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The making of International Geneva

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2019 will mark 100 years since the creation of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. With United States President Donald Trump attacking the UN system, it is more timely than ever to rally behind International Geneva, the seat of the League from 1919, write historian Sandrine Kott and Geneva politician Grégoire Carasso. 

At the end of the highly destructive First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson recommended the creation of a “general association of nationsExternal link” to protect world peace. In February 1919, the Treaty of Versailles laid the foundation for the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) (simultaneously created in response to the labour movement). The two new organisations had their first meetings in Geneva in 1920, helping elevate the small Swiss town to an international city. Swiss writer Robert de Traz later mythologized this international status as a natural fulfilment of “the spirit of Geneva”, a city marked by a tradition of tolerance and hospitality. 

But myths can be misleading. Geneva would never have become an “international capital” if it were not for the favourable political situation and the backing of several individuals. Other cities had put themselves forward, including Brussels, which enjoyed the support of the French authorities. For its part, Geneva was backed by the British and President Wilson. Geneva – where Protestant reformer John Calvin had flourished – had charmed the US president, the son of a Presbyterian pastor. Its reputation as a humanitarian capital, following the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Cross societies’ involvement in the war, was also invoked. But it was above all the diplomatic arguments that swayed members of the Commission of the League of Nations. They saw in the Swiss city a guarantee of independence from Europe’s Great Powers and a helping hand to the fallen. 

Sandrine Kott External linkis a professor of contemporary history at the University of Geneva. 

Grégoire CarassoExternal link is an elected member of Canton Geneva’s Grand Council and PhD candidate at the Global Studies Institute. 

A difficult start 

In the end, it was the involvement of William Rappard that was a deciding factor. Born in New York in 1883, he taught at Harvard in 1912 and met President Wilson in 1917. In 1919, as a professor of economics at the University of Geneva and a member of the ICRC, he was sent as the official representative of Switzerland to the Paris Peace Conference where he lobbied for Geneva to be a home for the League. As well as the Allies, he also had to convince the Swiss political and military authorities. The latter two hesitated to join the League out of concern for Swiss neutrality, an abstention that would have greatly compromised the choice of Geneva. But thanks in part to then Foreign Affairs Minister Gustav Ador, the cabinet recommended Switzerland join the League on August 9, 1919. This was ratified with little enthusiasm (56%) by the public in a referendum on May 16, 1920. 

There was also little enthusiasm among the first international civil servants who moved to Geneva, a city they considered to be undeveloped, expensive and poorly equipped. In return, they were viewed with mistrust by the population, to the point that it was sometimes difficult to find housing. The international community responded by developing their own enclaves. 

Nevertheless, the Swiss and Geneva authorities were very aware of the economic and diplomatic interest of having international organisations based on their soil, and developed measures to support their presence. Thanks to land donations, the ILO moved into their own building in 1926, the current seat of the World Trade Organization, and in 1937 the UN’s Palais des Nations was inaugurated amid great pomp. 

Geneva’s DNA 

International Geneva would flourish alongside the development of the UN system (Unesco, WHO, WMO, ITU, etc.) and multilateralism (CERN, WTO, ISO, etc.). It is now home to 34 international organisations, more than 250 state representatives and nearly 400 non-governmental organisations. International organisations alone spent CHF6 billion ($6 billion) in the country in 2016. Notwithstanding the direct financial benefit, this ecosystem is now part of the DNA of the city and is fundamentally a part of its political, scientific, economic and cultural attractiveness.  

At a time when the world’s leading superpower is radically questioning how the world is governed, it is appropriate for our municipal, cantonal and federal authorities, as well as public and private stakeholders, to use the League of Nation’s centenary as an opportunity to promote International Geneva. 

This article was originally published in the  Le Temps newspaperExternal link.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

Translated from French by Jessica Dacey

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