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International Geneva

The changing face of International Geneva


This content was published on May 16, 2023 - 14:30
Skizzomat (Illustration)


International Geneva is an important hub for multilateralism, but multilateralism is under pressure. After the Covid-19 pandemic came a new world crisis: Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is posing new challenges for international bodies in Geneva, be it diplomats, aid agencies, the World Trade Organization, NGOs or others.

While the pandemic put the spotlight particularly on the World Health Organization (WHO), the war in Ukraine has switched the focus to human rights and humanitarian issues. International organisations in Geneva are in a dilemma over whether to isolate Russia in a bid to increase pressure on Moscow to stop the war:

One of the key UN organisations in Geneva is the Human Rights Council, which kicked Russia out over “gross and systematic human rights abuses” in Ukraine, in accordance with an April 2022 General Assembly vote. In March 2023, an independent commission of inquiry mandated by the Human Rights Council said that Russia has committed a “wide range of war crimes” in Ukraine, and possibly crimes against humanity which need further investigation. This commission’s mandate was extended in April for another year. The Human Rights Council has also appointed a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia.

In this video, SWI swissinfo.ch takes a look at how the Human Rights Council works and what it does.

Diplomacy with Russia continues at least to some extent, notably achieving the fragile, UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Deal. This accord has gone some way to alleviating the knock-on effects of the Ukraine war on developing countries:

Head of the UN’s human rights office in Geneva is the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a post now held by Volker Türk of Austria. He took office on October 17, replacing Michelle Bachelet of Chile. Türk faces multiple challenges, including a UN divided over Russia’s war in Ukraine, multiple human rights crises around the world, and how to deal with China. He gave this exclusive interview to Imogen Foulkes for SWI swissinfo.ch:

Aid agencies under pressure

With refugee and humanitarian crises in many parts of the world including Ukraine, other UN bodies like Geneva-based refugee agency UNHCR and the World Food Programme have their work cut out trying to deliver aid. They also face unprecedented underfunding:

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), perhaps the best known of many international NGOs based in Geneva, has also come under pressure with the Ukraine conflict, which has worsened an ongoing funding gap. In April it announced that it would cut 1,500 jobs (reportedly more), accompanied by the closure of at least 20 of its 350 global sites. Several aid programmes will also be scaled-back or shelved, it said.

The ICRC guards its neutrality so as to be able to talk to both sides in a conflict and save lives. Under international law, states should grant the ICRC access to prisoners of war, but it has not had full access, particularly in the Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. For this it has come under criticism:

Covid-19 and the WHO

But while eyes have turned to Ukraine, the effects of Covid-19 linger on, its origin is still not known for certain, and the World Health Organization (WHO) wants to learn lessons. 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 civil society groups want more involvement on developing the treaty, which could take 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. 

World Trade Organization and vaccines

The WTO is another Geneva institution that has been in the eye of the storm during the pandemic. One of its most controversial recent debates has been around the vaccine inequality issue. 

At a delayed in-person Ministerial Conference in June 2022 it finally agreed, among other things, on a partial patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines. Not everyone was happy, however.

The WTO has 164 member countries and a long history:

A “fertile eco-system”

In recent years, Geneva’s many international actors 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 GenevaExternal link is home not only to the United Nations European headquarters and some 40 international organisations, but also to over 430 non-governmental organisations and 179 diplomatic missions. There are also 17 “platforms”, bringing together a range of actors in a given field, which may include governments, NGOs and international organisations but also academic and research institutions in Geneva and Switzerland. One of these is the Geneva Science and Diplomacy AnticipatorExternal link (GESDA), which can be found in the “Biotech Campus” full of forward-looking start-ups.

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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