International Geneva, 1992-2002: a time for hope

1992 - 2002 was "a period of transition that will reshape the world order", writes Antoine Maurice. A view of Geneva. (Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

The end of the Cold War represented a period of optimistic globalisation during which International Geneva thrived, writes Antoine Maurice, former editor-in-chief of Le Journal de Genève. But was it more or less fruitful than the decades that followed?

International Geneva? The expression was adopted for convenience, because  “the office of the United Nations in Switzerland”, though correct, was too convoluted. But fortunately for Geneva, the expression stuck and its usage prevails.

So what was this International Geneva between 1992 and 2002? The dates correspond to the turn of the millennium, a period of transition that will reshape the world order, particularly the United Nations system and consequently the Geneva site that houses an important part of the system.

As a Geneva journalist who covered this period of international relations at the head of Le Journal de Genève, a daily newspaper that has since been abolished by the changes in the print media, the underlying question worth deducing is whether this period of some 10 years was more or less fruitful – and above all optimistic – in comparison with what has followed since the beginning of the century?

Two events frame the questioning. In 1992, the Swiss rejected the European Economic Area (EEA) in a referendum. This rejection kept the country out of a closer participation in the integration of the continent. On the contrary, 2002 brought the country closer to its international integration after Switzerland finally became a member of the UN, whose specialised bodies it had been hosting in Geneva for decades.

International Geneva consists mainly of agents of the system. It is measured by the output and impact of their activity. Among the important agents are the multilateral agencies, notably the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

In addition, there is the Human Rights Council. Behind these are the decision-making bodies of the UN Assembly and the Security Council, which are operated by states. Alongside the agencies and states are clusters of non-governmental organisations, NGOs. The ICRC, a non-UN international organisation, continues its fundamental work of humanising conflicts from Geneva.

Switzerland, as the host country alongside the city and the canton, receives as much as it benefits from these institutions, which produce thousands of meetings and hundreds of decisions that affect the international order in their respective fields as consensually as possible. A good example of this in recent times is the management of the HIV pandemic by the WHO.

From 1989, following an easing of tensions marked by the end of the Cold War and the optimistic globalisation that accompanied it until the beginning of the century, several dates are of interest to International Geneva.

1991 The launch of the World Wide Web in Geneva. It begins the transformation of public and private communication in the world, including the flow of information in international organisations and their interaction.

1992 Brazil launches the Earth Summit on the environment, which marks the beginning of a global struggle to protect the planet.

1993 The creation of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights precedes the transformation of the Commission on Human Rights into the Council in 2006. An essential issue in the lives of people and states now forms part of the world order.

1995 Geneva receives the last UN organisation after Bretton Woods, the WTO. It is intended by the states to regulate world trade by further liberalising it. The Geneva panoply is thus completed by an essential body for the international order. During its first years, the WTO was led by Pascal Lamy, an intellectual and political creator of globalisation, even if the director general’s record at the head of the organisation remains unfinished.

1997-2006 Kofi Annan took over as UN secretary general. An African and a diplomat by vocation, he developed a promising reform of the international organisation: the Millennium Declaration. Annan, who died too soon in Switzerland after his retirement, was recognised worldwide for his ineffable charisma, if not his efficiency. He fulfilled the function understood by all, starting with the governments that demanded it and hindered it at the same time, as the most impossible job in the world. To Switzerland, where he spent a good part of his life, Annan left a moving memory beyond his friends in Geneva who had been with him since his studies in the city in the 1960s.

After having benefited over many years from its reputation as a centre for peace, International Geneva is now suffering from a certain slump in its international productivity and its media aura. It was certainly possible to witness an atmosphere of optimism during the 1992-2005 period. Beyond that, the United Nations remains the main actor in international Geneva.

Yet the UN system has always been in crisis, with constant attempts at review and reform, except for the reform of the Security Council, the political heart of the system. Through the ups and downs of the UN, organisations and a few personalities remain attached to the function that history has given to Geneva as well as to the place. They allow Switzerland to continue its work in the service of the world.

Antoine Maurice is former editor-in-chief of Le Journal de Genève.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.