Will International Geneva still exist in 20 years?

(Credit: Patrick Chappatte for Geneva Solutions)

International Geneva is a 20th century construction, motivated by the wars that defined that era. But can it serve the 21st century?, asks writer and journalist Joëlle Kuntz in the opening article of our special print edition published in collaboration with Le Temps.

The passage of Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, to the rank of aggressor of another United Nations member state questions the credibility of an organisation designed to prevent war. But the challenge is much broader than that. It contributes to the unravelling of an international UN order in which hundreds of thousands of actors cooperate around the world.

Geneva is the main centre of these so-called technical UN agencies, from which countless programmes are decided and then deployed, always with the aim of improving situations deemed to be bad. At the root of the UN technical system, there is the fundamental belief that the world can do better. This belief resists dysfunction, scandal, bitterness, disappointment, platitudes and routine. But can it resist the return of war; not war as an accident or uncontrolled violence as it has always existed, but as a naked political form? 

The unprecedented audacity of Russia’s war on Ukraine has two potentially devastating effects on the work of the Geneva-based UN agencies: first, it reinforces the fear that there is no limit or remedy to human violence and that destruction is the fate of all that has been or will be built. In other words, it demoralises even the most hardened consciences within the international service. Secondly, it politicises and polarises the agencies’ governing bodies to the extreme. The position of each of them in relation to the war in progress can influence the speed and quality of decisions.

Toxic atmosphere

Demoralisation and polarisation are not new phenomena in Geneva. What is new is their magnitude, coupled with the prospect of a long-term geopolitical crisis whose outcome does not belong to the UN but to the raw balance of power between the powers. 

Demoralisation and polarisation are not new phenomena in Geneva. What is new is their magnitude

In this toxic atmosphere, International Geneva, still not fully recovered from the restrictions of Covid, went into automatic mode: everything that could be done was done, the major conferences were held – the trade conference, the labour conference, the health conference. Resolutions were passed against Russian aggression. Important reports were published, such as those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the repression of the Uyghurs. Nearly 1,500 UN staff are deployed on the ground in the Ukrainian conflict, dealing in particular with refugees and food resources. They are accompanied by humanitarian support from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and numerous NGOs.  The machine is running, without the energy of hope but with the duty of the mission.

It bristles with stewardship issues: who will pay for its budgets? Within five years, the Chinese contribution will equal or exceed that of the United States. Who will win in the upcoming high-level appointments at the head of the agencies – the West, Asia, Africa? And by what geopolitical combinations since Russia is practically excluded from the lists? Preserving this sense of stewardship is the passion that remains when all the others are fading.  

The most significant act was the expulsion of Russia from the Human Rights Council on 7 April, but this was decided by the UN General Assembly in New York, not by Geneva. This decision may lead to increased activism on the part of Russia to lead anti-Western coalitions within the various agencies. But does it have the means to build up a large enough clientele to polarise the organisations to the point of endangering their operations and goals? It is far too early to know what balance the courted states of the global south will strike between their interests and their historical emotions. As for the fact that Russia has decided to discredit Geneva by suspending the ongoing negotiations on Syria, following the adoption of sanctions by Switzerland, its punitive nature probably has more impact on Bern than on the international community.

The CERN issue

The effects of Russian aggression are perhaps most worrying at CERN. Russia's observer status has been suspended and collaboration with Russia and Belarus will not be renewed as planned in 2024. The move is understandable but costly from a scientific point of view, as the particle accelerator/collider complex is at stake. What will happen to the thousand or so Russian researchers, who are employed by Russian public institutions? To what extent will they be able to continue working with the Geneva laboratory? Are they at the service of the Russian government, Russian science or science in general?

Even if they are not a collective but individuals, the question is asked about them as it was about the artists working in Russian institutions. It has no good answer, although it inspires strong opinions. CERN researchers have to live with this unease. Added to this is the shortage of electricity, of which CERN is a major consumer. Will the Large Hadron Collider also be stopped by the Russian aggression?

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