The Palais des Nations, a vibrant city in the heart of international Geneva


28 February 2012

The Palais des Nations is one of the symbols of international Geneva. A splendid art deco building built at the centre of Ariana Park, overlooking Lake Geneva, the Palais is the largest and the most active diplomatic conference centre in the world. Since the introduction of new security rules after the 2003 Baghdad bombing, it has become difficult to visit except as part of a guided tour.

What really happens in the hushed lounges of this venerable building? How many officials work there? What is their routine? To answer these questions, we will guide you through this temple of global dialogue and its different components.

The buildings of the Palais des Nations house almost 3,500 people, who not only work here on a daily basis but also lecture, shop, drink and eat. The complex receives over 100,000 visitors per year. It is often said that it is a city within the city. Actually, this microcosm has four bars, a cafeteria serving hundreds of meals every day, a delegates restaurant overlooking the lake, a post office, two banks, a travel agency, two kiosks, dozens of lifts and escalators, a bookstore and souvenir shops. SAFI, The International Civil Servants' Cooperative, a sort of mini market has existed here for fifty years. In this location you can find brand name watches, bags and luxury cosmetics, next to select food items including Swiss chocolates.

Several functions under one roof 

The Palais des Nations is above all the headquarters of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG). This nerve centre of multilateral diplomacy is the busiest conference centre in the world and it services more than 8,600 meetings every year. UNOG contributes significantly to the peace efforts conducted by the United Nations to advance disarmament, defend and promote human rights, eradicate poverty, implement sustainable development practices and provide fast and efficient humanitarian relief in emergencies, to mention just a few examples of its various activities.

UNOG performs representation and liaison functions with permanent missions, the Swiss Confederation (the host Government) and other Governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations and other organizations of the Joint United Nations system with headquarters in Geneva (WHO, WMO, ITU, WIPO).

UNOG is headed by a Director-General at the level of Under-Secretary-General who is accountable directly to Mr Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Since May 2, 2011, Mr Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, of Kazakh nationality, serves as the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and the Secretary-General's Personal Representative to the Conference on Disarmament.

The Palais des Nations houses UNOG but also certain offices or specialised agencies of the UN family active in a variety of fields including:

 

The WHO (World Health Organization) and ILO (International Labour Organization) conferences are also held at the Palais des Nations in May and June. At this time of year delegates from around the world take over the Assembly Hall and the reception area located between gates 13 and 15 of the Palais .

The Palais: a unique dialogue centre

Many well-known figures and high-level delegations also come every year to the UNOG to participate in bilateral exchanges, intergovernmental meetings (multilateral), conferences and other occasional events.

For example, at the initiative of the European Union, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) discussions on Georgia are regularly held at the Palais. In 2011, the Cypriot leaders Demetris Christofias (Greek) and Dervis Eroglu (Turkey) met several times in Geneva, under the auspices of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to discreetly find a common ground.

On a different note, the U.S. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Ms Hillary Clinton, preceded by a fleet of armoured limousines, arrived at the Palais des Nations on December 6, 2011, for a short but busy visit. On the eve of the commemoration of the Human Rights Day, her speech was a success. For the first time at the UNOG podium, a senior representative of a Member State defended the rights of gays and lesbians throughout the world. The capacity crowd rose to applaud the courage and power of conviction of Ms Clinton.

Thus, Geneva acts as a universal forum for ideas and debates. It is where world leaders evoke themes that should guide and inspire international and national policies.

Unknown corners of the Palais

The Palais des Nations has about thirty meeting halls, most of which are equipped with audio systems and booths for simultaneous interpretation. In all, these halls can accommodate over 8,500 people seated. At door number 11, there is an old fashion movie theatre for projecting films in front of 250 spectators. This is where the film club in different languages is held.

Thanks to donations from many Governments and some individuals, the Palais also houses a unique collection of art. In fact, most of these donations were made directly by Member States of the League of Nations and the United Nations. The best pieces are located in a semi-circular corridor bordering the Assembly Hall where for example you can admire two sculpted bronze doors donated by France in 1938. These are works from the sculptors Robert Couturier and Emmanuel Auricoste.

At first, the works of art donated to the Palais were used to furnish the lounges (see Box 2) and outdoor areas. Today, the collection includes many works, including sculptures, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, paintings, pencil portraits, engravings, prints, posters and caricatures. The quality and heritage value of these works is quite varied.

The art collection of the Palais des Nations reflects an infinite variety of types and origins. For the United Nations, art not only has a decorative function, it also serves one of the main objectives of the organization, namely promoting respect and unity of humanity in all its cultural diversity.

The Palais is also used for an on-going program of cultural activities implemented by the Committee of Cultural Activities. The Salle des Pas Perdus is home to regular art exhibitions, as is the gateway connecting the older halls to the new E building, as well as the upper floor of the E Building.

Ariana park: a museum and arboretum

The Palais des Nations is located in one of the most beautiful parks in Geneva, with stunning views over Lake Geneva and the Alps. Ariana Park is a verdant gem of 35 hectares and centuries-old trees. There are over 600 species of trees identified by descriptive plaques that indicate their country of origin and species. There are also monuments and sculptures, many of which were donated by Member States, by private sponsors or by the artists themselves.

Centenarian cedars and plane trees lead to the Villa Le Bocage. Along with the majestic sequoia in front of the New Building, these are among the most impressive specimens under which officials enjoy picnics in the summer. Legend has it that as Geneva was the sanctuary of Calvinism, protestant patricians could not invest in external signs of wealth such as luxury furniture, masterpiece paintings or sumptuous mirrors. They therefore preferred to quietly express their commitment to beauty by importing and cultivating rare and valuable trees. The giant cedar in front of the armillary sphere was planted in 1832.

In 1929, the park was put at the disposal of the Leage of Nations by the City of Geneva and the Revilliod de la Rive descendants upon some conditions, amongst them that Mr. Gustave Revilliod’s tumb be maintained in the park, which is still the case nowadays.

A dozen peacocks roam freely in the park and strut their finery as far as the nearby sumptuous Empress Garden or Penthes Castle Park. Staff members are often surprised by the cries of peacocks nesting in the cedars. The cry of the peacock is very characteristic and loud. When the peacocks of the Palais des Nations flaunt their tails, visitors stop in wonder at so much majesty. One of the peacocks - wounded in the leg - has taken up residence near the entrance to the Assembly Hall in the vicinity of gate 15, where it proudly poses for delegates and tourists photographs.

In June 2009, UNOG received the "Nature Reserve Certificate" from the Swiss “Fondation Nature et Économie”. This environmental quality label is awarded to environmental entities that protect nature and contribute to biological diversity by managing at least 30 per cent of the green areas around buildings in a natural manner.

The gardeners of the Palais des Nations are passionate in their work and carry out  significant works of maintenance and creation. A few years ago, they inaugurated the rose "Adolf Oggi". Ariana Park also includes a "memorial garden" near gate 2, where pine trees were planted to commemorate the victims of a helicopter crash in Mongolia and of the earthquake in Haiti. Each year aid workers gather here, to light a candle and lay a bouquet of flowers at the foot of these trees.

In addition, there are three villas dating from the 19th century: Villa la Fenêtre, Villa le Bocage and Villa la Pelouse. Villa la Fenêtre is the official residence of the Director-General of UNOG. The park also houses a charming typical Swiss chalet and several prefabricated buildings which serve as a language-training centre for officials and members of permanent missions.

Isabel GARCIA-GILL, 6 March 2012

Additional reading:
Jean-Claude Pallas, Histoire et architecture du palais des Nations (1924-2001).
L'Art déco au service des relations internationales, éd. Nations unies, Genève, 2001.

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