The Geneva fight for human rights

23 May 06 - The inauguration of the Human Rights Council on 19 June 2006 in Geneva is the result of a long tradition of humanitarianism and mediation for which the city of Geneva is known.

From Calvin to human rights, the Geneva Spirit is founded on peace, humanitarian rights and international negotiation.

In 1536, the city already opened its protective arms to Calvin and to tens of thousands of protestant refugees, and also to Voltaire in 1755.

In his 1762 Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a citizen of Geneva, suggested that not only the causes of conflict should be considered but its effects as well. However, the true forerunner of the Geneva Spirit was Jean-Jacques de Sellon. Philanthropist and pacifist, this politician militated against slavery and the death penalty and created the Peace Society in 1830.

The horrors of the Battle of Solferino in 1859 disquieted the Swiss business man, Henry Dunant, who in 1863 founded the international aid committee to help wounded soldiers, which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC in 1876.

Dunant also initiated the first Geneva Convention in 1864 to improve the fate of injured soldiers. This convention, and the following four Geneva Conventions of 1949, are the basis of present day international humanitarian law. In 1872, Gustave Moynier, co-founder and chairman of the Committee of the Red Cross, launched the idea of an international court of justice.

In 1868, the Genevan Marie Goegg-Pouchoulin founded the first international association of women. The aim was peace and the promotion of women in their human, civil and political rights.

The city of international negotiations

This Geneva Spirit led to diplomatic-humanitarian dialogue in international negotiations.

In 1871, because of its neutrality, the city hosted the first international arbitration of modern times in the Alabama case which opposed the United States and the United Kingdom for its implication alongside the southerners in the Civil War.

The League of Nations was founded in 1919, and its headquarters were housed in the Palais Wilson on Lake Geneva’s shore. They then moved to the Palais des Nations in 1936.

When the United Nations took off for New York, in 1946, Geneva hosted the European Office of the United Nations, which later became the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) in 1966.

Since then, it has been the most active multilateral diplomatic center in the world.

Since 1919, the International Labour Office regulated labour conditions at the world level through tripartite negotiations between states, employers and workers.

In 1954, the Geneva Convention, which was the first international summit after 1945, placed an end to the war between France and Indochina and thus opened the decolonization era. Other summits followed and notably the meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985 which marked the end of the Cold War.

In 1977, the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), founded by the private banker Jean Jacques Gautier, played a central role in the Convention against Torture. Around the same period, the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) was set-up in Geneva in 1986.

In 2001, the Geneva Call, initiated by the former Genevan representative Elisabeth Reusse-Decrey, adapted the Geneva Conventions to apply to non-state actors in armed conflicts by implicating rebel groups.

The City of Peace

In 2003, the Geneva Initiative, or Geneva Accord, an alternative peace plan between Israel and Palestine was signed by civil society representatives from both sides, however it has remained a dead letter since it is not officially recognised by either state.

The Swiss government also hosted the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003. The second phase was held in Tunis in 2005. The integration of business and NGOs representatives in the decision-making process has unfolded another form of world governance.

On 7 June 2006, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development was signed by 42 countries and aims at fighting illicit trafficking in small arms.

Also in 2006, the city founded the Peace House the aim of which is political and which regroups the Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and the Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) under the same roof. This Peace House is also the site of an academic centre encompassing Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (HEID), which will be formed by the future merger of the Graduate Institue of Development Studies (IUED) and the Graduate Institute of International Studies (HEI) and which is aimed at training candidates as experts in international relations as of 2008.

Several Geneva citizens have been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, starting with Henry Dunant in 1901. Followed by the politicians Elie Ducommun and Albert Gobat in 1902 for their commitment to peace, notably with the Hague Convention for the peaceful resolution of conflicts; the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1917, 1944 and 1963; the Nansen International Office for Refugees in 1938; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1954 and 1981; the International Labour Office in 1969 and for her fight against land mines, Elisabeth Reusse-Decrey, was selected for the “1000 Peace Women Nobel prize” in 2005.

The UN city, human division

If New York is the political center of the United Nations, then Geneva is the humanitarian center. Today, the Palais des Nations hosts 8000 conferences per year and makes Geneva the first diplomatic conference center in the world. A succession of over 200 international, UN, governmental and non-governmental organizations, have planted themselves around the Place des Nations: the Conference on Trade and development (UNCTAD), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), Conference on Disarmament (CD), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), without forgetting the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Hundreds of international NGOs also have their head offices or an office in the region and enter into the round of global negotiations. In all, 35,000 international civil servants and some 2400 NGO employees work in international Geneva.

Upheld by this long humanitarian tradition, Geneva stands as the capital of human rights which are gaining ground on UN fronts along side development and security. Since 1993, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been housed in the heart of Geneva, in the Palais Wilson, the former League of Nations building.

The former Commission on Human Rights held a 6-week session at the Palais des Nations. Its successor the Human Rights Council is the result of a Swiss initiative which was backed by the Genevan federal advisor Micheline Calmy-Rey. The Council has a permanent status and is holding its first session on 19 June 2006 in Geneva.

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