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UN throws open its doors

People can see for themselves what the UN has to offer on its open day in Geneva Keystone

The United Nations in Geneva has held two open days to better inform the public about its work and show it is not a faceless bureaucracy.

This content was published on October 28, 2001 - 15:30

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, may have won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, but the thousands of people who visited the organisation's European headquarters will have discovered that there is more to the UN's work than ending wars and delivering aid.

"The public see the trees they want to see, but aren't always aware of the whole forest," says Vladimir Petrovsky, the Director General of the UN in Geneva.

"The idea of these Open Days is to give people the full picture. In the past few years, the UN in Geneva has become much more three-dimensional," he told swissinfo.

Indeed, Geneva hosts twice as many UN meetings as the headquarters in New York, and not just organised by the big well-known agencies like the World Health Organisation, the Office of the UN High Commission for Refugees or the International Labour Organisation. Geneva is also the focus of negotiations on labour rights, intellectual property, trade, meteorology, telecommunications and disarmament.

Referendum looming

This is not the first open day at the Palais des Nations, the imposing building that serves as the UN headquarters. But it has taken on added significance locally this year, with next March's referendum on Swiss membership of the United Nations looming.

It was interesting to note the large number of German-speaking Swiss, traditionally less favourable towards UN membership, who made the journey to Geneva. It is a safe bet to assume that many have not travelled down to admire the 1930s architecture and magnificent grounds.

"These Open Days, by bringing people to this beautiful building, help to make the UN concrete, and that is a positive element for our campaign," says the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, one of the guests of honour at the event.

Volunteers

The central theme of these open days is volunteers, and while this is not overtly a recruitment campaign, Vladimir Petrovsky says it would be good if the exercise convinced more people to get involved: "They are always welcome. We want to show them how ordinary people can contribute."

Members of the public had the chance to meet many such UN volunteers, who have been involved in a variety of projects around the globe, from mine clearance to irrigation, from education to AIDS awareness.

There is little doubt that the UN and its specialised agencies have helped to make Geneva one of the more important locations in the world for international relations. Yet within the city, there is a not inconsiderable divide between the international sector and the rest of the population.

Petrovsky says he has tried to build a bridge between the two. That is also a key task of one of the organisations behind the open day, the Foundation for Geneva.

Same values¶

"Young people, even here in Geneva, don't realise that most of the decisions that affect the things they're interested in - the climate, humanitarian problems, the environment, high-tech issues - are made here on their doorstep," says Ivan Pictet, president of the foundation.

This ignorance is ironic, given Geneva's own humanitarian traditions and history of promoting peace. Indeed, it is a happy coincidence that the UN open day coincides with a series of events reminding local residents that Geneva has historically been a "Place for Peace".

Pictet points out that the UN champions the same values that Switzerland has always defended - democracy, humanitarian aid, decentralised decision making, sustainable development, and so on.

"We have to show the people that the UN is not just a huge administration. Eighty per cent of its actions are in the field. I hope visitors will see that dynamism, and not a static organisation," Pictet says.

by Roy Probert

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