways of working may be changed, even after the pandemic.

Financial pressures are also a huge concern for organisations in Geneva, made worse 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 Covid restrictions.

The long-term trend may be for big international agencies to transfer certain resources to the field or to cheaper locations, but although Geneva is expensive, its pull-factor remains strong for other reasons. One is that donors, decision makers and experts are already there. “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).

Focus 2022

In 2022, the focus of International Geneva remains on the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO’s efforts to lead the world out this crisis and prepare for better management of the next pandemic. At SWI swissinfo.ch we will also be keeping an eye on calls for reform at the WHO and WTO, both expected to hold key summits in the spring. We won’t be neglecting Geneva’s central role in global human rights either. And Switzerland’s most famous humanitarian contribution, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has appointed its first ever woman president: Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, who takes up her post in October 2022. We’ll be reporting on her strategy, and the challenges she faces.

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