The Swiss president and the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have laid the foundation stone of a new extension building at the WTO Geneva headquarters.
Monday’s symbolic ceremony comes at a difficult time for the organisation, which is struggling to find a way forward on the ten-year-old Doha trade talks.
At the building site on the WTO’s former car park overlooking Lake Geneva, two huge cranes turn gracefully on their axes to the sounds of drills and hammers.
Teams of workmen are beavering away on the renovation and expansion project at the historic Centre William Rappard headquarters, which should be completed by the end of 2012.
The new five-storey ultra-energy-efficient glass building will have room for 300 employees so that all 1,100 WTO staff can be housed in a single location.
The development will include a new conference room, a dozen modern meeting rooms, training centre, underground car park and new restaurant which will be open to the public. A huge interior courtyard is also being transformed into a meeting place for delegates.
The overall project costs SFr130 million ($147 million). About SFr60 million has been funded through interest-free loans that the WTO will have to pay back within 50 years; Switzerland will pay the rest.
“This is an important project as the WTO is the main organisation defending international trade rules and standards. It’s an organisation that is important for global governance – and also for Switzerland,” Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who also holds the rotating Swiss presidency this year, told swissinfo.ch.
The controversial project went ahead after 61 per cent of Geneva residents backed the plans in a city-wide vote in 2009.
At the time, critics said it would damage the city’s lakeside promenade and park. But supporters argued that rejection of the plans would send the wrong signal to the numerous international organisations based in Geneva and could force the WTO to move elsewhere.
When finished, a 1.80-metre green security fence will run around the building. No trees of value will be affected in the nearby park and a 30-metre-wide lake access will be guaranteed.
“It was important to have public support and the vote was a sign that the Geneva people are convinced of the importance of International Geneva,” said Calmy-Rey.
WTO chief Pascal Lamy told the audience: “Thanks to support from the Swiss federal authorities, canton Geneva and the city of Geneva, as well as civil society and WTO member states, we will soon have a modern, functional, transparent building, which reflects what the WTO wants to become.”
Despite the renewal at the headquarters, the current Doha Round of trade negotiations, which began in 2001 with the aim of reforming international trade by lowering trade barriers and revising trade rules, risks overshadowing the entire body.
The negotiations have become bogged down as participating countries have been unable to agree on ways to achieve that, especially issues relating to agriculture and industrial products.
Attempts to clinch a deal on the Doha talks fell apart in April, prompting Lamy to suggest member states lower their sights and aim for a less ambitious trade liberalisation package.
Just before the summer break he urged diplomats to reflect on their inability to complete the decade-long liberalisation talks and to prepare for an “adult conversation” ahead of a ministerial meeting in Geneva in December.
Lamy told swissinfo.ch that he felt member states had “understood they needed to be creative and were looking for new approaches”.
But many trade experts openly despair of a deal and wonder if any world leaders will be bold enough to declare the Doha round dead, which some think is the only way of making fresh progress on liberalising trade.
“Doha as it was initially planned is probably dead,” said Cédric Dupont, professor of international relations at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute. “Lamy is clearly shopping for ideas on what to do next and the indication is that the organisation is at a loss where it wants to go.”
Dupont said there were big question marks over the possible impact of Doha’s failure on the organisation itself.
“I doubt members will jeopardise the dispute-settlement mechanisms if Doha fails,” he said. “Most WTO staff are lawyers. It’s an organisation to enforce existing agreements not designed to strike deals. So will members say forget negotiation within the WTO and just enforce agreements? That would be difficult for them to accept.”
Despite the uncertainties, Lamy remains bullish after recent visits to China, India, Australia and New Zealand.
“WTO members care about the [multilateral trading] system,” he said. “They understand that what prevented a protectionist surge in the current crisis was the system and this needs to be looked after and strengthened rather than weakened.”
Geneva is home to the headquarters of 32 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross. "International Geneva", as it is known, is worth around SFr3 billion a year to the canton.
In all, some 40,000 international diplomats and civil servants are based in Geneva; in addition there are around 2,400 staff working for 250 non-governmental organisations. Around 8,500 staff work for the United Nations family in Geneva, which is the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world. There are also 168 permanent diplomatic missions to the UN.
Geneva is facing stiff competition to host international organisations and NGOs from cities such as Vienna, The Hague, Copenhagen, Bonn, Budapest and Madrid as well as new actors such as Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and Seoul.
At the table
Founded in 1995 on the basis of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) and comprising 153 members, the World Trade Organization (WTO) regulates trade relations between nations. It is the keystone of the legal and institutional multilateral trading system. It has an annual budget of SFr196 million.
Contributing to just 2% of world trade but with every other franc earned abroad, Switzerland considers the international regulations (legal certainty) upon which it relies as vital.
The WTO, in particular, is a forum where existing agreements are developed and new agreements on international trade law are negotiated.
Launched in 2001, the Doha Round addresses about 20 issues. Among them, trade, agriculture, industrial goods, services, strengthening of WTO rules, trade and the environment, and the development or protection of intellectual property.