Our Geneva correspondent tries not to get lost at the United Nations

Making history is a daily occurence at the UN in Geneva Keystone

You would be forgiven for thinking the UN is out of bounds for all but the most illustrious of VIPs. But the Palais des Nations is open to the general public. Roy Probert joined one of the tours.

This content was published on August 11, 2000 minutes

The normal approach to the Palais des Nations is from the Place des Nations, scene of many a colourful demo. From this angle, the European seat of the UN can seem decidedly underwhelming.

What you might not realise is that you can only see the side of the building. Seen from the lake, you realise what an imposing edifice it is. Far bigger than Versailles, it is 575 metres long, with over 2,000 offices - the kind of place the uninitiated would be advised not to enter without a compass, sleeping bag and plentiful supplies of food.

Thank goodness, then, for the worthy, but somewhat dry, hour-long guided tours. These are given in no less than 15 languages, which happen to be the sum total of all the languages the current batch of guides speaks.

The old wing of the Palais, built between 1929 and 1936 from Italian travertine, and limestone from the Rhone Valley and the Jura mountains, was the home of the League of Nations. Its austere and intimidating style of architecture became somewhat unfairly known as fascist.

But once inside, the place can appear almost Orwellian, especially if you venture off the beaten track. Away from the main concourses and conference halls, the place is a warren of unremarkable corridors that seem to lead nowhere, punctuated by doors with long numbers, behind which lurk hard-working functionaries grappling with important, but impenetrably obscure, subjects.

It's 1984 straight out of central casting. Take it from me, don't get lost in the Palais des Nations. Stay with your guide.

If you are lucky, your visit will not begin with the slightly cheesy UN film which tells you that «out of a nightmare, a dream was born» and that the UN «lets the chimes of freedom ring». Telling you that «we the people» are now «united for a better world» doesn't necessarily make you want to hug the stranger next to you. It just makes you want the tour proper to start.

Which is just as well, because it's well worth it. You are left in no doubt that this is a Very Important Place where History is Made.

The tour, which starts in the new wing of the building, devotes perhaps slightly too much of its energy to explaining the structure of the UN and the good works it does in the field of human rights and humanitarian assistance - which is enlightening or stating the obvious depending on your level of ignorance.

One thing that strikes you is that the Palais was built with meetings in mind - big meetings with thousands of delegates. It is, they reckon, the biggest conference centre in the world - it has 34 conference rooms and hosts 8,000 international conferences a year.

That means the place is always heaving with suits and id badges. There is always a meeting, a special session or an ad-hoc committee at work trying to get to grips with some vital international issue - it could be biological weapons, human rights, trade subsidies or dengue fever.

If that makes you feel you are at the centre of the decision-making world, wait until you see the Assembly Hall. It's immense, able to hold some 2,000 delegates, and the scene of all the major conferences, such as last month's Social Summit.

This man-made cavern has an impressive simplicity. Apart from the huge UN symbol behind the president's chair, there is nothing ornate to distract delegates from the job at hand - the plight of Palestinian refugees, AIDS in Africa or child labour.

Strip away the desks and microphones, however, and you could imagine the Assembly Hall hosting a rock concert or a Oscar-style awards ceremony.

At the opposite extreme is the Council Room, also known as the Spanish Room, which is used for the conference on disarmament. This space has been frozen in time, where it's forever 1936.

The dominant features are the immense paintings by the Catalan artist, Josep Maria Sert, depicting such grand themes as the abolition of slavery, scientific progress, the futility of war and solidarity between nations. It's a constant reminder to the delegates to put the interests of the planet first.

Clearly, on occasions, it has worked. It was in this anachronistic setting that the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was finalised, as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Of course you can only set foot in these historic rooms when they are not being used for a conference. Which means you cannot play my favourite UN game - spot your country's delegate and make sure he's paying attention.

But you aren't merely bombarded by history. Everywhere you look, there is art donated by member states. There's the silk tapestry from the People's Republic of China, a model of a Gulf ship given by Kuwait, a Japanese vase and paintings from just about everywhere. And that is not to mention the temporary exhibitions.

One of the disappointing aspects of the tour is that, for security reasons, the public is not allowed to walk in the Ariana Park - 25 hectares of peacock-infested grounds that surround the Palais. Visitors have to satisfy themselves with seeing it from the intriguingly-named Hall of the Lost Steps, the marble and granite lobby of the Assembly Hall.

From this vantage point, visitors will see the 100-year-old cedars and cypresses, and other impressive arboreal specimens as well as Mont Blanc, on fine days. They will also see two monuments which have come to symbolise the UN - the Armillary Sphere donated by the Wilson Foundation in 1938 and the tall, tapering titanium sculpture given by the Soviet Union in 1971 to recognise the conquest of space.

At the end of the tour you can buy your UN baseball cap or T-shirt. But the UN has merely dipped its toe in the shark-infested waters of merchandising, perhaps aware that not many people want to look like election monitors or peacekeepers.

Visitors can also visit the Library, which occupies the entire east wing of the Palais and contains literally millions of books and UN publications, or the League of Nations Museum, with its collection of original treaties.

Because the diplomats and journalists spend such an inordinate amount of time there, the Palais des Nations has become a living community, with its own banks, travel agents, post office, bookshops and bars. Even late at night you will see officials wandering the corridors chewing over some intractable problem. Or maybe, like me, he's lost too.

by Roy Probert

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