The Geneva Maison de la Paix building.

Observers warn that UNOG is now in danger of receding into another failed League of Nations.

Today, many observers fear that the UN and other actors in the “International Geneva”, or “International Switzerland” ecosystem may have dropped the ball and strong voices are no longer there to pick it back up.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Geneva still ranked as a leading hub for key global issues. International news organisations, such as the New York Times, Le Monde and the Guardian, retained full-time foreign correspondents, many of them based at the Palais des Nations, to cover issues in a manner that could easily be understood by global audiences. That ensured Geneva’s relevance as the world’s humanitarian and development capital.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps. Geneva Solutions is an independent non-profit news platform covering International Geneva issues and based on a editorial culture of constructive journalism.

During his six-year-long tenure until 2019, the Danish former director general of the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG), Michael Møller avidly sought to push the concept of International Geneva by reaching out to international organisations, businesses and academic institutions, not only in Switzerland but across the globe. Other key champions of the Geneva ecosystem, namely Swiss banker Ivan Pictet, have also recently retired. Møller admits “new public faces” are needed to propel International Geneva in the future and prevent a reversal of all the work achieved in recent years.

During its heyday, the Palais des Nations stood out as a relatively accessible – and transparent – public institution. As observers warn, UNOG is now in danger of receding into another failed League of Nations. Whether for security or other concerns, it is losing its purpose as a palace of the people. It is no longer an open forum for debate. This role has now been assumed by institutions such as the Maison de la Paix, where anyone can go for an informal coffee and attend sessions without enduring complex security controls.

Twenty years ago, there was little to prevent concerned citizens or NGO representatives from wandering into the Palais. They had easy access to international conferences, which explored everything from indigenous people’s rights to the role of the private sector or the military in humanitarian response. Advocates regularly stopped by the press rooms to brief journalists, offering a diversity of sources not readily found today. A Geneva by-line meant something.

As an institution, the UN also attracted a plethora of professionals who maintained high standards and did not allow political appointees to soil the organisation’s original purpose to serve the public interest. Without doubt, certain senior UN officials, often politically placed by their governments, were – and still are – corrupt, unqualified, or totally unabashed in pushing their own personal agendas, but there remained a sense of vision. For many young people, too, working for the UN was a way of making a difference. All this began to wither from the mid-1990s onwards.

One of the reasons was that the international press was cutting back on their global coverage, primarily for budgetary reasons, but also because of competition from the fast-emerging internet. More and more media eliminated Geneva as a focal point, or only reported on major events. This meant less accountability and informed day-to-day reporting on issues that mattered.

Another problem was that neither the Swiss nor many other donors properly understood the role of trusted journalism. As some media, increasingly constrained by lack of resources, have consistently pointed out, people need to be properly informed. But as serious reporting erodes, this often means side-lining key issues like Yemen, Afghanistan or Mali. Returning to more consistent reporting would need a complete change in attitude, with governments prepared to support independent journalism in the same way that they fund education or health. Only in this manner can journalism function as a watchdog in the public interest.

The need to nurture quality reporting is even more apparent today, with governments, corporate and political lobbies and influencers suffocating freedom of expression, or blatantly lying and misinforming across social media platforms. Trump’s America, Britain’s Brexit, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are a few of many examples.

Credible reporting is not only crucial for democracy but for helping the public-at-large better grasp key issues, such as those discussed by international Geneva. Broader and more informed health reporting, for example, might have helped prevent the spread of Covid-19 by calling out the World Health Organization’s initial claim that masks weren’t necessary.

UN agencies, too, which complain about the lack of reporting, are reluctant to step up their support for credible journalism. Various media organisations have often sat down with UN communications’ teams in Geneva to explore how to remedy the situation. One possible solution, editors and journalists suggested, was more pragmatic collaboration amongst the aid agencies and NGOs themselves by pooling resources, including funding, to enable journalists to report from the field, but the agencies were reluctant to share costs.

Some agencies, including UNHCR and UNICEF, have organised reporting trips, yet all too often the focus has been on their own activities rather than the broader picture, today represented by the SDGs. Others preferred to commission their own journalists for stories that in the end were perceived as little more than PR. They did not really contribute toward informing the public. In the end, everyone was focused on themselves.

Frustratingly, too, the failure of Switzerland to buy into the need for independent journalism has caused the perception of International Geneva to suffer. While Bern and many Swiss foundations and corporations have readily funded conferences and other events, they have rarely sought to ensure that journalists had the means to cover them. How many costly workshops or discussion panels with top specialists from the world over have been held in Switzerland and yet remained totally unreported? Whatever support has been provided has mainly gone to Swiss media, which is fine for local audiences, but doesn’t reach the rest of the globe.

“Unfortunately, the donors only tend to throw a bit of funding at credible journalism. They have never understood the importance of informing people properly,” said a former coordinator of InfoSud, a Swiss media organisation which sought to encourage better reporting of “Third World” issues. While Bern has supported journalists with subsidised visits to Switzerland, what is missing is the capacity for such journalists to continue with consistent reporting on return to their home countries.

At the same time, a lot of money has been wasted on prestige projects. Following the 1999 Kosovo crisis, for example, both the Swiss and the Japanese spent 10 million Swiss francs on a new and completely unsustainable public broadcaster in Pristina. Bern completely ignored other Swiss media projects which were already working successfully with several dozen well-established independent radio stations in Albanian and Serb.

From 2007 onwards, the Swiss spent millions of taxpayer francs on a pointless “high level” initiative, the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Forum, which, as many warned, was simply not needed. It shut down three years later. During the same period, Bern provided only limited support for media initiatives which might have encouraged local and international journalists from across the globe to better cover the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), whether the problems – and solutions – for drought in the Sahel or the growing impact of climate change in the Mediterranean.

Looking back, such attitudes of not taking credible journalism seriously have all had a negative impact on the way international Geneva was – and is still – being perceived.  While “Geneva” remains relatively well-known, particularly as a humanitarian, health or refugee capital, it is only considered as a vital SDG knowledge hub in certain circles. Having recently lived in southeast Asia, I found that “international Geneva” simply does not figure significantly in places like Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila or Sydney.

The tragedy, as some note, is that over the past 20 years Geneva has never actually lost any of its importance as one of the world’s most crucial knowledge hubs, particularly as the SDG capital. It has just largely failed at effectively spreading the message worldwide.

Without doubt, Covid has made it difficult to cultivate a global image with the cancellation over the past two years of crucial conferences and workshops. Nevertheless, “International Switzerland” may now be in the process of reverting to the global hub to which it aspires.

“The very concept of the SDGs is certainly very alive and well,” as Møller notes.  One example of this is the expansion of its SDG innovation labs, launched in Geneva and now being replicated in 130 locations across the world. He adds that the interest in broader collaboration includes businesses involved in the Building Bridges conference driven by Geneva’s sustainable finance community.

So what does international Switzerland need to do to improve its perception as the world’s leading SDG and multilateral hub? An obvious one is to create a more conducive open atmosphere in Geneva itself. This includes the Palais des Nations, which, once current renovation is complete, needs to re-open itself to the public again. If not, it will simply recede into yet another one of those cut-off and increasingly meaningless institutions. While security arguments are understandable and perhaps necessary for certain high profile meetings involving heads of state, both the UN and its member states need to recall why the United Nations was created in the first place. This is where Switzerland, as a main funder and advocate, can take the lead.

For the moment, there is no real place in Geneva for people, particularly international visitors and delegates, to meet or socialise. This only reinforces silos. London, Hong Kong, Bangkok and other world hubs all have foreign correspondents’ clubs with restaurants and bars where journalists, diplomats, business people and others can mingle or discuss. The Club Suisse de la Presse in Geneva has no such facility.

What’s more, while EPFL in Lausanne remains open to students and outsiders to meet at restaurant, coffee and discussion areas, the Biotech Campus in Geneva is just as closed off as the Palais itself.  As some suggest, there should be a greater effort to engage places such as the Grutli Art Centre, and even the Ethnographic and History Museums to be developed into known public discussion and meeting areas. The airport and Geneva’s train station should also explore becoming part of this open approach. A bit more imagination could do wonders.

The key, however, lies in enabling local and international journalists across the globe to report International Geneva issues properly whether through support grants, fellowships or organised trips to key conferences. Many Swiss-based groups and individuals are already aware of such a need, but need backing not only from government donors, but also foundations, private corporations and concerned individuals.

As Gian-Andri Casutt, head of communications and member of the advisory board at ETH in Zurich, has noted, institutions, including his own, should consider setting aside part of their budgets to support more informed reporting of health, scientific and other issues, including the SDGs.  As both he and others maintain, incidents such as Covid have only underlined the importance of appropriate journalism to counter misinformation, false perceptions and even conspiracy theories which can cost lives and billions of dollars in wasted resources.

Such support does not only mean covering conferences in Switzerland, but rather reporting more consistently on directly linked issues from the field. One way of doing this would be to create an independent Global Fund for Public Interest Journalism based in Switzerland. Supported by donors ranging from governments to foundations and corporations, this could make small, medium and large-sized grants available to diverse media across the globe. One suggestion is that all organisations, including UN agencies and NGOs, but also private corporations, automatically contribute one to two per cent of their budgets to such a fund.

Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American journalist, author and documentary film producer who has covered humanitarian crises and wars worldwide for over 40 years. He is editor of Global Insights, a print and e-magazine. Girardet has written and/or edited over half a dozen books and is finalising his latest, ‘The American Club – The Hippie Trail, Peshawar Tales and Western Debacle in Kabul’. Together with other media partners, Global Insights is currently developing a new multi-media initiative, HelpSaveTheMed, to be launched later this year.

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

International GenevaUN GenevaMultilateralism