IN PICTURES: Geneva, the world’s incubator for peace and policy since 1920

For the past century, Geneva has been at the heart of global diplomacy. The city hosts more than a dozen UN agencies and has been the centre point of many colossal global moments.

IN PICTURES: Geneva, the world's incubator for peace and policy since 1920
Good morning, Vietnam? International delegations at the Palace of Nations in Geneva in 1954 in discussions that led to the partitioning of Vietnam. Photo: AFP Photo.

From conflict resolution to global health epidemics, migration flows and even the weather, some of the world's major challenges are crisis-managed by UN agencies based in Geneva. The Swiss city is arguably the hub of global diplomacy.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 (based on earlier ones from 1864), a protocol for warfare ratified by 196 countries, were signed in the Swiss city.

Yet Geneva's pivotal role in global diplomacy stretches further back, to the League of Nations – predecessor of the United Nations (UN) – which was established in Geneva in 1920. After World War II, the 'Palais des Nations', built between 1929 and 1938 and currently undergoing renovation, was handed over to the UN. More than a dozen UN agencies have been established in Geneva since. 

The “Palais des Nations”, which houses the United Nations Offices, is seen at the end of the flag-lined front lawn on September 4, 2018 in Geneva. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP. 

Switzerland is a popular venue to sign treaties and hold peace talks because the country's neutrality has been widely accepted since the Treaty of Paris in 1815. Geneva has the UN infrastructure to bring warring factions together but it is also the incubator for new policy on everything from global health epidemics, refugee movement and security, protection of human rights, trade equality, aids prevention and social research.

The hub of all this global outlook is the Palais des Nations, or Palace of Nations, which, like the UN HQ in New York, is one of the iconic structures at the heart of global diplomacy. 

The “Palais des Nations”, which houses the United Nations Offices, is seen after sunset on September 28, 2018 in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Every year, the 'Palais des Nations', the Palace of Nations, hosts more than 60,000 delegates participating in conferences as well as over 140,000 visitors to the building complex. The overall complex is 600 metres long, and houses 34 conference rooms and 2,800 offices.

So which UN agencies, commissions, institutes and organizations are based in Geneva and what do they actually do? Below is a brief timeline to help you navigate this complex web.

UN agencies based in Geneva – A timeline

1919: International Labour Organization (ILO), founded in Geneva

“The ILO was founded in 1919, in the wake of a destructive war, to pursue a vision based on the premise that universal, lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice,” states the ILO's website. The ILO became the first specialised agency of the UN in 1946. The main aims of the ILO are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.

The logo of the International Labor Organization (ILO) is seen on the opening day of the annual International Labour Conference of the United Nations specialized agency 30 May 2007 in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP. 

1920: League of Nations, predecessor to the UN, headquartered in the Swiss city. 

The League of Nations, a predecessor to the UN, lasted from 1920 to 1946, when it was dissolved and later reconstructed as the UN after World War II. 

Picture taken on September 1935 of the League of Nations assembly, in Geneva. Photo: AFP. 

1946: United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), founded and headquartered in the 'Palais des Nations'

The second most important UN building after the HQ in New York, UNOG, headquartered at the Palace of Nations, employs 1,600 people and hosts 8,000 meetings a year. It serves as the representative office of the Secretary-General in Geneva and “is the biggest duty station outside of United Nations headquarters in New York,” states UNOG's website. “Working for peace, rights and well-being” is the agency's motto. 

The 'Palace of Nations', home to UNOG since 1946. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP. 

1947: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) founded and headquartered in Geneva.

One of five regional UN bodies, “UNECE facilitates greater economic integration and cooperation among its member countries and promotes sustainable development and economic prosperity through” through policy dialogues, technical exchanges and “exchange and application of best practices.”As of 2016, the organization had 56 members.

1948: World Health Organization (WHO) founded and headquartered in Geneva. 

General view during the opening day of the 61st World Health Organization (WHO) assembly on May 19, 2008 in Geneva. Food security, climate change and pandemic flu are three global crises looming in the horizon which could undo progress in public health, the World Health Organization's director general said. Chan was addressing delegates from 193 member states attending the WHO's annual general assembly which runs from May 19-24 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / Fabrice Coffrini.

The WHO observes global health trends, shapes research and policy on global health issues and assists in the coordination and response to global health epidemics. More than 7,000 people work for the WHO in 150 countries worldwide. 

1950: UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) established and headquartered in Geneva. 

The building of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters, an agency mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

Created in the aftermath of WWII “to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes”, UNHCR offers support o refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs), the stateless, asylum seekers and returnees. Since its inception in 1950, UNHCR has safeguarded 50 million refugees, according to data on the agency's website. There are currently 68.5 million forcibly-displaced people in the world. 

1950: World Meteorological Organization (WMO), established and headquartered in Geneva

The WMO is a UN agency which “provides world leadership and expertise in international cooperation in the delivery and use of high-quality, authoritative weather, climate, hydrological and related environmental services,” according to its website

1951: International Organization for Migration (IOM), established and headquartered in Geneva

Not technically a UN agency, the IOM is linked to the UN's work through a unique agreement of its kind. The IOM, an inter-governmental organization with 172 member states, “is dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all,” states the IOM's website

Employees of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) assist Ethiopian migrants to board a ship repatriating them home via Djibouti, in Yemen's rebel-held Red Sea port of Hodeida on June 2, 2018. Photo: Abdo Hyder/AFP.

1963: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) established in Geneva. 

“Through our work we aim to ensure that social equity, inclusion and justice are central to development thinking, policy and practice,” states UNRISD's website

1963: United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAD) headquartered in Geneva. 

UNITAR is “a training arm of the United Nations System, and has the mandate to enhance the effectiveness of the UN through diplomatic training, and to increase the impact of national actions through public awareness-raising, education and training of public policy officials,” states its website

1964: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) headquartered in Geneva. 

UNCTAD helps ensure poorer countries get a voice in key global economic arguments. “We support developing countries to access the benefits of a globalized economy more fairly and effectively. And we help equip them to deal with the potential drawbacks of greater economic integration. To do this, we provide analysis, facilitate consensus-building, and offer technical assistance. This helps them to use trade, investment, finance, and technology as vehicles for inclusive and sustainable development,” states UNCTAD's website.

Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon listens to one of the speeches during the opening ceremony of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Accra, Ghana, on April 20, 2008.

UNCTAD also publishes reports, such as the 2018 Review of Maritime Transport. The latest edition analyses how trade wars could have an impact on global maritime transport, which accounts for 80 per cent of the goods moved worldwide. 

1967: World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), created and headquartered in Geneva

WIPA's “mission is to lead the development of a balanced and effective international intellectual property (IP) system that enables innovation and creativity for the benefit of all,” according to its website.

1980: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) established and headquartered in Geneva

“The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research is a voluntarily funded autonomous institute within the United Nations. An impartial actor, the Institute generates ideas and promotes action on disarmament and security,” states the website. The agency campaigns against weapons of mass destruction and publishes key findings, as well as holding a series of annual conferences.

1991: United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) headquartered in Geneva

This UN agency, headquartered in Villa la Pelouse in Geneva, was created in 1991 to process claims and pay compensation for losses and damage suffered as a direct result of Iraq’s unlawful invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-91…To date, the Commission had paid out about $47.9 billion in compensation awards to successful claimants,” says the agency's website.

1991: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) established and headquartered in Geneva. 

This is the UN agency that coordinates emergency relief worldwide, or in the agency's own words, “OCHA is the part of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.”

1993: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established and headquartered in Geneva. 

OHCHR is the main UN body coordinating work to document human rights abuses and protect human rights worldwide. OHCHR leads global human rights efforts and provides “a forum for identifying, highlighting and developing responses to today's human rights challenges, and act as the principal focal point of human rights research, education, public information, and advocacy activities in the United Nations system,” according to the organization's website.

The headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) named Palais Wilson, honouring the former United States president Woodrow Wilson, are seen in January 2018 in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini. 

1996: UNAIDS established in Geneva

This agency coordinates the global struggle against AIDS. Since the disease was first identified 35 years ago, 35 million people have died from aids-related illnesses. More than 35 million people still live with the illness, with 21 million now on anti-viral drugs. “UNAIDS is leading the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals,” states the organization's website.The agency has a budget of 240 million in 2018 and offices in 70 countries. 

1999: United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), established and headquartered in Geneva

Created in 1999 to  “to serve as the focal point in the United Nations system for the coordination of disaster reduction and to ensure synergies among the disaster reduction activities of the United Nations system and regional organizations and activities in socio‐economic and humanitarian fields,” according to its website.

Global diplomacy in Geneva

There have been so many high stake meetings in Geneva that to list them all would leave your fingers hurting after all the scrolling. The Palace of Nations hosts thousands of meetings each year. 

From 1930s European dialogues to prevent war to talks to end wars in Indochina that created the Vietnam partition, and more recently dialogue on Iraq, Syria and so many other conflicts, Geneva maintains its platform as a global policy host and incubator. 

Here are some snaps of a few iconic moments. 

Busy discussions: Picture taken on April 1935 of former French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval attending the League of Nations assembly, in Geneva. The League of Nations collapses a few years later as World War II broke out. Photo: AFP.

This picture, taken on 27th April 1954 in the Palace of Nations in Geneva, shows a Chinese delegation, lead by Chou En Lai (L, behind placard PROC) and USSR delegation lead by Molotov (C, 4th row) during Peace Conference to obtain a ceasefire in Viêt-nam and partition the country. STAFF / AFP.

French president Pierre Mendès (right) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Molotov (left) during discussions in Geneva to end the war in what was then known as Indochina. Photo: Staff/AFP. 

Undated photo taken in Genova showing Swedish Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold (L). Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjold was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 10 April 1953 until 18 September 1961 when he met his death in a plane accident while on a peace mission in Congo. AFP PHOTO

Chief of Soviet delegation Viatcheslav Molotov (C) and Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (R) leave the Palace of Nations in Geneva on April 28th, 1954 during the Geneva Conference. The 1954 Geneva Conference was designed to settle disputes that arose from the end of the Korea War and the so-called First Indochina War in southeast Asia. Photo: ATP/AFP. 

READ ALSO: UN Geneva staff plan work stoppage over pay cuts

The former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat (L) meets with former United Nations General Secretary Javier Perez de Cuellar, December 14th 1988, in Geneva, in second day of meeting on Palestine question at UN European headquarters in Palace of Nations. Photo: Derrick Ceyrac/AFP.

People stand silent during a commemoration ceremony for victims of the UN headquarters suicide bomb blast in August 2003 at the Nations Palace in Geneva. Philippe Desmazes/AFP. 

A general view shows the executive board room during the opening of a global bird flu conference at World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva 07 November 2005. Four hundred experts and decision-makers gathered on November 7th 2005 for a three-day council meeting on bird flu called by the world's paramount agencies for human and animal health. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP.

READ ALSO: Ten reasons why Geneva is a great place to live

General view during the opening day of the 61st World Health Organisation (WHO) assembly on May 19th, 2008 in Geneva. Food security, climate change and pandemic flu were three global crises looming in the horizon which could undo progress in public health at the time, the World Health Organisation's director general said. Chan was addressing delegates from 193 member states attending the WHO's annual general assembly which runs from May 19-24 at the United Nations offices in Geneva. AFP PHOTO / Fabrice Coffrini

READ ALSO:  Geneva set to host talks on Syrian constitution in September 2018

The original document of the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field,” signed on 1864, is seen on August 10th, 2009 at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva in 2009. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP. 

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaber Ansari, Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, Turkish Foreign Ministry Deputy Sedat Onal, and UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend a meeting on creating a committee to help draft a new constitution for Syria, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on September 11, 2018. Representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran, are meeting with the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria to discuss the situation in the war-torn nation. Photo: Salvatore Di Nolfi/ POOL/AFP.

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For members


Is Basel the best Swiss city for foreigners and Geneva the worst?

Switzerland’s cities usually nab top rankings in international quality of living studies. But in a new survey, only one Swiss town made it to the top 10. Here’s why.

Basel is Switzerland’s best city for international workers. Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash
Basel is Switzerland’s best city for international workers. Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash

Basel is ranked in the 9th place out of 57 cities surveyed in the new Expat City Ranking 2021.

Carried out by InterNations, the annual survey rates cities around the world in terms of advantages they offer to foreign nationals who move there for professional reasons.

READ MORE: The best commuter towns if you work in Basel

The survey, which polled 12,420 people for its 2021 edition, ranks cities based on criteria such as Quality of Urban Living, Getting Settled, Urban Work Life, Finance & Housing, and Local Cost of Living, along with their sub-categories.

Of the four Swiss cities analysed in the study — Geneva, Zurich, Basel, and Lausanne — only Basel was highly rated, and is one of only three European cities ranked in the top 10 (the others are Prague, in 7th place, and Madrid in 10th).

This is why

A popular destination for international employees because of its pharmaceutical industry, including giants like Roche and Novartis, Basel ranked well across all categories.

For instance, it is in the 1st place for its public transportation network, in a 2nd position in terms of Quality of Urban Living, and in 3rd for Safety & Politics.

All expats in Basel (100 percent) are satisfied with public transportation, versus 69 percent globally. The public transportation system is excellent”, one respondent said.

Nearly all participants (97 percent) feel safe there, against 84 percent globally. The city also performs well in the Urban Work Life Index (6th), particularly for the state of the local economy, which is in the 1st place and the working hours (8th); additionally,  75 percent are happy with their working hours, compared to 66 percent globally.

More than four in five expats (84 percent) find their disposable household income enough or more than enough to cover their expenses (versus 77 percent globally), and 77 percent are satisfied with their financial situation (against 64 globally).

Where Basel is doing less well is in the  Finance & Housing Index (34th place), though it still ranks ahead of other Swiss cities: Zurich (37th), Lausanne (39th), and Geneva (53rd).

But the city ranks 48th in the Local Cost of Living Index: 69 percent of foreigners living there are dissatisfied with the cost of living, more than double the global average (34 percent).

The Getting Settled Index (39th) is another of Basel’s weak points. Internationals struggle with getting used to the local culture: more than one in four respondents (26 percent) state that they find this difficult — this figure is 18 percent 1globally.

It is worth mentioning that in the 2020 InterNations survey, Basel ranked in the 24th place, so it progressed impressively this year.

What about Geneva?

Switzerland’s most “international” city due to the presence of a number of United Nations agencies and multinational companies, places near the bottom of the ranking, in the 47th place.

“It has the worst results among the Swiss cities included in the report and is the only one that does not rank in the global top 10 of the Quality of Urban Living Index”, InterNations said.

Similar to the other Swiss cities, Geneva ranks among the top 10 for political stability (1st) and in the bottom 10 for the affordability of healthcare (56th). However, it lags behind for all other factors, with expats particularly dissatisfied with the local leisure options (23 percent versus 14 percent globally).

“Interestingly, the comparably low quality of life does not make Geneva any easier to afford: on the contrary, it is the worst-ranking city worldwide in the Local Cost of Living Index (57th) and by far the worst-rated Swiss city in the Finance & Housing Index (53rd)”, the report noted.

It added that “while Geneva comes 26th in the Finance Subcategory, it ranks 55th in the Housing Subcategory, only ahead of Dublin (56th) and Munich (57th). Expats find housing in Geneva unaffordable (87 percent  vs. 39 percent globally) and hard to find (63 percent vs. 23 percent globally).”

READ MORE: Why is Geneva’s rent the highest in Switzerland?

Geneva has a fairly average performance in the Urban Work Life Index (28th) but receives worse results in the Getting Settled Index (43rd). It ends up in the bottom 10 of the Feeling Welcome (52nd), Local Friendliness (50th), and Friends & Socializing (48th) subcategories.

“It is certainly not easy to integrate into the local culture and community,” said one respondent. In fact, 35 percent find the locals generally unfriendly, against 16 percent globally).

The difficulty is making friends in Switzerland is a well-known phenomenon among the international community.

READ MORE: ‘Suspicious of the unknown’: Is it difficult to make friends in Switzerland?

Maybe this is also why they find it hard to get used to the local culture (32 percent versus  18 percent globally) and do not feel at home — 33 percent compared to 19 percent  globally).

Zurich and Lausanne

The two other Swiss cities with a high proportion of international residents fall between the “best” and the “worst”, with Lausanne in the 21st place and Zurich in the 34th.

“All of them rank among the bottom 10 worldwide for the local cost living but among the top 10 for the local quality of life— except for Geneva, which lands in 21st place.”, the survey noted.

This InterNations chart shows how the four the cities are doing in each category. Please click here for a larger version of the chart. 

Image: Internations

You can find out more about each of the four cities from these links. 

READ MORE: Ten things Zurich residents take for granted

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