From 3 to 9 August, the iconic Mont Blanc bridge in Geneva will fly the flags of "100 Years of Multilateralism in Geneva", a project by UN Geneva and partners from across the International Geneva to celebrate the Centenary of modern multilateralism, from the establishment of the League of Nations until this year’s 75th anniversary of the United Nations.
The Centenary is celebrated with a series of events, talks, exhibitions, and product launches to mark the importance of multilateral cooperation in Geneva. The flags on the Mont Blanc bridge aim to promote the project and bring the activities closer to Geneva citizens and visitors. It is supported by the Perception Change Project and the City of Geneva.
Why are we celebrating the Centenary?
With its long international tradition, Geneva was selected in 1920 as the seat of the League of Nations (1920-1946), the first global intergovernmental organization aiming to establish international peace and cooperation. Although it as unable to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War, the League left an important legacy to the United Nations that was established in 1945.
August, an important month in the evolution of Multilateralism in Geneva
On 9 August 1920, a small delegation of the League of Nations arrived in Geneva from London (where the Secretariat had been provisionally established) in search of a building that would serve as the permanent seat of the Organization. Among the different options, the building of the Hôtel National was eventually chosen. Located on the shores of Lake Geneva, it was the biggest architectural structure of its kind in Western Switzerland at that time. With 170 rooms, this old hotel, then under renovation, seemed suitable to host the Secretariat and the Council’s meetings.
Renovations of the Hôtel National (left) and the facade of the Hôtel Nations (right), UN Geneva Archives
Among the members of the League’s delegation who came to Geneva in August 1920, two personalities would play an important role in the evolution of modern multilateralism. The first is British national Sir Eric Drummond, then Secretary-General of the League (1919-1933). Drummond is considered to be the architect of the first international Secretariat. When the League was established, he insisted that officials should not represent their governments, but rather serve all the member states of the organization. The second member of the delegation that left a mark on the history of multilateralism is French national Jean Monnet, then Deputy Secretary General (1919-1923), who would become one of the founding fathers of European integration after the Second World War.
Eric Drummond (left) and Jean Monnet (right). UN Geneva Archives
The Hôtel National was bought from the Société de l’industrie des hôtels de Genève (Association of the Hotel Industry in Geneva) for the sum of 5.5 million Swiss francs. The staff of the League’s Secretariat moved into the building on November 1920, a few days after their arrival in Geneva by special train. In 1924, the Quai du Leman was renamed in honour of the “Father of the League”, former United States President Woodrow Wilson, who died on the same year. Without Wilson’s commitment and determination, the Covenant of the League of Nations would have not been adopted at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The US President also played a significant role in the establishment of the seat of the League in Geneva. It was only after the League’s transfer to the Palais des Nations in 1936 that the Hôtel National was renamed Palais Wilson.
Quai du Leman from the building of the Hôtel National, today known as Palais Wilson, UN Geneva Archives
On 1 August 1946, the Palais des Nations was officially handed over to the United Nations. The building was constructed between 1929 to 1938 to house the seat of the League. Even before its completion, the League began the process of moving into the new building. In 1936, the offices of the Secretariat were transferred to the Palais and the Council held its first meeting. The following year, the Assembly met for the first time in the Palais. In 1938, the construction was officially completed. During the Second World War, the Secretariat remained operative in Geneva. Despite the political and financial difficulties, it continued certain technical activities including those in the field of health, economic and financial cooperation, and the registration of treaties. The Assembly of the League eventually voted for the dissolution of the Organization on 18 April 1946.
Sketch of the Palais des Nations (left), UN Geneva Archives
The accord between the League of Nations and the United Nations that came into force on 1 August 1946 also arranged the transfer of certain “services”. In addition to the Library, shorthand typing, and the roneography services (for the reproduction of documents), the agreement laid out that the United Nations continue the activities of the Economic Research Service and certain components of the Communication and Transit Service.
Signing of the transfer of assets from the League to the UN. UN Geneva Archives
One of the concerns of the transfer was the rights over the properties bordering Lake Geneva bought by the League as well as over the Ariana Park. The Palais des Nations was originally supposed to be constructed on the properties of Batholoni, Moynier, and Perle du Lac (see photograph). However, following the donation of a Library to the seat of the League in 1927, the plot was suddenly not large enough for the architectural project. With the help of Swiss authorities, the Ariana Park, which was donated to the City of Geneva in 1890, was made available for the construction of the League’s new seat in exchange for plots of land acquired by the League along the shores of the Lake. The properties were not sold but were rather subject to an agreement that defined the respective rights of the City of Geneva and the League over the land that was exchanged. In 1946, the UN replaced the League in this agreement, which is known as the Ariana Convention.
Land initially intended for the construction of the Palais des Nations. UN Geneva Archives.
When the United Nations was created, the possibility of establishing the headquarters of the new organization in Geneva was taken into consideration. In order to respect Swiss neutrality, a project proposed for the technical organs of the UN to be set up in the Palais des Nations, while the Security Council and the Staff Council be headquartered in a building constructed in neighbouring France. The two buildings were to be connected by an international corridor. The project remained on the drafting stage and was never officially presented. Eventually, the Palais des Nations would become the seat of the European Office of the United Nations.
First symbol of the UN used at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 (until December 1946). UN Geneva Archives
The first diplomatic gathering held in the Palais des Nations after the dissolution of the League of Nations was the meeting of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in July 1946. After the transfer of the Palais des Nations to the UN, the activities increased rapidly. In 1947, the Palais hosted the Trade and Employment Conference for several months. In the same year, the Preparatory Commission of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) stared to work in the Palais. The Palais des Nations therefore became one of the iconic symbols of an ever-evolving International Geneva. Today, UN Geneva is the second largest United Nations office after the UN in New York.
Session of the Trade and Employment Conference at the Palais des Nations. UN Photo.