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GENEVA

Why peace capital Geneva is a favoured spot for Russia and US talks

Geneva, dubbed the capital of peace, is a favoured spot for meetings between the two great post-World War II powers and is once again hosting talks between Russia and the United States on Monday.

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The "Palais des Nations" building, which houses the United Nations Offices in Geneva. The French-speaking city hosts several other UN agencies and is also home to the Red Cross and dozens of other international organisations.Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The tranquil Swiss city held the 1985 summit between US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev.

Geneva also staged last June’s talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden.

On Monday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian opposite number, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, will hold much-anticipated discussions on European security and the Ukraine conflict.

Neutral territory
Geneva not only hosts the United Nations — having been the seat of its League of Nations predecessor — and several UN agencies; the French-speaking city is also home to the Red Cross and dozens of other international organisations.

Former Swiss president Guy Parmelin called it the “city of peace” at the Biden-Putin summit last year, showing the Alpine nation could play a role in international relations even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the heart of Europe, Switzerland is known for its centuries of neutrality and was never part of the NATO and Warsaw Pact Cold War blocs that divided the continent following World War II.

Indeed, the talks between Reagan and Gorbachev played an important role in thawing the Cold War ice.

Spooks and experts
In 2009 and 2010 in Geneva, Russia and the United States negotiated the New START treaty on reducing their nuclear arsenals.

The city is home to the UN-linked Conference on Disarmament — the only such forum thrashing out arms control and disarmament agreements — and Geneva is therefore brimming with experts in such negotiations.

The city overlooked by Mont Blanc has hosted several meetings between the US and Russian foreign ministers, such as the 2009 summit between Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton.

She offered him a plastic “reset button” to symbolise the revival of relations.

Lavrov and Clinton’s successor John Kerry also met several times for talks in the Calvinist city, on topics such as Syria and Ukraine.

The Russians and Americans, who have large diplomatic representations and a considerable intelligence presence in Geneva, have also organised several meetings there on Syria in recent years.

Since the Biden-Putin summit, Sherman and Ryabkov have held a series of follow-up meetings in Geneva to continue the strategic dialogue and smooth out disputes between Washington and Moscow.

The pair met for the first time at the US mission on July 28 before meeting again at the Russian complex on September 30.

Discretion and security
The two missions are a few hundred metres apart, close to the UN’s Palais des Nations headquarters.

As ever, the area will be under high security on Monday.

Switzerland, and Geneva in particular, is appreciated by diplomats of all stripes for its flexibility and discretion as a host state, as well as for the security it offers.

Such conditions saw the city host talks in the 1990s on the Bosnian civil war, the 2013 Geneva interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme and, more recently, on the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

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GENEVA

‘Witch hunt’: Lake Geneva baptism ban infuriates evangelicals

The Swiss canton of Geneva has banned baptisms in the waters of Lake Geneva organised by evangelical churches -- a decision they branded a "witch hunt".

'Witch hunt': Lake Geneva baptism ban infuriates evangelicals

The canton — comprising the city of Geneva and its hinterland that forms the western end of the lake — took the step on July 8, amid a backdrop of debates around secularism.

“It’s an abuse of authority,” Jean-Francois Bussy, president of the Evangelical Federation of the neighbouring canton of Vaud, told AFP.

Baptisms in Lake Geneva are permitted in Vaud, which covers the rest of the lake’s northern shore.

“We have had no complaints in the canton of Vaud, which is much more liberal at this level than Geneva, which in my opinion applies fundamentalist secularism and a quite detestable witch hunt,” said Bussy, who heads the Vaud branch of the Swiss Evangelical Network in French-speaking western Switzerland that has around 40,000 members.

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Among the Swiss confederation’s 26 cantons, Geneva and Neuchatel are the only two secular ones.

The separation of church and state has been enshrined in Geneva law for more than a century.

Geneva is nevertheless famous for having welcomed the French theologian Jean Calvin in 1536, who made the city a bastion of the Protestant Reformation, and whose statue stands against the old town’s city walls.

“Baptism is a religious service”, said the Geneva authorities, while the canton “has established the principle whereby religious events take place in private”, therefore excluding the shores and public beaches of Lake Geneva.

“Only organisations permitted to have relations with the state can request authorisation for a public religious event” — and the two evangelical parishes concerned are not among them, the authorities added.

To get on that list, organisations must undertake to exclude acts of physical or psychological violence, spiritual abuse as well as discrimination on the basis of ethnic or national origin and sexual or gender identity.

According to Bussy, “it is not very clear what motivates the cantonal authority to ban events like this which do not contravene public order”, constituting a “peaceful example of a laudable religious practice”.

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