Geneva, a City of Diplomacy, Brims With Totems of Peace and War


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The sculpture “Rebirth” was erected in 2015 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.

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for The New York Times

GENEVA — If you walk down the sloping green lawns of the Palais des Nations, you will see 193 blocks of stone, one for each of the nation states recognized by the United Nations, arranged like the infinity symbol, with an extra loop.

Titled “Rebirth,” the sculpture was erected in 2015 for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. Given the endless talks that take place in Geneva aimed at ending the world’s wars, you might think of the infinity symbol as an emblem of the infinite patience required of peacemakers — perhaps also of the interminable bloodshed in Syria, which the latest talks have been unable to stanch.

Geneva is brimming with reminders of the city’s role in hosting talks aimed at saving humanity from itself.

On the way to the public gates of the Palais, there is a black bust of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the very symbol of nonviolence. Across the street, there is the museum of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose walls are covered with the faces of children separated from their families in wartime.

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A statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi near the Palais des Nations in Geneva is one of many reminders of the city’s diplomatic role.

Credit
for The New York Times

The Palais itself started as the headquarters of the League of Nations, established after World War I “to develop cooperation among nations and to guarantee them peace and security.” Along its back hallway sits the Celestial Sphere, an Art Deco bronze sculpture, a gift of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, its surface gilded with fish and dragons and herons, shimmering in the sun.

The refugee convention that was adopted in the Palais in 1951 was meant to protect those fleeing war and persecution. Today, however, country after country, including European ones, has flouted that law. World leaders meet here to agree on the rules of war — the Geneva Conventions of 1949 — but these tenets have been brazenly violated in Syria: The first order of business in the latest talks was to stop the combatants from using starvation as a weapon, a blatant violation of one of the core principles of international humanitarian law.

Inside the Palais, visitors can climb a set of marble stairs past an enormous tapestry woven by a Finnish artist, depicting the creation of the world. The square wood-paneled room set aside last week for representatives of the Syrian government and opposition to meet separately with the United Nations envoy has “a remarkably fine carpet donated by Iran,” according to the Palais website. (This fact is not widely discussed, as Iran is providing men and matériel to the Syrian government’s side of the war.)

Diplomacy is sometimes about knowing what not to say.

Across another of the Palais gates is the enormous sculpture known as the Broken Chair. One of its four legs has been sawed half off, yet it still stands — a memorial to the survivors of land mines.

These monuments evoke war and peace from a different era, when sovereign nations fought one another and the United Nations sought to broker deals among them.

Today’s wars are different. They are asymmetric battles, with beheadings ordered by warlords who wish to establish caliphates. In Syria, an authoritarian government backed by Russia is fighting an assortment of insurgent groups, backed by nations including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The groups sometimes fight one another, and sometimes they fight the Syrian state — which itself is aided by a nonstate Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, backed by a powerful state, Iran. All say they are also fighting the Islamic State.

The United Nations has a bleak record in solving the wars of today — Yemen, South Sudan, Darfur, all driven by insurgencies from within.

As the world’s leading city of peacemaking, Geneva is packed with transients from around the world: diplomats, spies, humanitarians, journalists. There are restaurants that cater to all tastes: Turkish grills that play Egyptian soap operas, Chinese restaurants that serve espresso, chocolatiers whose wares resemble fine gems. And downtown, between bars with names like Flirt and hookah lounges with pictures of palm trees, there are women selling their flesh in the red-light district.

Along the lake, as part of a rotating outdoor exhibition, stands an enormous stainless-steel figure of a muscular man on his knees. His eyes are closed, his mouth is wide open and he is laughing so ghoulishly that it is not entirely clear if he is the torturer or the tortured. It is the work of a Chinese artist, Yue Minjun, erected last year. Behind the steel sculpture looms the magnificent Palais Wilson, now the headquarters of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose staff chronicles, day after day, what happens in torture chambers across the world.

On a gray Monday, a few Syrian rebel commanders milled in the lobby of the hotel next door. They sat on white leather chairs, appearing ill at ease and looking out at the lake, while their civilian leaders huddled with diplomats from friendly countries. They had little to do for much of the day, and at times, when they were bored, they cranked up the radio on their cellphones, blasting in the minimalist midcentury hall what a sultry-voiced radio announcer might call smooth jazz.

Close to midnight, when the meetings were over, the commanders would walk over to the other hotel where some opposition members were staying, a smaller, less staid establishment, where the bar was lit in blue and a woman was spinning dance music. They walked around and took in the scene. There were portraits of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors on the wall. In the cafe, on a special stand, was the pièce de résistance: a sculpted hunk of hog, grown with care in Spain.



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