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And that idea is defined by the finest instincts of humanity. Here, in the district known appropriately as “Nations,” on the north end of Geneva, we find, among manicured green spaces, old mansions, and architecturally striking modern buildings, the offices of nearly 20 international governmental organizations, some 200 diplomatic embassies and consulates, and hundreds of NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Not to mention a few fascinating museums and a number of architecturally eye-grabbing apartment buildings.

The diplomats are of course here to advance the interests of their respective countries. But the NGOs are generally not beholden to any one nation; organizations like the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the International Labour Office, UNICEF, the Red Cross and so many others, are here to gather support for their particular causes. Broadly, these include human rights, refugees, indigenous peoples, immigration, international law, disarmament, labor, education, the environment, public health and much more. All of them together can be said to be working for nothing less than world peace and the betterment of world civilization.

UN inside
The UN in session
The Palace of Nations

How did Geneva become the world’ s peacemaker?

The Nations neighborhood is where this international community is most concentrated in Geneva. The city’ s role as the world’ s most respected hub promoting international governmental and non-governmental cooperation has steadily grown since the 1800s. Frenchman Jean-Jacques de Sellon founded the Society of Peace here in 1830. The Red Cross was born here in 1863. In 1872, the International Court of Justice was established in Geneva. The city also “hosted the first arbitration treaty of the Western world, the Alabama Claims, avoiding a war between the United States and England,” according to the city of Geneva’ s website. It goes on to say: “Three universal congresses for peace were held in the city, in 1867, 1912 and 1926. True to its international vocation, Geneva was chosen for the secretariat of the League of Nations in 1919, and the headquarters of the International Labour Organization. Following World War II, the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations Organization in 1946, and the European Office of the United Nations was established in Geneva.”

Since then, many other governmental and non-governmental organizations have been drawn here by the increasingly powerful magnet of more and more influential decision-makers – and also by Geneva’ s canny efforts to encourage organizations to locate here.

One way the city does this is through the Foundation for buildings for International Organisations. FIPOI (Fondation des Immeubles Pour les Organisations Internationales) “helps international organisations set up offices in Geneva,” according to its website. Established as a non-profit in 1964 by the Canton of Geneva and the Swiss federal government, FIPOI builds, manages and maintains administrative and conference buildings that are available to international organisations “at preferential rates.” It also helps them with financing consulting and matters related to “organization, construction and implementation of their project.”

More than 34,000 people are employed by all the international organizations in Geneva. Add to that the many diplomats and their staffs. Two organizations that help welcome them and organize housing are CAGI (Centre d’Accueil de la Genève Internationale) and The Foundation Terra et Casa. (More about these two organizations below.)

La Maison de la Paix Campus, home of the L’Institut de hautes études internationales et du développement (IHEID) among others. Photo by Bill Harby

Architecture, art, museums and parks

The Nations district’s international legacy and vibrant present are visible everywhere in its mix of old and newer public architecture, and landscaped gardens and parks. The district is bordered more or less by the farm fields and parks in Pregny-Chambésy to the north, the airport to the west, Ave. de France / Route de Ferney to the south and the Botanical Garden to the east.

This is the largest concentration of green spaces in the city, suggesting that big ideas need room to breathe. The grand lakeside Conservatory and Botanical Garden is free and open to the public again beginning June 8 after the city-wide coronavirus shutdown.

But, for institutional security reasons, some of the areas in this quilt of green are always off-limits to the public, their handsome but stalwart fences clearly spelling out their message: No Entry. One example: Ariana Park on the campus of the UN’ s Palace of Nations is normally accessible only to UN workers for a tête-à-tête or alfresco lunch. Likewise behind the locked gates of diplomatic missions, slopes of greenery sit mostly empty, serving as peaceful barriers between the street and the work within. But you can still peek through the fences and spy the lovely landscaping, even as you suspect that some security guard is probably spying back at you on a surveillance monitor.

A few of the consulates also feature some of the most eye-grabbing modern architecture in Nations. Two examples are right next to each other: The mission of South Korea is a minimalist modern glass structure. The Canadian Consulate has a low, almost post-Frank-Lloyd-Wright style. A narrow public walkway between the two offers good views of both.

The Conservatory and Botanical Garden. Photo by Bill Harby
Contrast of architectural styles. The mission of South Korea. Photo by Bill Harby

But the eponymous anchor of Nations, architecturally and historically, is the grand, sprawling United Nations Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations), which offers daily public tours. It is facing the open Place des Nations square where you can experience the musical fountains and see the poignant Broken Chair. Built between 1929 and 1938 as the headquarters of the League of Nations (precursor to the UN), this neo-classical grande dame is still impressive, but has seen better days, which is why the UN is now embarking on an enormous long-term renovation project at a cost of some CHF 836.5 million. Half of this sum is being financed by interest-free loans from Canton Geneva, which is acutely aware of the importance the UN and the many NGOs play in continuing the city’s international prestige – and the vast interwoven economic benefits.

A more beautiful and much smaller building is right next door to the UN. In 1884, the Ariana Museum was purpose-built as a museum by art collector Frédéric Dufaux. The neo-Renaissance building is home to many historic and modern ceramics and glass objets d’ art from as early as the 9th century. Its lawns are shaded by trees and enriched by sculptures and installations. Inside, with its polished spiral marble colonnades, ornate ironwork and domed ceiling, the little palace would be breathtaking even without its many beautiful displays.

Across the street is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. A visit here is both daunting and inspiring, exhibiting both the cruel inhumanity and generous humanity we are capable of.

On the northern tip of Nations, The Institute and Museum of the Swiss Abroad is in the Château de Penthes, surrounded by a beautiful park. This private museum tells the stories of Swiss citizens who have made their mark in foreign lands. You’ ll have lots of food for thought as you enjoy a gourmet lunch at their restaurant.

To dig deeper into these cultural riches, the Ville de Genève website has a page called: "Cultural Trail around the Nations Area" that even has audio tours.


Two great places to swim and relax in Geneva

The beautiful shoreline of Lake Geneva is just beyond Nations. Here, beautiful green spaces are laced by lots of paths to stroll, as well as spots to jump in for a dip. There’ s also an excellent restaurant, La Perle du Lac.

Nations also has one of the best public pool facilities in the city, Varembé, just down the street from the Place des Nations. There are indoor and outdoor pools.

And if you want to work up a good sweat before you swim, at the other end of Nations, there’ s the historic private Club International de Tennis, formed in 1937 by members of the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization.

Radical contemporary architecture

When the UN is your neighbor

Would you like to live in the Nations neighborhood? Because you can. The many polyglot people from around the globe who work in Nations live all over the compact international city of Geneva, but many of them have only a short stroll to work from their nearby apartments.

“Nations isn’t a cool hangout hood,” says Joanna Souza, who works at UNICEF. Nevertheless, it’s “wonderful if you have a family,” and also close to livelier areas like Pâquis and the lakefront, “if you want more bustle.”

Souza, who is UNICEF’s marketing lead in Geneva for global campaigns, is originally from Canada, and also holds a Polish passport. She’ll soon have Swiss citizenship, too. She and her family love the nearby parks, the Jardin Botanique and Mon Repos.” She also sometimes goes jogging in the Ariana Park. Favorite restaurants and watering holes? She talks of “years and years of Scandale and Mr. Pickwicks.”

Others who know Nations and the surrounding area recommend various other places to eat and drink, including Thai-Phuket, La Vie des Champs, Sagano and, for lunch, Saveurs & Passions.

Finding a home in Nations

How to find a place to live in Nations? A good first step for those who will be working in the diplomatic or NGO communities, or for a multinational company, is to contact CAGI (Centre d’Accueil de la Genève Internationale). The welcome center offers a number of services for newcomers besides housing help: networking, event planning, a calendar of events, and a “Cultural Kiosk” that’s a resource for tickets to cultural activities and other tourist info.

CAGI will put home-hunters in touch with the Foundation Terra & Casa, which offers apartments and long-term rentals near Nations and beyond. The foundation’ s portfolio is growing, with one residential building slated to open in 2022 in the nearby Petit-Saconnex neighborhood. Anyone looking for a place to live can contact Terre & Casa, but priority is given to employees of Geneva’ s international organizations.

So it’s clear that Geneva continues to lay out the welcome mat for governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the thousands of people employed by them, leaving an indelible imprint upon this international city that’ s still earning its reputation as a gathering place for peace.

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva - Photo by Bill Harby