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When you head to the Place the Nations, you’ ll notice the giant Broken Chair jutting out of the otherwise empty square. It’ s next to the musical fountains that’ s very popular with children and their parents during summer and right in front of the Palais des Nations.

It’ s also a popular tourist spot, alongside the Jet d’Eau, as people clamor to take photos of themselves standing under the broken left leg of the chair and with a view of Palais des Nations and the flags of the United Nation member states.

Of course, the Broken Chair is far more than a striking public art installation. Do you know why its leg is broken?

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Why is its left leg broken?

In 1996, Paul Vermeulen, cofounder of the NGO Handicap International Suisse, commissioned from critically-acclaimed Swiss artist Daniel Berset for a broken chair of over 10m to be installed in front of the UNOG.

Paul and Handicap International wanted to use this sculpture to draw attention to the violence caused by landmines and cluster bombs — explosive devices hidden under the ground and set off by human or animal movements — and to persuade world leaders to sign the Ottawa Treaty to limit the use of landmines in December 1997.

The result of this is an impressive feat of woodwork, standing at 12 meters high and constructed with 5.5 tons of Douglas fir wood by local carpentry company Louis Genève. The monument was originally under the ownership of Berset, until he transferred this to Handicap international in 2004.

This giant chair has a broken left leg, symbolically mutilated by an explosion. Its message is simple and clear: to remember the violence caused by landmines and cluster bombs. It serves as a stark reminder to visiting political figures of the countless victims of these bombs.

Sure enough, the Treaty was ratified by 40 countries and became effective as an instrument of international law to be implemented on March 1 1999. With the help of other organizations to push countries into signing the treaty, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBLM) and Jody Williams, an American activist, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines.

The Broken Chair was installed there in August 1997, and was supposed to be removed after the Ottawa Treaty was ratified. But due to the failure of many other countries to sign the Ottawa Treaty and widespread support for the sculpture and the message behind it, the Broken Chair has stayed there, ever since.  

Today, while 164 countries have ratified the Ottawa Treaty, 40 countries still have not signed. Notable non-signatory countries include the United States, China, South Korea and Russia.

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Attempts to remove the Broken Chair

Between 2005 and 2007, the Broken chair was briefly removed to renovate the Place des Nations, but by then, the sculpture acquired worldwide notoriety and effectively became a landmark in Geneva. It was difficult to justify its removal.

Many attempts by various countries to have it removed have remained unsuccessful due to its enduring legacy and for what it represents. In an article on the Broken Chair, Le Temps stated:

"You don't get rid of symbols so easily. Its return had provoked heated debate at the heart of international organizations. But wide support has made Daniel Berset's work an icon in the fight against mines and cluster bombs, as well as a place of expression of all injustices."

In 2008, Handicap International issued a statement that the landmark would also be dedicated to the support of an international treaty ban on cluster bombs, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which was signed in Oslo in December of the same year. In 2016, it advocated against the use of all explosive weapons. In 2019, Handicap International inaugurated the Broken Chair to the Unknown Civilian, the millions of unnamed civilian victims of war.

According to ICBLM, while funding for landmines has been decreasing every year, there has been an increase in landmine casualty rates dubbed as a disturbing trend by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Report in 2019. To date, 90% of landmine victims, after all, are civilians, 54% of which are children.

Place des Nations frequently sees protests concerning many different issues that activists think that the United Nations should be prioritizing. In a way, the Broken Chair serves as a symbol of action through unity and as a reminder that fighting for what’s right can be successful, only if there’s an unwavering and united commitment towards the cause and to see it happen.

In January 2020, as Donald Trump resumes the use of landmines, unity against anti-personnel landmines will now be even more important than ever in order to reverse this controversial decision.