It wasn’t my first visit to Geneva, and I doubt it will be my last. And while it still hasn’t wormed its way into my affections, my relationship with the city has thawed. This time I got to see behind the scenes.
The Palais des Nations, with its over-sized broken-legged chair, the iconic symbol of the international campaign against landmines, is an impressive sight. The UN building, with its avenues of flags (194 in all, one for each of the member states plus the UN flag), is quite imposing. And until last month, I thought that was all there was to it. I hadn’t realised that in behind this building, and over to the left, the complex runs 600 meters in length, provides 34 conference rooms and 2800 offices and hosts 10 000 meetings a year. It sits in a 35 hectare park and is reputedly second in size only to the Palace of Versailles.
Global policy-making has its hub in International Geneva. Human rights, humanitarian, science and technology, disarmament, development – agencies representing these agendas and more all live and work in the city, lobbying, debating, regulating, ratifying, spending countless hours in meetings trying to reach consensus on issues that affect the world.
When I was there for meetings during the week, it was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people milled around in all sorts of traditi0nal dress, each bringing their own level of intensity to the proceedings. I was surprised a little at the varying degrees of formality and informality, at the number of personal conversations going on while speakers held the floor. I think that working in this complex structure would take time to get used to and come with its fair share of frustrations.
On Saturday, back for the official tour, it was like a ghost town. What I’d failed to notice in my mad search for the right conference room, were the myriad works of art donated by various member states. The Vatican sprang briefly to mind, but while grand in its own way, this wasn’t nearly as opulent.
I’m not a great one for history; dates have never been my forte. Geography isn’t high on my list of accomplishments either. But even with my shameful ignorance of world affairs, I couldn’t help but be moved when I sat in the same room where the Korean Armistice was hammered out: 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days. The same room where the Yom Kippur Peace Conference took place. The same room where the grounds for the exchange of Iran/Iraq prisoners of war were formed. The walls and ceiling of the Council Chamber are decorated with gold and sepia murals by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. The murals, which track the progress of mankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, were presented by the Spanish government to the League of Nations in 1936. If rooms could talk, this one would have something to say for itself.
Walking the corridors of power, I couldn’t help but reflect the reach of the United Nations. Despite its problems, it remains the best of what we have available to promote peace and prosperity for all. Yet what we may be guilty of forgetting at times is that at the heart its effectiveness is the need for cooperation between nations. The UN, in and of itself, can’t make any one country do anything. Suzanne Nossel’s 2005 post makes for interesting reading, if one were in doubt about the need for such an organisation, even if the figures are a tad outdated.
I was particularly taken by the ceiling in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room. At a cost of €20 million, this sculpture, again donated by the Spanish government, is magical. Artist Miquel Barceló sprayed many layers of coloured paint (100 tons in all) across the ceiling of 1500 square metres to create stalactites. At the unveiling on 18 November 2008, Barceló revealed his main sources of inspiration: a cave and the sea.
The cave is a metaphor for the agora, the first meeting place of humans, the big African tree under which to
sit to talk, and the only possible future: dialogue, human rights.
If you’re in Geneva, do yourself a favour and book a tour of the UN. At €10, it’s worth every penny.