International Geneva

The art of global living

Yannick Nardin
Genève Tourisme
Summer 2023

The creation of the ICRC 160 years ago marked the start of Geneva’s humanitarian and international transformation. The city developed considerably after WWI and then began to diversify as new global problems took shape. International Geneva (or, as the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs would say, the “international interests of Switzerland through Geneva”) is a key player when it comes to global governance, and that reputation is only set to grow as the city continues to play host to international meetings with global implications.

Some numbers may help set the scene… Today, Geneva is home to no fewer than 750 NGOs, 52 international organizations, and the permanent representations of 179 member states. These entities employ thousands of people — around 32,000 to be more precise — as international officers, diplomats, and civil society representatives. Given those numbers, it should come as no surprise that these entities have also had (and still have!) a profound impact in shaping the city’s urban planning and local culture, all while upholding a steadfast commitment to peace and humanitarian action.

The humanitarian revolution

Convincing governments to save all wounded soldiers, no matter who they fought for, was a radical idea. And yet that’s exactly what Genevan Henry Dunant suggested, after being shocked by the horrors of the Battle of Solferino (1859). A meeting was held in Geneva in February 1863: the blueprint for what would become the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Dunant was convinced action was needed in the field, and he proposed an international rescue entity to supplement military medical services. The Swiss government invited all European governments, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, to attend a diplomatic conference in August 1864: the First Geneva Convention. The states who signed the convention were henceforth obliged to care for all wounded soldiers, regardless of whose side they were on. On the battlefield, the Red Cross symbol distinguished these brand-new medical service providers. It was a humanitarian revolution that planted the first seeds of what was to become a Genevan tradition.

During WWI, the ICRC carried out its designated duties. In 1919, the victorious countries chose Geneva as the headquarters for the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, which was founded later in 1945. In 1927, the Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI) opened its doors, and a document from its opening ceremony states: “In the League of Nations, one doesn’t study humanities, one studies humanity! Our students understand the work that this entails in furtherance of world peace.”

The first flutters of diplomacy

An invaluable tool and a platform of utmost importance for Swiss Foreign Policy, International Geneva is forever bound to its role as a mediator in global diplomacy. Little known fact: during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in the US embassy in Tehran, the Swiss foreign ministry and its ambassador in Tehran, Erik Lang, acted as intermediaries between the two sides to negotiate a deal and free the captives. American President Jimmy Carter consulted him before his press conferences, along with the Swiss Ambassador to Washington, Franz Muheim. Switzerland’s role in the conflict fell under what is known as “good offices,” which as per the UN Charter refers to “all diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives by a third country or a neutral institution whose purpose is to resolve a bilateral or international conflict or to bring the parties to the negotiating table.” Switzerland’s good offices are a long-standing tradition and play a key role in Swiss peace policy.

Highly charged meetings

As an authority in diplomacy — thanks to the tenet of Swiss neutrality — Geneva is where many important documents have been signed, beginning with the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which formed the foundation of international humanitarian law. But the city has also hosted many important political meetings, including meetings between three American Presidents (Carter, Bush, and Clinton) and their Syrian counterpart Hafez al-Assad, in an attempt to untangle conflicts in the Middle East. In 1985, Geneva also hosted the first meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev to hold talks on the (nuclear) arms race. It was a historic moment that was sealed by a handshake — a key turning point in international relations. To mark the occasion, 3,000 journalists stayed in Geneva, solidifying the city’s (and country’s!) reputation as a host site for international diplomacy.

More recently, in 2021, the city welcomed Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, for a meeting under ultra-high security. Barbed wire was erected around the entire Parc La Grange and the whole neighbourhood was blocked off, with military boats at the ready on the lake and military tanks on the ground. Putin described the meeting on Russian television as an opportunity to “re-establish personal relations [with Joe Biden, who had publicly referred to him as a ‘killer’], improve direct dialogue, and create functioning mechanisms around common interests.”

One qualification attracts another

The unique characteristics of Geneva International extend well beyond humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. Inextricably tied to many global issues, the city has affirmed itself as a pillar of authority for peace, security, disarmament, humanitarian action, law, the environment, and sustainable development. In addition, it is a yardstick for human and civil rights, and rights pertaining to migration, labour, economics, commerce, science and telecommunications and health. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) was built near Geneva in 1954 and the organization was responsible for the creation of the Internet in 1989. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has been headquartered here since 1973, in a beautiful building that overlooks the lake in Cologny. Ecological causes have also found fertile grounds in Geneva. When the Brundtland Report — which was the first to use the term “sustainable development” and launched the first Earth Summit — was presented to the UN General Assembly in 1989, the commission held numerous hearings in Geneva with NGOs, governments, and civilians about development and the environment as it relates to forests, energy, agriculture, and the transfer of technologies. Then, in 1988, the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) took up headquarters in the city.

Today, there are also many new healthcare stakeholders who benefit from Geneva International’s position of authority, like the GAVI alliance, which was created to facilitate access to vaccinations for children in the world’s poorest countries, or the DNDi (Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative), a research and development organization that discovers, develops, and delivers treatments for neglected patients around the world.

International city planning

On the north side of the city, near the Geneva airport, the neighbourhood known as “Nations” began developing as early as 1926 when the ILO (International Labour Organization) moved into the Centre William Rappard. It was the first structure in Geneva to be erected for international organizations, and the building is the currently the modern-day headquarters of the WTO (World Trade Organization). The Palais des Nations was built in 1936, preceding the 1973 formation of the International Conference Center Geneva (CICG) and, more recently, the Global Health Campus in 2018.

As one of the many places in Geneva that is worth a visit, the Place des Nations features the long Alley of the Flags, which displays the flags of the UN member states and leads to the entrance of the United Nations. This unique public square, now sandwiched between heavily used roads, bus routes, and tram lines, is still a highly strategic location that’s often the site of gatherings and installations. A monumental 12-metre chair, named the Broken Chair, balances on three legs, the fourth broken. Commissioned from artist Daniel Berset by Handicap International, the wooden sculpture weighs 5.5 tons and is the symbol of the campaign against landmines. It also embodies a call to action; a reminder of the horrors of war for all the heads of state who visit Geneva.

The expat way of life

Around 32,000 international government officers live in Geneva, on top of the thousands of expats who are drawn to the city for its reputation as a hub for universities, research organizations, and its many multinational companies. The city also has a long banking history, and its important role in global commerce, trading, and finance (with some 500 trading companies calling the city home) attracts a multitude of talent from all over the globe. That expat influence can be felt throughout the city, notably in the educational sector, with a plethora of private schools that offer specialized curriculums for all kinds of international students. In 2020 alone there were 8,500 registered international students in the city (65% of which were enrolled in private schools).

This consequential segment of the local population has led to the development of all sorts of very specific leisure activities. In town, depending on which hobby you choose, you may be better off speaking English than French! Unofficially the second language in the city, English is the language of choice for communicating with non-French speakers — whether that’s in sporting clubs like Holmes Place, at the yoga studio, or even in one of the many CrossFit gyms. Certain groups and establishments specifically attract an expat population, like the frisbee club. This much-loved activity is popular with university students around the world, and is practiced by doctoral students, international lawyers and, and even CERN researchers.

Besides the NGO neighbourhood, other parts of town also live to the beat of an international drum, including Cologny, where many international VIPs have settled down in luxurious dwellings, and of course, Les Pâquis, the city’s most multicultural destination, strategically located between the lake and the NGO neighbourhoods in Sécheron. Expats, government officials, students, and born-and-raised Genevans all rub shoulders here when enjoying a swim or the sauna at Les Bains, a walk along the lake or in the park, or for dining at any of the restaurants that cater to all palates. All in the name of peace and humanity, of course!