International Geneva

The changing face of International Geneva

International Geneva is an important hub for multilateralism. But multilateralism is under pressure and the Covid-19 pandemic drove meetings online. Just as pandemic restrictions were being lifted, came a new crisis: Russia’s war in Ukraine.

This content was published on July 19, 2022 - 14:36
Skizzomat (Illustration)

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. There are many international organisations in Geneva dealing with various aspects of these. Head of the UN’s human rights office is the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a post that has been held by Michelle Bachelet of Chile for the last four years. But she steps down at the end of August 2022. We took a look at her legacy, what qualities are needed of her successor and whether the UN selection process is transparent enough:

The Human Rights Council is at the heart of International Geneva, with its headquarters at the Palais des Nations, the UN’s European headquarters. The UN General Assembly in New York voted on April 7 to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over its war in Ukraine. It’s only the second time in history that a country has been suspended, after Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. But the vote was rather “ambivalent”, as one of our analysts put it:

A vote in March condemning the Russian invasion and setting up a commission of inquiry on violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ukraine was more clear-cut:

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

And in our Inside Geneva podcast, Imogen Foulkes talks to survivors of human rights violations, and to human rights defenders, about the importance – and the flaws – of the UN’s human rights work.

Food crisis

With a refugee and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, other UN bodies like Geneva-based refugee agency UNHCR and the World Food Programme have their work cut out trying to deliver aid. The war is causing an escalating food crisis in some parts of the world, notably Africa and the Middle East, with supplies disrupted, prices rising and aid agencies under-funded:

At the same time, ongoing causes of food security such as climate change and protracted conflict are not being addressed. Inside Geneva discussed the immediate and long term needs with UN children's fund UNICEF and the World Meteorological Organization:

Covid-19 and the WHO

But while eyes have turned to Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic is not over, and indeed cases are rising again.  Even as the world learns to live with this virus, 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 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”

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 178 diplomatic missions. 

In recent years, 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. And this year it got a pledge of Swiss government funding for the next ten years:

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 partial lockdown in Switzerland in spring 2020 it became a “Palace without Nations”. While it is now back  to “new normal”, many of its activities are still being conducted at least partially online.

Future ways of working in Geneva’s international organisations may be changed, even after the pandemic.

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