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Geneva: a decades-long tradition of top-level meetings

President Reagan and USSR leader Mikhaïl Gorbachev’s historic handshake as they met for the first time in front of the Villa Fleur d’eau in Versoix on 19 November 1985. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Str).

The city of Geneva has been the scene of numerous negotiations and agreements since the end of the Second World War. Its humanitarian tradition, strategic location in a neutral country and political stability make it an obvious choice to host a variety of diplomatic meetings. Ahead of the Biden-Putin summit on Wednesday, we look back at a timeline of historic top-level meetings held in Geneva.

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Deputy Defence Minister Ta Quang Buu of Vietnam, right, signs the Indochina Conference Armistice Agreement in Geneva on 21 July 1954. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Photopress-Archiv/Str)

April-July 1954: Geneva Conference on Korea and Indochina

The 26 April 1954 marked the beginning of the Geneva international conference on Korea and Indochina, but it did not lead to any significant progress on the Korean side. However, the Geneva discussions among representatives from France, the US, the USSR, the People’s Republic of China and emissaries from the Viet Minh were more successful. Coming together at the Villa Le Bocage just across the street from the UN Geneva headquarters, they agreed on the provisional partition of Vietnam, and the creation of three new states: North Vietnam, led by the Viet Minh, Laos and Cambodia. French military forces also agreed to retreat  from North Vietnam. The Geneva Accords, as they became known, officially came into force at 12:38pm on 21 July, when Cambodian representatives signed the agreement.

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Members of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (G.P.R.A.) are greeted with cheers on their return from exile at the airport in Algiers, Algeria, on 4 June 1962, shortly before the nominal attainment of independence from France. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Str)

January 1961- 18 March 1962: Evian Accords

After a first attempt at peace talks between the French government and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) had failed in 1960, negotiations over the future of the French colony resumed in January 1961. Mediated by the Swiss diplomat Olivier Long and with logistical support from the Swiss military, these were held in Evian. But the newly created Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (PGAR), the FLN’s government-in-exile, had refused to be hosted on French soil and was staying in Bellevue. Locals then witnessed a daily aerial ballet, as Swiss military helicopters flew the Algerian emissaries to Evian. Though this second round of talks also failed, the PGAR emissaries eventually returned to Switzerland in March 1962 to sign the Evian Accords, which proclaimed Algeria’s independence.

9 May 1977: Carter meets al-Assad

On this day, US President Jimmy Carter met with his Syrian counterpart Hafez al-Assad at the Intercontinental Hotel. The two heads of state discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for almost five hours, followed by 700 journalists onsite and broadcasted live by the Télévision Suisse Romande throughout the world. Carter however returned from his first visit to Europe empty-handed, after failing to agree on a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

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US President Ronald Reagan, right, and Federal President Kurt Furgler, centre, are attending a parade of the Guard of Honour. November 1985, Geneva. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Str)

19-20 November 1985: Geneva summit

Cameras from all around the world were there to capture a historic, 7-second long handshake between US President Ronald Reagan and USSR leader Mikhaïl Gorbachev in front of the Villa Fleur d’eau, in Versoix, on 19 November 1985. Followed by 3,500 journalists, the first meeting between the two superpowers’ leaders aimed at slowing down the nuclear arms race, two years after President Reagan’s launch of the so-called “Star Wars Program”. Even if it did not end the weapons race, the Geneva summit, to which the upcoming Biden-Putin meeting has often been compared, did renew the dialogue between the two blocs, initiating a détente in US-USSR relations which would last until the end of the Cold War.

23 November 1990: Bush Sr. meets al-Assad

Thirteen years after his encounter with President Carter, the Syrian President Al-Assad came back to Geneva for a meeting with US President George H.W. Bush. Though held in a different setting – the Holiday Inn, a stone’s throw away from the Geneva airport – the summit was still eventful. On the ground in Geneva, several incidents between American reporters, US security forces and the local police – which had only learned about the holding of the meeting two days before it began – threatened the smooth running of the discussions. Yet, a few weeks after the beginning of the Gulf War, this did not stop President Bush from successfully convincing President Al-Assad to join the international coalition which would attack Iraq in “Operation Desert Storm'' from January 1991.

29 July 1991: US and USSR emissaries agree on Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty

Six years after the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit, US and USSR delegates met at the Soviet mission to the UN in Geneva on 29 July 1991. Around 11am, US emissary Linton Brooks and his Soviet counterpart Iouri Nazarkine signed a 1,000-page long document, finalising the negotiations for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). It involved a reduction of both blocs’ nuclear arsenal – from 11,000 to 7,000 warheads on the Soviet side, and from 12,000 to 9,000 for the US – thus forecasting the end of the global arms race. The treaty was then signed by George H.W. Bush and Mikhaïl Gorbachev two days later in Moscow.

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A January 1994 file photo showing United States President Bill Clinton (right) shaking hands with Syrian President Hafez al-Assaad during a summit in Geneva. (Credits: EPA PHOTO/KEYSTONE/STF)
16 January 1994: Bill Clinton meets Hafez al-Assad

On 13 September 1993, a historic handshake was organised between Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, by Bill Clinton. During the meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva a few months later, Presidents Clinton and al-Assad aimed to conclude a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. This meeting ended with the evocation of the Peace of the Braves by al-Assad, who said they were ready for the first time to establish peaceful relations with Israel. A warming up between the two states could be observed after the summit. But when Clinton and al-Assad met again in Geneva six years later, they failed to reach an agreement to bring peace in the Middle East.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, brief the media after their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, March 6, 2009. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

6 March 2009: Hillary Clinton meets Sergei Lavrov

On this day, a meeting took place at the Intercontinental between Hillary Clinton, American secretary of state and Sergei Lavrov, Russian minister of foreign affairs,  to instil and create a new dynamic in American-Russian relations. Indeed, two new presidents were elected in both countries, Dimitri Medvedev in Russia and Barack Obama in the US, it was an opportunity to start again from scratch between the two nations, the second objective was to sign an agreement on the reduction of strategic weapons, the New Start, which was ratified on 8 April 2010 in Prague.

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New round of Nuclear Iran Talks at the Intercontinental Hotel, in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday, May 30, 2015. (Credits: KEYSTONE/Laurent Gillieron)
24 November 2013: Iranian nuclear negotiations

The parties present were Iran, the US, France, the UK, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. Negotiations on a peace agreement had already started in 2006. Two years later, the first meeting took place in the city hall of Geneva, and in 2013 a preliminary agreement was reached. The agreement aims to verify that the Iranian nuclear agreement will remain solely civilian and will not be used for weapons. For Iran this is an opportunity to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy. In the longer term, it was intended to lead to a total lifting of UN Security Council economic sanctions. This meeting was the premise for the signing of a joint comprehensive plan of action on 14 July 2015. Despite these advances, in 2018 former US President Donald Trump withdrew from these agreements, forcing a renegotiation of the agreements in the coming years.

Since 2016: Syrian peace talks

Since 2011 and the war in Syria, many peace attempts have been made. The talks are led by Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, and Geir Otto Pedersen, his successor. In parallel, there have been 15 meetings for a peace process led by Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana. Representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, supported by Saudi Arabia. Today there are no concrete results, except the creation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in 2009, which will aim to organise future elections under the aegis of the UN.

June 16 2021: Biden-Putin summit

It's time for Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin to meet, and with the latter’s absence at the G7, they needed a place to do so. Thirty-five years after Reagan and Gorbachev, Geneva is once again in the spotlight, and will be the scene of a summit scrutinized by the whole world. This Wednesday 16 June at the Villa La Grange, a new page in American-Russian relations will be written.