- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

GENEVA — War and peace have often been discussed in this lakeside Swiss city, but with few lasting results and without affecting the calm and self-satisfaction of its denizens.

International conferences come and go — at the rate of 2,000 a year, bringing in an estimated 100,000 participants. Every year some 3,000 senior officials, including heads of government and their cabinet members, visit Geneva, where John Calvin began his theological reform in the 16th century.

Now known as “the city of peace,” a Geneva dateline has become synonymous to news outlets around the world with a string of conferences following one another with the regularity of a solid Swiss watch.

But peace, though high on the agenda of most international conferences held here, has either been elusive or brief. Geneva remains unperturbed and serene, rich and neutral, its wealth displayed for all to see, its security guaranteed, its armies of experts — interpreters, translators and secretaries — waiting, punctual, discreet and well-paid.

“Here, one can meet discreetly. All technical and security problems are solved immediately by the authorities,” says Jean Pierre Gonthard, whose job is to publicize Geneva’s advantages — one of the key priorities of the Swiss Confederation.

Its discretion is such that this year Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spent an entire week in Geneva incognito — and unbeknown even to the Brazilian press.

There are two different worlds in this city, neatly laid out between the Alps to the south and the forest-covered Jura mountain range to the north. Geneva is surrounded by France — except for a 3-mile-wide, 20-mile-long corridor that links the Canton of Geneva with the Canton de Vaud and the rest of the Confederation.

In spring and summer, Geneva’s famous “jet d’eau” shoots water upward 450 feet from the lake toward the sky — one of the city’s most photographed landmarks.

There are many other attractions in the city where 40 percent of the population of 180,000 are non-Swiss — either working for international organizations or providing workers for hotels and restaurants. Authorities claim Geneva’s foreign residents represent 200 nationalities.

To some, Geneva is “a ghetto of civil servants” — most of them on short-term “B class” residence permits — who have little contact with their Swiss hosts. The Geneva burghers collect high rents, provide expensive comforts, but generally stay away from everything “international.”

Swiss officials like Patrice Mugny, in charge of the city’s cultural affairs, like to call Geneva a wonderful “laboratory of diversity whose population ranges from migrant workers to officials of leading international organizations.”

Indeed, Geneva is a mixture of races and cultures, of Latin America libraries next to African bars, Indian groceries and Turkish “doner kebab” restaurants just a short walk from shop windows displaying some of the world’s most expensive watches.

Many consider Geneva a serene, cosmopolitan village — distant from the world’s problems so passionately discussed here by foreigners.

Obviously, money counts a lot in this city, where the world’s wealthy can easily obtain a residence permit with a satisfactory — and discreet — income-tax arrangement.

But back-packing students and other travelers on a tight budget are also welcome. Their favorite area is a pedestrian mall outside the railway station, where American-style fast-food restaurants are cheek-by-jowl with the popular and expensive Cafe de Paris.

You can take a newspaper from the rack at the Cafe de Paris and look at scare headlines from across the world before a waitress puts a steak on the methylated-spirits stove on your table to finish the cooking.

There is nothing else on the menu, and the restaurant prides itself on its sauce, which nobody has been able to adequately imitate.

To the outside world, Geneva is mainly a city of international conferences and powerful banks where efficiency and discretion are the watchwords. Although most of the banks are directed from German-speaking Zurich, Switzerland’s economic center, foreign investors generally prefer to conduct their business in the more international, multilingual and congenial atmosphere of French-speaking Geneva.

The banks, some along the elegant Rue du Rhone and some along the lake, are indeed temples of discretion. Customers are treated with what one investor described as “icy civility.”

If you are an Arab potentate backed by millions of dollars, you will be received in a lavish room with a view on the lake. Clients of more modest means are ushered into small rooms where, on a good day, they may be served coffee while they wait.

For years, Swiss banks were silent about the vast sums deposited in their vaults by victims of the Nazi Holocaust before their deaths. International pressure eventually forced the banks to release long lists of names to facilitate access for potential heirs — the first such gesture in the history of Swiss banking.

Opening a numbered account is no longer the simple matter of a telephone call or agreement on the mysterious “number.” The bank wants to know the potential client’s name and see his passport before accepting a deposit. The subsequent effort by the bank is minimal: The client gets no correspondence, no statements.

But the money is safe. The bank gives no information to anyone under the ironclad “banking secrecy law,” which has made Geneva and Zurich havens for fortunes amassed by dictators, arms dealers and, more recently, by Russian “beezneesmen.”

Although host to the European headquarters of the United Nations — which inherited the sprawling Palais des Nations after the demise of the League of Nations — Switzerland dragged its feet before joining the United Nations just last year.

Marc Boulgaris, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United Nations, says the delay was caused by Switzerland’s concern about losing its impartiality and neutrality.

Geneva’s first international organization was created in 1863 by Henri Dunant, a French-speaking Swiss who was shattered by the carnage he observed at the battle of Solferino between French and Austrian armies and their inability to care for the thousands of wounded.

Dunant and four other Geneva businessmen formed the International Committee of Aid to the Wounded Soldiers, transformed shortly afterward into the International Committee of the Red Cross. The cross itself was a copy of the white cross of Switzerland’s flag.

In 1864, the first international agreement was signed in Geneva by the Red Cross, spelling out the principles of humanitarian behavior on the battlefield and toward wounded survivors.

Later, four other Geneva conventions were signed, dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war and the protection of civilian populations. The clauses were not always scrupulously observed, and countries such as the former Soviet Union refused to sign them.

In 1919, Geneva became the seat of the League of Nations, where Aristide Briand of France dazzled the meetings with his oratorical talent and where Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie pleaded, eloquently but in vain, for help in the face of the Italian invasion.

In 1946, the League — long inactive — ceded its place to the United Nations.

The list of 20 international organizations that have established their headquarters in Geneva is impressive. It includes the World Health Organization, the International Labor Office, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Council of Churches — to list a few. In addition, the city is host to 170 nongovernmental organizations and 160 foreign missions.

All told, they employ 33,000 officials and their aides, causing a perpetual housing shortage. Because of the steady influx of well-paid foreigners — their number has grown by 17 percent during the past year — rents are among Europe’s highest.

[Editor’s note: Henri Dunant, mentioned above as the person who conceived of the International Red Cross, was a co-recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. A brief biography of his can be viewed on the Internet at https://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1901/dunant-bio.html. A biography of Aristide Briand, a French premier, diplomat, lawyer, journalist and co-recipient of the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize is at https://www.nobel.se/peace/laureates/1926/briand-bio.html.]

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