The changing face of International Geneva

International Geneva – why is it so important to Switzerland?

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The entrance of the Palais des Nations, the UN's European headquarters in Geneva United Nations Photo

“The biggest multilateral centre in the world”, “the capital of peace”, “the foremost centre of global governance” – Swiss officials often reach for superlatives to describe the concentration of international organisations and players in a district 2km north of Geneva city centre. What exactly is International Geneva and why is it so important to Switzerland?  

This content was published on November 21, 2019 - 10:16
swissinfo.ch

What is International Geneva? 

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Geneva’s role as host to the world’s countries and institutions dates back to the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (1863). Swiss neutrality and its humanitarian tradition later made it the obvious choice for the League of Nations – the forerunner to the United Nations – and the International Labour Organization (ILO), whose arrival in 1919 marked the birth of International Geneva.  

The city is now home to the UN’s European headquarters, 36 international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), around 700 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and 179 diplomatic missions. The number of institutions, especially NGOs, and staff continues to rise steadily. According to March 2019 figures, almost 34,000 people – 26,645 civil servants and officials, 4,203 diplomats and 3,109 NGO personnel – work in International Geneva.  

Officials say Geneva is also the world’s biggest centre for international conferences and a key location for peace talks, most recently on Cyprus, Yemen and Syria. Last year there were 3,236 conferences and meetings, attended by 207,147 people.   

Many multinationals are also registered in the city, providing over 76,000 jobs.  

What areas does International Geneva focus on? 

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From its humanitarian beginnings, the list of work carried out has expanded to include labour, human rights, migration, refugees, health, economic trade, intellectual property, telecommunications, standards and meteorology, among others. Officials insist that the work done there, like setting standards on toothpaste, has a direct impact on people’s daily life. 

Looking ahead, the Swiss are positioning Geneva as a centre of expertise on disarmament, digital issues, climate change and migration. Recently they have been promoting the Swiss Digital Initiative foundation and the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator foundation, for example. 

Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

Why is it so important to Switzerland? 

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The Swiss authorities are convinced of the numerous benefits of International Geneva. As Swiss ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Valentin Zellweger, puts it: “Geneva is an asset of key importance for the foreign policy of Switzerland. The role of host state is firmly rooted in our tradition and in our policy of providing good offices. Offering its neutrality, stability and hospitality to the world, Switzerland benefits from International Geneva in terms of diplomatic and media visibility. In addition, Geneva serves the interests of Switzerland as an instrument and platform for the promotion of its key values, peace and human security.”  

The foreign affairs ministry adds: “Despite Switzerland’s relatively small size, thanks to International Geneva the Confederation is able to ‘punch above its weight’ in the international arena.”  

There is also a major financial benefit in maintaining the level of organisations and staff in Geneva. Switzerland is investing CHF122 million ($123 million) in its new host state strategy for 2020-2023, which was approved by parliament earlier this year. Over CHF2.5 billion is also being invested over the next ten years in major renovation and new building and mobility projects in the international district.   

Meanwhile, the amount of money spent or invested by international agencies in Geneva continues to smash records. Last year it hit CHF6.3 billion. Over half of this amount – mostly salaries and insurance and pension payments – was spent or invested in Switzerland. This represented 11.3% of cantonal gross domestic product (GDP). Switzerland has also become a major supplier to the UN system

What are some of the main challenges? 

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They are numerous. This year the Swiss authorities symbolically reaffirmed their commitment to International Geneva and the multilateral system, which is celebrating its centenary. Yet wider threats loom as the multilateral system and its institutions face three related crises of power, relevance and legitimacy.  

At the financial level, International Geneva was largely unaffected by pressures on US foreign aid spending. But this year the UN has had to deal with a serious cashflow crisis as dozens of states – including its largest contributor, the US – have not paid their annual dues. 

Meanwhile, in the world of international diplomacy, competition between host cities fighting for a slice of the action remains tough, the Swiss foreign affairs minister admitted recently.   

And locally, Switzerland may invest millions in International Geneva, yet many people in the majority German-speaking region are unfamiliar with the work carried out there, according to the Swiss think tank Foraus.   

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