UN opens doors to Geneva public before renovations

A general view the Palais des Nations UN headquarters in Geneva from the Ariana Park Jean-Marc Ferré

The United Nations is throwing open the doors of its Palais des Nations headquarters in Geneva to the public on Saturday. UN officials are keen to demystify their work and to raise interest among locals. It will probably be a last opportunity for such an event before renovation work is completed in 2023. 

This content was published on October 7, 2017 minutes

UN officials are hoping for at least 20,000 people to pass through the security gates on Saturday to visit the historic Palais buildingExternal link, constructed in the 1930s, and surrounding park, to get a glimpse of their work. 

A special programmeExternal link has been organised including free guided tours, photo and art exhibitions, concerts, dance performances, sports activities and games. 

This year’s main theme is the UN Sustainable Development GoalsExternal link. An interactive exhibition will showcase how the goals are being implemented in seven projects funded by Bern. 

Every year, thousands of people visit the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva, but it is rare for the office to send out a mass invitation to the public. The last was in 2015 when 20,000 people attended, and before that in 2012


Officials are keen to break down barriers, especially between Geneva locals and international civil servants, and to dispel false perceptions of the global body. 

“This day should help reduce the distance between people in Geneva but also between those in the rest of Switzerland,” Swiss ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Valentin Zellweger, recently told reporters. 

Despite growing interest since Switzerland joined the UN 15 years ago, "what is being done in Geneva remains relatively unknown”, he said - adding that this is probably due to the complexity of the issues. 

UN Director General Michael Moller said the public event was part of efforts to make the UN "more effective and clearer" to citizens. 

He said this was particularly important when leaders such as United States President Donald Trump might have doubts about the organisation. 

Officials say Saturday’s event is likely to be the last until 2023 due to security constraints linked to a huge renovation project that started this summer. 

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Over the next eight years, the UN complex is getting a makeover. The historic Palais building will be renovated at a cost of CHF836.5 million ($846.6 million) – half financed by interest-free loans from the Swiss Confederation and the canton of Geneva. 

The grandiose exterior of the 80-year-old building, originally constructed to house the League of Nations, is in bad shape. It hides miles of leaky, rusted pipes and outdated wiring - which accounts for almost half of the renovation costs - and draughty windows. Conference systems date to the analogue era. 

The building also needs to be properly adapted for people with disabilities and made safer to meet modern fire, health and safety standards. 

Work is due to begin to modernise parts of the building, followed by the refurbishment of conference halls, such as the Assembly Hall, which features original 1930s paintings. Up-to-date conference systems will be installed, along with new mechanical and electrical systems, and historic furniture will be replaced. 

A modern new building that blends into the undulating landscape will be built to the northeast of the complex to house 700 additional staff, mainly coming from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. 

Saturday’s open doors event will cost CHF400,000 - half of the bill taken up by security - financed by the Swiss federal authorities, Geneva canton and city, and several private partners.

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