About the exhibition
“100 years of Multilateralism in Geneva” features 20 double-sided panels presenting some milestones and key successes achieved through multilateral cooperation. It aims to incite reflection on the evolution of international cooperation and its role in the world we know today.
The exhibition shows the multifaceted nature of multilateralism as well as the unique role played by Geneva in the evolution of multilateral cooperation over the last century. It allows us to understand how the city came to be a major multilateral platform, where international actors come together to discuss and find collective solutions to global challenges.
This panel exhibition is presented by the UN Geneva Library&Archives on the occasion of the celebration of 100 years of multilateralism in Geneva with the support of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the City of Geneva, and the Fondation pour Genève. It will be displayed in different locations allowing visitors physical and free access to exhibition.
*** The virtual version of the panel exhibition is also available here. This initiative was launched to provide greater access to those interested following the measures taken due to the Covid-19 situation.***
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Please see more below about the location(s) where the physical exhibition will take place.
Place des Nations
Date: October 12 – 30
More information / Did you know?
Would you like to know more about the content presented on the panels? Find more information for each panel by expanding the ribbons below.
The League of Nations was the first organization created to promote international cooperation and to maintain peace. Its founding document, the Covenant of the League of Nations, was adopted at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The organization was established on the shores of Lake Geneva one year later. Despite the hopes generated by its creation, the League was not able to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War and was dissolved in 1946. Although long deemed a failure, the League of Nations’s efforts have gained renewed interest in recent years. Today, historians opt for a more nuanced approach highlighting the precursory characteristic of the organization that laid down the foundations of the international system we know today.
At the end of the First World War, Geneva is seen as a cosmopolitan city that possesses an international tradition deeply rooted in its history. It was already the seat of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). More importantly, the city was not a major political centre and was located in a country that remained neutral during the conflict. It offered very favourable conditions for countries to be able to meet on equal footing by setting aside the antagonism of the Great War.
Did you know that during the drafting of the Covenant, Brussels and Geneva were the two cities considered to host the seat of the League of Nations? The choice was finally made in favour of the Swiss city.
In the League of Nations, each state has a voice, regardless of their political, economic, and demographic power. Moreover, decisions are taken unanimously. The Assembly brings together all member states in an ordinary session every year, while the Council, composed of permanent and non-permanent members, meets three to four times a year. The two organs can also meet at any given moment for a special session, particularly in the case of a crisis. The sessions are open to journalists, something that has never been seen before.
Article 7 of the Covenant of the League of Nations states that “All positions under or in connection with the League, including the Secretariat, shall be open equally to men and women.” Although this provision did not fully meet the expectations of gender equality across the League, it was extremely innovative at that time. The League was also a precursor to the United Nations in numerous fields of activity, including economic and financial cooperation, health, and the protection of refugees. Some of these functions were transferred to the UN after the Second World War. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) took over many functions previously held by the League Health Organization, whereas the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) continues the work done by the Intellectual Cooperation Organization.
As its name suggests, the Hôtel National, was a hotel before becoming the seat of the League in 1920. The Assembly’s sessions were held in the Salle de la Reformation from 1920 to 1929 and in the Bâtiment électoral from 1930 to 1936. These buildings no longer exist today. However, a commemorative plaque installed at rue de Rhône indicates where the Salle de la Reformation used to be, and the university building of UniDufour, right next to Plainpalais, is where the Bâtiment electoral stood. The first Assembly in the Palais des Nations took place in 1937, one year after the Secretariat moved into the building.
The first stone of the Palais des Nations was laid on September1929 and its construction was completed in 1938. The League boasts some impressive numbers in relation to size: the building’s surface area is almost 17,500 m2, with a volume of 440,000 cubic meters. It includes 1,700 doors, 1,900 radiators, 23 kilometres of electric wiring, 17 kilometres of pipework, and 21 lifts. The Palais des Nations was originally planned to be constructed on the lake-side area. However, when the League’s headquarters received a generous donation to build a library, there was a need to find bigger space. The building was eventually built on the Ariana Park, which was 25 hectares wide at that time.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) was created at the Paris Peace Conference and established its seat in Geneva in 1920. The first Convention adopted by the International Labour Conference established a set number of working hours in the industry to 8 hours per day. In 1944, the International Labour Conference adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia that re-emphasized the objectives of the ILO after WWII and continued to influence its work until today. “All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and spiritual development in conditions of their freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.” In 2019, the ILO celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Some conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) are also known as “labour standards”. These include the Forced Labour Convention (1930), Freedom of Association and Protection on the Rights to Organize Convention (1948), Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention (1949), Equal Remuneration Convention (1951); Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (1957); Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (1958), Minimum Age Convention (1973), and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999).
The establishment of the League of Nations made Geneva the centre of multilateral negotiations, where multiple international instruments were conceived. Geneva is often associated with treaties, conventions, accords, and diplomatic negotiations. As a result of its nature as one-of-a-kind multilateral platform, Geneva contributes to the development of international law, which has a defining role in the organization of the international system, the promotion of economic and social development, and the reinforcement of peace.
The International Law Commission (ILC) promotes the progressive development and the codification of international law. The Commission is composed of experts who work as individuals and not as representatives of their respective governments. The ILC has two functions. First, it can propose international draft agreements on topics that international law has not yet undertaken or for which the law has not been sufficiently developed. Secondly, it can specifically develop or systemize the rule of law for sectors that have precedents, are backed up by doctrinal opinions, and where significant state practice is being observed.
The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was signed in Geneva in 1925. Commonly known as the “Geneva Protocol”, it prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in war and is considered one of the first multilateral achievements in the field of arms control. Having been ratified by more than 140 countries, the Geneva Protocol is still in force. Since 1945, the General Assembly of the United Nations has adopted numerous resolutions that call upon the member states’ respect of the Protocol’s measures.
Today a large number of negotiations concerning the control, the limitations, and the reductions of armaments is held in Geneva. A wide range of discussions take place in the city, whether it be nuclear non-proliferation, biological weapons, the prohibition of placing weapons in space, or the prohibition of various other categories of weapons such as anti-personnel mines.
Did you know that the discussions concerning new weapons such as “killer robots” and weapon systems that can open fire without human intervention were also held in Geneva?
Fridtjof Nansen is one of the most prominent figures of the League of Nations. He was an explorer and oceanographer before being appointed as the representative of Norway to the League. In 1920, he supervised the repatriation of prisoners of war from Russia. In 1921, he was appointed High-Commissioner for Refugees. Until his death in 1930, Nansen exerted all his efforts for the protection of Russian, Armenian, Chaldo-Assyrian, Turkish and assimilated refugees. In 1930, the League created an organization for the protection of refugees called the Nansen International Office for Refugees in his honour.
Refugees are people who have been displaced from their countries of origin due to persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that seriously disturb public order. They are specifically given refugee status because returning to their country is dangerous and because they must seek refuge elsewhere. “Non-refoulement” is one of the fundamental principles that allows for the protection of refugees. The 1951 Convention states that no member state “shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Did you know that every year the Nansen Refugee Award is given to people, groups, or organizations to honour their actions in the protection of refugees, and of displaced and stateless persons?
The drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, US representative to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations and widow of former US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She played an important role in the progress of negotiations. Regarding the discussions held in Geneva in December 1947, she wrote that members of the Human Rights Commission have accepted to extend meetings until evening for several days in order to complete the agenda on time. When one of the representatives complained to Mrs. Roosevelt that the Commission did not take into consideration the human rights of its members, she reminded him the decision was unanimously accepted. Another delegate intervened in affirming that one of the first human rights was the right to keep one’s word. The work of the Commission was finished as planned.
Geneva is at the heart of multilateral discussions concerning human rights. The Human Rights Council (HRC) is an intergovernmental body, composed of government representatives, that brings together 47 member states elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights is one of the most innovative instruments of the Council. It reviews the human rights records of all 193 member states of the UN. It offers each state the possibility to present measures they have implemented to improve the situation and fulfil their human rights obligations. Some recommendations may also be given to the member state being reviewed to strengthen practices and policies with regards to human rights.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the main body of the United Nations in this field. It accounts for 1,300 employees and is led by the High Commissioner on Human Rights. The OHCHR is the primarily responsible for the promotion of the protection of human rights within the United Nations. It implements this protection for all, contributes to provide people with the possibility to exercise their rights, and helps those in charge of ensuring the respect of these rights in their implementation. The OHCHR supports the human rights mechanisms of the UN such as the Council of Human Rights, offers technical assistance to governments, and promotes the respect of international human rights treaties.
Today, we live in a world that is increasingly interconnected. An example of this is our daily use of objects connected to satellites. We seldom think about it, but what would happen if these multilateral mechanisms that manage radio frequencies and satellite orbits did not exist? Without international coordination, interferences would make communication impossible and satellites would run the constant risk of collision. This demonstrates the importance of supporting multilateral cooperation in the sectors of communications and information.
Did you know that the international call prefixes, such as +41 for Switzerland, +44 for the United Kingdom, or +86 for China, were adopted thanks to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)?
The national legislation of each country protects intellectual property, which implies that processes to obtain global intellectual property protection are longer. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) provides protection for brands, patents, and industrial designs on a global scale. Moreover, it protects designations of origin and geographical indications. The Geneva Act of the Lisbon Agreement on Appellations of Origin and Geographical Indications guarantee the protection of intellectual property in all the signatory countries through a centralized procedure. This system has been utilized to protect products such as the Parma Ham (Prosciutto di Parma), the Bohemia Crystal (Český Křišťál), and Chulucanas Pottery.
Did you now that road signs were the topic of many international conventions? The Convention signed in 1931 aimed to make road traffic safer and allow for international road travel by adopting a uniform road sign system. It stated that warning signs must be triangular while regulatory signs be circular. The United Nations followed up on these efforts. In 1949, the United Nations Conference on road and motor transport in Geneva resulted in the signing of the Convention on road traffic.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was created in 1947 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is one of the five regional economic commissions of the UN. Today, UNECE is composed of 56 member states from the European Union (EU), non-EU member states from Western and Eastern Europe, South-Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and North America. UNECE aims to facilitate coordinated actions to develop and integrate European economies, to increase economic activity, and to maintain and strengthen the member states’ economic relations among themselves as well as other countries of the world. The UNECE develops and adopts multilateral norms in various sectors in order to foster exchange among member states.
Did you know that the UNECE’s adoption of norms allows us to enjoy e.g. the vast variety of apples that we find at supermarkets, markets, and fruit stands today?
The actions of the United Nations to foster economic development is based on the belief that eliminating poverty and improving living conditions are essential in creating sustainable peace. In this respect, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) strives to promote integration of developing countries into the global economy in order to increase trade and development opportunities. UNCTAD also collaborates with the World Trade Organization (WTO) to promote the exports of developing countries via the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint agency headquartered in Geneva.
The regulation of world trade strengthens stable international exchanges by increasing predictability. The multilateral efforts in this sector foster trust between different trade partners. The adoption of a common rules system must contribute to the development of a world economy that is prosperous, peaceful, and responsible. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an “affiliate” organization of the United Nations making the Organization separate from the UN system, but connected through special accords. Composed of 164 member states, WTO works to reduce obstacles to international trade by providing platforms for trade negotiations and the settlement of trade disputes.
Did you know that the WTO headquarters was originally constructed, in 1926, to house the International Labour Organization (ILO)?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepares scientific research from which world leaders can base their multilateral decisions in the fight against climate change. For instance, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere (i.e. frozen water region on the earth’s surface) in a Changing Climate released on September 2019 underlines the importance of limiting global warming in accordance with the objectives set by the 2015 Paris Accords. The report sheds light on the advantages of ambitious and efficient adaptation for the benefit of sustainable development as opposed to inaction that, on the contrary, generates higher costs and greater risks.
The IPCC was established under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The WMO, headquartered in Geneva, provides a platform that fosters multilateral cooperation in the fields of meteorology, climatology, and hydrology with the help of observations, information exchange, research, meteorological forecasts, early warning signs, development of capabilities, and greenhouse gas monitoring.
Multilateralism is indispensable in the fight against climate change because it allows for collective, coordinated, and constant action. Apart from government decisions, we are all able to contribute to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. The “Act Now” campaign aims to inform the public and encourage individuals to take action. By understanding the impact of our choices on the environment and changing our consumption habits, each of us can concretely contribute to the fight against climate change.
In an era of globalization, migratory movement presents challenges that need to be addressed in a coordinated manner. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration adopted in 2018 recognizes that migrations can pose difficulties while also contributing to growth, innovation, and sustainable development. Multilateral cooperation must foster the adoption of a global process to optimize the overall benefits of migrations, while addressing risks and challenges for individuals and communities in the countries of origin, transit, and destination. Today, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the main intergovernmental organization in the field of migration. It is headquartered in Geneva and is affiliated with the United Nations system since 2016. Having 173 member states, IOM works in close cooperation with governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental partners to help ensure the orderly and humane management of migrations, to promote international cooperation on migration issues, to assist in the search for practical solutions to migration problems, and to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants in need.
Geneva plays a central role in humanitarian aid. The High Commissioner for Refugees assists refugees and displaced persons in numerous regions of the world. This assistance is provided through the distribution of food as well as essential items, such as tents, blankets, tarps, kitchen utensils, and mosquito nets. Today, emergency situations involve multiple actors including governmental organizations, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). From Geneva, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) fosters the coordination of actors of the humanitarian sector to create coherent responses to emergency situations. OCHA offers information management services, contributes to the adaptation of the international humanitarian system to global challenges, works to mobilize resources to respond to humanitarian needs, draws attention to forgotten crises, and promotes the respect of international humanitarian rights.
International cooperation in the field of health dates back to the 19th century. However, the establishment of the Health Organization of the League of Nations represents an important step towards its institutionalization. The Health Organization created an epidemiological information system in order to facilitate information exchange between countries as well as to implement preventive health measures. It also fostered research to fight certain diseases, such as malaria, polio, and cancer. Moreover, in the sector of biological standardization, it facilitated the creation of standards for vaccines, serums, and vitamins. The activities of the Health Organization paved the way for the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948.
Did you know that Ludwik Rajchman, the director of the League of Nations Health Secretariat from 1921 to 1939, is considered as one of the founding fathers of UNICEF?
“The Covid-19 pandemic is a tragic reminder of how deeply connected we are. The virus knows no borders and is a quintessential global challenge. Combatting it requires us to work together as one human family.” These words from the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, are a reminder of the importance of multilateral cooperation in the health sector. The World Health Organization (WHO) plays a central role in the coordination of international action to control the spread of the virus.
Did you know that Geneva also houses the headquarters of the Joint United Nations Program of HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)? UNAIDS relies on the experience and expertise of 11 entities of the UN system in order to put an end to the AIDS epidemic. It is the only entity of the United Nations whose directing body is composed of representatives from civil society.
The International Red Cross Movement is composed of three main bodies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The ICRC is a neutral and independent organization that was established on the occasion of the Geneva International Conference of 1863. One year later, the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field” was adopted. The Geneva Convention of 1864 played a pivotal role in the development of international humanitarian rights that would continue to evolve with the Geneva Conventions of 1906, 1929, and 1949, and the additional Protocols of 1977.
The first resolution concerning the establishment of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was adopted in December 1951 on the occasion of a UNESCO intergovernmental meeting in Paris. In 1952, during the third provisional Council session, Geneva was appointed to house the headquarters of the organization. In June 1953, the population of the Canton of Geneva accepted this decision via referendum. Two years later, construction work began in Meyrin in the presence of the officials of the Canton of Geneva and members of CERN personnel.
Did you know that the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built? It is made up of a ring 27 kilometres in circumference that is built 100 meters underground.
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is one of the six main organs of the UN. It meets once a year alternating their location between New York and Geneva. Its main function is to coordinate the action of economic and social entities that are part of the United Nations system. The ECOSOC is a forum for dialogue that aims to promote social and economic, health, cultural, and educational development. It also promotes the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is composed of 54 member states elected by the General Assembly and more than 3,200 accredited non-governmental organizations (NGO).
Numerous organizations headquartered in Geneva were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only organization that was awarded three times: in 1917, 1944, and 1963. Its founder, Henry Dunant, was a co-laureate of the first Nobel Peace Prize given in 1901. The following year, another Geneva native, Elie Ducommun, was awarded by the Nobel Committee. The architects of the League of Nations are also laureates, Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States, in 1919, Léon Bourgeois (French) in 1920, and Lord Robert Cecil (British) in 1937. In 1945, the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull received a Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the creation of the United Nations. Ralph Bunche was the laureate in 1950 for his role as mediator of the United Nations in Palestine. In 1957, former Canadian President of the General Assembly Lester Bowles was awarded for his contribution to the deployment of the first Blue Helmet (peacekeeping) operations.
Did you know that two UN Secretaries-General were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? They are Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961 (granted posthumously) and Kofi Annan, jointly with the United Nations, in 2001.
The term “Spirit of Geneva” was popularized by Robert de Traz’s book of the same title released in 1929. It generally refers to the international calling of the city and the multilateral efforts for peace that take place in it. The latter is often associated with great diplomatic meetings that have resolved conflicts or put an end to hostilities. However, the actions for peace that are developed from Geneva are more global. They encompass the promotion of fundamental rights, global health, information and communication, but also in the sectors of economic and social development, humanitarian assistance, trade regulations, management of migration flows. All are essential elements to create the conditions for peace.
How do we resolve disputes without conversing with each other? With the establishment of the League of Nations, Geneva became a platform for multilateral dialogue. Over the span of 100 years, the city has hosted numerous official, and sometimes informal, meetings. For instance, in 1954, a conference was held in the Council Chamber of the Palais des Nations that resulted in the conclusion of a series of accords that put an end to the war of Indochina. The following year, the heads of the Great Powers met in the same Chamber for what is known as the Geneva Summit. It was in the same room that the accords of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan were signed. In the past years, many discussions and meetings were held in the Palais des Nations in order to find solutions aimed at resolving crises. It often involves complex and long-winded work. However, these efforts are indispensable in finding political solutions to conflict.
The United Nations is an important component of “International Geneva”, which is a unique ecosystem through of international organizations, officials, delegates, diplomats, experts, members of civil society, as well as researchers and academics. The cooperation between all these different actors is fundamental in tackling global challenges that we face today.
Did you know that the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) is headquartered in Geneva? UNITAR is one of the main instruments of the United Nations that provides training services and allows people, public administration, and organizations to address modern global challenges through skills and learning.
Apart from those who have established their headquarters, many international organizations have liaison offices in Geneva. For the United Nations system, the activities in Geneva of the different entities of the UN system revolve around many different areas of activity, such as the protection of human rights, economic and social development, disarmament, health, humanitarian assistance, and the development of international law.
In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, multilateralism is essential. Today, we face global challenges that no country can resolve alone. Dialogue, inclusion, and coordination of all international actors are the fundamental principles of the multilateral system in which Geneva plays a central role.
Multilateralism has constantly evolved in the past 100 years since the establishment of the League of Nations, the first global multilateral organization. Today, it is going through a phase of transition. The experiences taken from 100 years of multilateral cooperation in Geneva are unique and just as important in the collective construction of/ in collectively constructing the multilateralism of the future.
Did you know that you can participate in the global discussion on the multilateralism of the future? To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the UN launched a survey to include the public’s voice to the dialogue on international cooperation. Answer the UN75 survey here.
Geneva plays an important role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs provide guidance on how to attain a better and more sustainable future for all. They respond to global challenges that we are facing, particularly those concerning poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, growth, peace, and justice. The SDGs are interconnected and set out the goals that need to be achieved by 2030.
Did you know that you contribute to the achievement of the SDGs? Click here
Do you know that the United Nations has six official languages? Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Apart from rare exceptions, a delegate who wishes to speak during a session must do so in one of these six languages. As for the documents, they are all translated into the official languages. Interpreters, who translate speeches and sign language, and translators, who translate texts, contribute significantly to multilateral cooperation. In 2019, the translation services of the UN Geneva translated more the 79 million words while interpretation services were provided to 3,200 meetings.
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