The United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, under storm clouds © GUODINGPING - DREAMSTIME.COM

The role of International Geneva 2.0
Amidst global tensions, Geneva stands as a beacon of hope for a reinvigorated United Nations
1 Mar 2024

Those who believe in the need for a stronger and more efficient UN are becoming increasingly concerned about its future. 

In fact, the entirety of humanity should be concerned. On the horizon, we can see the attitudes of selfish nationalism becoming more common along with greater potential for arms races, little to no appetite for more multilateral cooperation, and in particular, a paralyzed Security Council. Whilst at the UN in New York pessimism seems to prevail, in Geneva, delegates, secretariats, NGOs and academics keep optimistically engaging. However the atmosphere is not ideal, challenges are multiplying and getting more complex, budgets are being cut in all institutions and geopolitics contaminates the air in meeting rooms: but it is not as poisoned as on the other side of the Atlantic. The strong support of the host country and a positive Swiss opinion helps enormously.

Further to the Summit on the SDGs held in New York in September 2023, the next step is the Summit of the Future in 2024. There are already many papers and debates on the ‘UN 2.0’ that could or should be envisaged. The wide majority focuses on two main issues: how to reform the Security Council (and in general, the political UN role in preventing conflicts and preserving peace) and how to address climate change and its catastrophic impact. Without a doubt both issues are urgent and vital.

What is International Geneva and where does it come from?

The ecosystem of the International Geneva encompasses 40 international organizations (including five UN specialized agencies and several UN entities), 180 Permanent Missions and 400 NGOs. It is an amazing concentration of experts, delegates, negotiators and academics who are interacting daily on many multilateral issues to produce data to form analyses and provide their ideas. This intensive activity results in world-wide effects: it reaches decision-makers in the capitals as well as the citizens concerned by the rules and policies resulting from this multilateral hub of knowledge and negotiations.

What makes Geneva unique among other UN headquarters is the scope and relevance of its agenda. From humanitarian aid, refugees, and migrations to internet governance, from international trade to global health, from intellectual property to economic development, from human rights to biodiversity, from employment and social protection policies to climate change. Disarmament is also a part of this picture, even it if belongs to a different category of multilateral activities. Almost all the ‘non-military threats’ and the ‘roots of current multifaceted crises’ are addressed in Geneva. The work in Geneva is highly «technical» or «functional» (see Mitrany’s theory), complicated but always relevant. It covers more than the 17 SDGs.

It is said that history repeats itself, which is not exactly the case, but effects of history leave a lasting impact. From the remnants of the League of Nations systems, the survivors were its economic, social and humanitarian entities that were then transformed in UN entities, while the Council (the political arm of the League in charge of collective security) collapsed well before World War Two and we know why. Is this a forewarning? In any case it demonstrates that multilateral cooperation on non-military threats is indispensable and more resilient than multilateral mechanisms designed to avoid military conflicts. Considering the danger of a nuclear conflict, can we take the risk of a multilateral system driven by short-sighted political goals? Rather, it should be the other way around with economic, social, environmental and human rights goals being the driving forces leading political decisions.

Place des Nations featuring ‘Broken Chair’, Geneva © Shutterstock

Why International Geneva matters in any debate on a ‘UN 2.0’

Three key features make it highly relevant today and for the future, because they mirror the essence of globalization in the 21st century.

Firstly, the analytical, negotiating and consensus-building work done in Geneva is mainly normative and regulatory. It aims at establishing rules and mechanisms to manage the globalization processes instead of leaving unregulated freedom to market forces and individual interests. The UN Charter values and the SDGs move from theory to reality each time a multilateral instrument is used in Geneva: a WHO regulation on global health, a Human Rights Council resolution, a WTO agreement on international trade, an ILO Convention on rights and obligations for workers and employers, and an ITU debate on the terra incognita of artificial intelligence. A little bit of the daily life of the «We the Peoples…» is improved. There are many nuances and shortcomings in this normative landscape, from legally binding provisions (as in the case of the WTO) to «best endeavour» recommendations and purely symbolic declarations. The same diversity applies to the monitoring mechanisms: only a few ensure that the rules are embedded in national legislation or duly implemented by member states. In all cases, each multilateral norm entails a delegation of national sovereignty. International Geneva has accumulated decades of experience and their political value is yet to be fully assessed and understood beyond the technical content of this normative work.

Secondly, Geneva reaches the ‘country level’ not only with the information, research, rules and standards it produces, but also with its role in transforming that work into concrete world-wide technical assistance through countless trainings, capacity building programs, policy advice and advocacy. The role of Geneva in humanitarian assistance provided in emergency situations or in emergencies that are never-ending (such as in refugee camps) is the most visible in the headlines. But whenever a policymaker says to a UN expert: « I changed my mind due to your training », the reward is more significant than a headline. Applied research, elaboration, and dissemination of data on global issues, customizing expertise according to various situations and the assistance to individual citizens is generated through knowledge.

Finally, Geneva is a puzzle: it is the main multilateral crossroads of intersectoral, multidisciplinary issues characterizing today’s increasingly complex globalization and crises. The list of linkages among multilateral topics is very long: trade, food security and health; migration, refugees, and climate change; human rights, health, employment and social security policies; gender, electronic commerce and economic development; intellectual property, access to vaccines and technology; labor markets and artificial intelligence; internet governance and digital economy; blue and green economies, supply chains and investments… In Geneva, delegates interact daily with secretariats, experts, and NGOs on these multifaceted issues, crossing over disciplines, shaping the understanding of evolving multilateral threats.

How to strengthen the bridges between the still-functioning UN Geneva and UN New York

What lessons can be drawn from the Geneva experience for the area of peace and broadly speaking political cooperation? Can the trust being built on these «technical» topics be capitalized on and transferred from Geneva to New York? How can research and exchanges between experts and decision-makers lead to knowledge-based policies in all areas of UN work following the Geneva approach? How can all the global public goods – peace in the first place – be managed in a constructive way for the sake of common interests?

As in New York, there is frustration among the various players of the Geneva scene because geopolitics contaminates many negotiations. It is the same sort of frustration that a scientist feels when fighting against fake news. Yes, Geneva is also affected by the crisis of trust and poor credibility of multilateralism, but the general feeling is more positive that New York. Swiss public opinion and politicians do not practice criticizing the UN for the fun of it. UN New York could be positively influenced by UN Geneva by looking more in depth at its general atmosphere and work environment.

There is a lot of talk about resilience these days. In Geneva, resilience means firstly to keep hope and faith in multilateralism despite the geopolitical contamination and the cuts in financial resources of international organizations and NGOs, including those devoted to humanitarian aid. We rarely see headlines comparing the increase in military expenditures with the decrease in funds for multilateral cooperation. Many UN entities, starting with the humanitarians, will soon be unable to function without proper funding (i.e., untied and regular). Any UN reform should start here, with the budgets.

The proposal to establish a Global Resilience Council as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly (or the Ecosoc) to address the « non-military threats » deserves attention – particularly for International Geneva, grounded on these threats. The proposal of this Council, beyond political support, requires a solid and transparent articulation with the whole Geneva ecosystem, above the traditional interagency silos. Such a Council could be a strong catalyst to ensure, more than coordination, real coherence of values and ideas within the UN system.

Civil society has to be mobilized. Where are the Greta Thunbergs willing to take to the streets to defend the UN values and work, shouting for a << UN 2.0 >> for the future generations? Debates among academics and diplomats on the niceties of the Charter are necessary, but weak and ineffective if they do not involve citizens with powerful, straightforward messages on peace and international cooperation in all its aspects. Also including the private sector: Geneva is well equipped to develop more dialogue and cooperation between diplomats, researchers and businessmen.

The players of both New York and Geneva should intensify their contacts at all levels during the months leading up to the Summit of the Future. They should take stock together of the SDGs, from both the technical and geopolitical perspectives. They should act in unity to disseminate UN values and raise awareness about the future of multilateralism. They should also sit at the same table to identify concretely, how the work done in Geneva would bring oxygen, substance and steam to the New York process. 

Darwinism also applies to international institutions: only those that adapt themselves will survive. Changes in the way New York and Geneva interact (or do not interact enough) are part of the solution.

Finally, two aspects deserve to be addressed honestly in any discussion on the future of the multilateral instruments. The first refers to the role of the Bretton Woods Institutions, usually hidden under the carpet or barely mentioned with the excuse they were placed on the periphery of the UN organigramme between 1944-45, ignoring they belong to the same system. They need to leave their « splendid isolation » in order to play a major role in implementing UN goals and values in a visible fashion, particularly in close relation with many UN Geneva-based entities. The second aspect is the role of civil society and the democratic values conveyed by the Charter: how can the UN be revamped if civil society does not have a voice in many parts of the world, and if democracy is not a shared goal? Here too, Geneva and New York need to talk. 

Greycells and its Partners are organizing an Intergenerational Dialogue on the role of International Geneva on 25 April 2024. 

For more information click here.

* Manuela Tortora is a former official at United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Vice-President of Greycells.
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