Vladimir Petrovsky a Pioneer of Geneva International – by Evelina Rioukhina

Challenging agenda: The role of Geneva in the years to come

  • by Vladimir Petrovsky

Geneva has enjoyed over eighty years on the diplomatic stage. The UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, a product of the tragic “Great War,” found its home here. The conclusion of the Treaty of Versailles led to the creation of the League in 1919. US President Woodrow Wilson, the League’s guiding figure, was among the leaders who considered Geneva eminently suitable due to Switzerland’s involvement in international relations, which dates back to the 19th century. This was the world’s first “Great Experiment” in multilateral diplomacy and collective security. The creation of the United Nations in 1945 is considered as the second Great Experiment. Both the successes and failures of the League provided the principal direction and basis for the new Organization, which also came out of the ashes of war.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) long ago put Geneva on the map as the world capital of humanitarian activity. As the custodian of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC monitors with States-Parties the humane treatment of civilians in conflict and prisoners-of-war.

Present-day Geneva is a thriving hub of action in the service of humanity. Consider the following. About 3,800 people work for the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG). Add to that number 4,200 staff members from five specialized agencies and 3,450 staff and diplomats working for 151 of the UN’s 189 Member States. UNOG is the second United Nations office after Headquarters in New York and the world’s busiest conference center. More than 600 meetings a month bring 25,000 delegates to the city. Three types of ambassadors discharge their functions in Geneva: those assigned to UNOG, those dealing with the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and those specializing in international trade.

Geneva’s “personality” is unique; the approach is hands-on, the project’s concrete and designed to have a broad impact. It serves an increasingly important operational base. In fact, US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson summed it up perfectly when he said that Geneva was where the UN did its “heavy lifting.” The UN has boosted its capacity to dispatch rapid humanitarian aid, since the numbers of victims of both conflict and natural disasters are increasing as never before. When tragedy strikes, organizations such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) act speedily to move the key players and resources where they are urgently needed. In economic development, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) represents the concerns of developing nations, and particularly, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), to extend the benefits of globalization as equitably as possible.

Geneva’s standard-setting work has improved the lot of people everywhere. Our basic assumptions about acceptable working conditions, such as paid holidays, the right to sick leave, etc., are the result of the efforts of the International Labour Organization (ILO). The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has elaborated laws of copyright and protection of intellectual property. The World Trade Organization, the entity that is expanding and liberalizing global trade, hardly needs introduction.

Human security will be the leitmotif for Geneva’s actions in the coming century, whether in disarmament, human rights or humanitarian action. Human survival itself is the driving force behind the Conference on Disarmament (CD). While New York retains the consultative bodies in disarmament matters, the nuts-and-bolts of treaty-making is the CD’s work. Away from the media’s glare, the multilateral and bilateral agreements produced have saved millions of lives and spared our environment untold damage and contamination. The CD is the international community’s single multilateral negotiating forum for disarmament agreements. All the militarily significant States are represented in this 66-member body. The CD concluded two major arms limitation treaties in the last decade: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1992 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, which banned all nuclear testing.

In 2001, Geneva will be at the epicenter of global arms-control negotiations. Specifically. It will be the year of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), since the Special Conference to adopt a verification protocol to the BWC as well as the Fifth Review Conference of State’s Parties to this Convention will take place. These efforts should culminate in the establishment of a new compliance monitoring body that will build confidence in the effectiveness of prohibiting “germ warfare.” Other negotiations in 2001 will focus on restricting the use of certain conventional weapons (CCW), or so-called inhumane weapons. The CCW review will also consider outlawing excessively injurious weapons from being deployed in war.

Geneva must now forge closer links with the new actors in international relations. Diplomacy is carried out in a number of ways: conference diplomacy, for example, by the CD; by the Director-General himself; and by his increasing initiatives to expand links with regional entities. UNOG is collaborating more closely with regional intergovernmental organizations, such as the Organization for Security in Europe (OSCE) and the Council for Europe within the context of the process of informal tripartite consultations. UNOG has also bolstered cooperation with the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation. A substantive dialogue is also developing with the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Organization of African Unity.

Since the UN is actively strengthening ties with civil society, UNOG is interacting with important sectors, such as parliamentarians, in particular the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union; academics; and the business community. Almost 2000 nongovernmental organizations have established offices here or accredited representatives to UNOG. Human rights NGOs, for example, can lobby before the human rights machinery at Geneva. One such group is the world’s indigenous people.

Geneva is also a data-gathering and knowledge center in areas such as good governance. It offers a consultation machinery for Governments, a veritable tool for development at their disposal. Three research institutes and five of the 17 specialized agencies of the UN system are located in Geneva. In future, the United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo will draw on this pool of expertise for its research projects. June 2000 saw the launching at the Palais des Nations of the first “Research and Policy Dialogue,” which was co-chaired by the Director-General and the Rector of UNU. Henceforth this will be an annual event.

Secretary General Kofi Annan has defined his vision for the Organization as holistic and people-centred, one that recognizes the nexus between human rights, development and peace. Indeed, the human rights dimension is considered as “cross-cutting,” or informing every aspect of the UN’s agenda. Mr. Annan has also stated the need to reinforce the UN’s strategies to meet the tremendous humanitarian challenge of helping civilians in crisis. Future strategies in ensuring human security will focus primarily on prevention rather than reaction.

In this “virtuous” circle of interrelated action, Geneva plays a crucial role. Whereas New York remains at the forefront of political and diplomatic efforts, and peacekeeping operations, Geneva not only complements peace and security mandates but also affords expertise in conflict prevention and resolution; relief efforts; and post-conflict peace building (which supports both political processes and economic development). In other words, Geneva completes the continuum of action to prevent war and natural disasters by rooting out the underlying causes.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized the need to move beyond the standard-setting work of the twentieth century to the universal application of human rights norms. Peace-building (actions undertaken at the end of a conflict to consolidate peace and prevent a recurrence of confrontation) is the reason for one of the Office’s most rapidly expanding areas: technical cooperation, or capacity building. This can mean promoting democracy by offering electoral assistance, strengthening national institutions by reforming the judiciary, training police or criminal justice personnel, etc. Field presence—monitoring developments and providing on-the-spot advice—is another major growth area. Since an analysis of human rights trends is now crucial in early warning activities, field offices may act as the UN’s eyes and ears to gather evidence or alert the world to dangerous trends. Today’s human rights violations should not be allowed to fester into tomorrow’s ethnic cleansing.

Related to this is the UN’s mission to protect refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). When crisis hits, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is among the first agencies on the scene. Protection can include physical and legal protection, or drafting national and international legislation. Solutions mean facilitating voluntary repatriation, asylum or resettlement in a third country. UNHCR has done much to promote international standards for humane treatment; ensure refugee rights in countries of asylum; and protect them against enforced return to danger. In 2000, UNHCR is assisting 30 million people of concern.

The UN must also deliver a strong response to today’s large-scale natural disasters. If the news bulletins seem grim, they are merely reflecting a reality: three times as many natural disasters occurred in the 1990s as during the 1960s. The Geneva-based International Strategy for Disaster Reduction must therefore fulfil its mandate: “A safer world in the 21st century.”The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is increasingly under pressure to buttress prevention strategies by gathering and disseminating early-warning data on dangerous weather patterns using satellite technology and Internet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) will continue its remarkable work in extending healthcare to all. It will surely see off polio from our list of concerns, and leprosy too. Just as it eradicated smallpox in the 1970s, WHO may well find the cure for that most indiscriminate and devastating public health phenomenon: AIDS.

Perhaps it is the boom in information technology and the spread of Internet that will most assure Geneva’s global position in the future. One of the most important stories of the twentieth century is the impact of computer and communications technology on the way we live, work and play. Individual empowerment has been one result of the IT revolution, radically altering our perceptions and expectations. Interactive communications allow us to span vast distances and to control aspects of our lives that were previously controlled by powerful institutions like governments, corporations and the news media. These changes will gather more momentum in the new century and at the heart of it all, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will both continue its pioneering work and help close the digital divide between the North and South.

Every four years at Geneva, the ITU organizes “Telecom,” the world’s largest fair for state-of-the art technology. Telecom 99 gathered together thousands of IT experts, including Bill Gates. Almost a victim of its own success, Geneva’s hotels were so overbooked that executives were making day trips from as far away as London. Telecom 2003 thus promises us a vision of the cutting edge; in fact, ITU’s presence in Geneva is so important that many IT companies are moving here. It would not be fanciful to project that a future Silicon Valley may one day stretch along Geneva’s famous Lake Shore.

I would like to conclude my tour d’horizon with the following observations. Geneva is set to meet the challenges of the next century head on. As a source of knowledge, innovators and nerve centre for promoting all aspects of human security, its impact will be far-reaching.

December 2000

Vladimir Petrovsky

  • a Pioneer of Geneva International – by Evelina Rioukhina

Old school, new mentality – global vision reflecting about the 75th anniversary of the UN, particularly in Geneva, it is essential to write about one of the outstanding figures in its history. He was a shining star in the Geneva International constellation, and actually, is the one who created it and made it shine – the late Mr Vladimir Petrovsky, Director-General of the UNOG from 1993 to 2002.

His role and contribution here in Geneva, and to Geneva as centre of dialogue and peace cannot be underestimated. Ambassador Francois Nordmann called him «un grand artisan de la Genève Internationale» (Le Temps, 10 mars 2014), and also, «un ami de la Suisse et un diplomate hors pair qui a imprégné l’histoire diplomatique du dernier quart du XXe siècle» and, «a marqué son passage au Palais des Nations (a Geneve) comme nul autre». Furthermore, he was included, along with historical figures of Geneva, in Serge Bimpage’s “Ceux qui font Genève”, a unique recognition given to no other UN person.

Two books about him have recently been published: ‘Master Diplomat’, with a foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev, and a book published by his family: ‘Vladimir Petrovsky – People and Years”. Both books give deeper insight into his personality, from early life to the later career, as seen by major players from the global arena, by important politicians and by his colleagues and friends. There are also appreciations and memoirs of him written by all political spectra and levels of people, including Kofi Annan and former UNOG Director-General Michael Moller.

It was his personal aspiration for peace, combined with extraordinary patience, perseverance, wisdom and integrity, that made him a friend to many outside his professional realm of the negotiating table. He was the consummate diplomat, but also a colleague, teacher, mentor, generous friend, and capable of great personal courage. He was known as a person of integrity, high principles and ideals, but also as someone who shunned glory and showmanship, content to let others take credit.

All the above is why so many people contributed to both books – especially because Mr Petrovsky was generally too modest to speak about himself.

High ideals of peace and the United Nations For almost half a century, beginning with his student years, Mr Petrovsky was dedicated to world peace. He became a career diplomat after graduating from MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations), and was posted to the New York Permanent Mission of the USSR to the UN. His progressive thinking brought about his first major success, in 1991, when he became the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. This was during perestroika, time when new vision and thinking was needed. The same year he also became the Executive Secretary of the OSCE Conference on the Human Dimension, the following year he was the Representative to the NATO. He headed Soviet delegations to the UN and other international and European forums: UNESCO, IAEA, UNEP, and OSCE. He also participated in the preparation of the Helsinki Final Act and the Final Document of the First Special Session on Disarmament.

In 1992 Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali appointed Mr Petrovsky Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs at the New York United Nations – a vital diplomatic and international position. He was immediately charged with chairing the task force for the preparation of the “Agenda for Peace”, one of the most significant UN programme documents. He personally contributed to it by devising the 5 Peace Principles – methods for controlling and resolving conflicts. These are:

  • Preventive diplomacy
  • Peace-making
  • Peace-keeping
  • Peace-building
  • Peaceful management.

Mr Petrovsky had a strong academic background – he was a professor with a PhD in history – and these principles are elaborated in his many publications such as: ‘The Foreign Service of the United Kingdom’; ’Diplomacy of Downing Street 10’; ‘US Foreign Policy Thinking’; ‘The Doctrine of National Security in United States Foreign Policy Strategy’; ‘Disarmament: Concepts, Problems, Mechanisms’; and Security in the Nuclear and Outer Space Era’s, ‘The Triad of Strategic Security of the Global Community’. 

Eventually he was asked to lead the UN Office in Geneva, to give the somewhat static office a new impetus and dynamic. The same year, in October 1993, he also became Secretary General of the Conference on Disarmament, and personal representative of the Secretary-General to the Conference. During his years in this position, the Conference concluded the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. Mr Petrovsky strongly favoured “constructive parallel actions” at all conferences on arms regulations and disarmament. He often stressed that disarmament whilst important, is only one of the routes to security. His overarching concept was of human security, meaning security not only from violence but also from hunger, disease and environmental degradation. During this he was also Secretary General’s Envoy to Libya (1992-1997), and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Albania (1998).

His half-century diplomatic career was either with the UN or linked to it, and witnessed the tenure of six United Nations Secretary’s General. His first assignment was in 1957-61 as a junior diplomat in the USSR Permanent Mission to the UN, during the tenure of Dag Hammarskjöld, then, during U Thant’s tenure he worked at the UN Secretariat/Political Affairs. Later, he worked closely with Kurt Waldheim and Javier Perez de Cuelliar in his USSR Foreign Ministry senior leadership positions and headed the USSR delegations during various high-level international forums. From 1992, he worked directly with the UN Secretaries-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan as UN Under-Secretary General. His last UN tenure, as UNOG Director-General and UN Under-Secretary General, ended after nine years in the position, in 2002.

UNOG and Geneva – Mr Petrovsky’s Achievements

Strengthening multilateralism.

Geneva is a great city of multilateralism, dating back 200 years to the Comte de Sellon’s Peace Society, and more recently, in 2019, celebrating the centenary of the League of Nations. However, Mr Petrovsky began a new era of multilateralism by making UNOG open to all the new actors on the world stage, and strongly encouraging close cooperation between the UN and regional organizations.

The first major step towards the “informal process of tri-partite consultations”, between the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the OSCE) and the Council of Europe, was taken on his initiative in 1993. It has since evolved into an essential communication channel, bridging differences in institutional culture to mitigate the effect of conflict on humanitarian concerns. The benefits of these informal consultations have attracted other regional and international bodies such as the EU, ICRC and IOM. The process therefore continues today as “Tripartite Plus”. Mr Petrovsky’s high-level contacts with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), League of Arab States, Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the International Organization of La Francophonie, have created vital links between UNOG and these bodies.

He also launched and cemented partnerships with the business community, which none of his predecessors had previously attempted. In 1998, he helped create the Business Humanitarian Forum, to increase mutual understanding and cooperation between business and humanitarian organizations, especially in conflict regions. In this way Mr Petrovsky made people aware of the complementarity of markets and human security.

Using his strong academic background, Mr Petrovsky also developed the relationship between research and policy. In 2000, he initiated the Research and Policy Dialogue, a conference he chaired jointly with the Rector of the United Nations University. This informal network of research and training activities goes beyond UN institutions and includes other Genevabased organizations. All the above achievements are a part of what we now call Geneva International. 

In addition, Mr Petrovsky’s great passion was art, not for its own sake, but as a way towards peace. This is why he made Geneva a venue of the Dialogue Among Civilizations. He deeply believed that art is best suited for promoting peace through dialogue. Often appreciation and respect for another culture begins with appreciation of its art, so that even if the arts are not the language of diplomacy, they pave the way for further and deeper diplomatic achievements. The diplomatic community in Geneva acknowledges its debt to Mr Petrovsky for his role in this. His work in creating the wide range of UNOG cultural activities was an integral part of efforts to further cross-cultural understanding. This is crucial in times of world uncertainty, or in the global fight against terrorism.

One notable achievement of Mr Petrovsky was his initiative to literally open the doors of the Palais des Nations to public, and he was the first Director-General to do so. In 1998, he successfully organized the first “Journee Portes Ouvertes”. Since then, the UN Open Day became a good annual tradition at UNOG. He encouraged to use this day to share the heritage of the Palais des Nations, to inform about the work of the UN, to foster dialogue with other organizations, and to strengthen ties with the Geneva community. His last “Open Day” organized jointly with the Swiss and Geneva authorities in October 2001, was the most remarkable. It took place on the eve of Switzerland accession to the UN.

This local popularity led to Mr Petrovsky being praised by the Genevan journalist Serge Bimpage for his contribution not only to the political character of Geneva’s ‘right bank’ (the city’s international sector) but also for his contributions of a personal and human nature, which «n’a rien de diplomatique. Rarement, il refuse une invitation des Genevois» (p. 187). He is considered as a ‘great Genevan’, and the opening photo in the latest book about Mr Petrovsky (which is also the main photo for this article) clearly shows this.

The vision of Mr Petrovsky is still becoming reality

I was privileged to know Mr Petrovsky for almost 40 years, admiring him, learning from him, and was honoured he shared his plans and works, but also his vision, with me. His visions were not merely ideals – he set goals and laboured to practically implement them. His only failure was in not writing more books, as his work never left enough time for it.

His other visions continue to be realized, however. For example, he wanted to see Switzerland not only as the host country for the UNOG, but among the UN Member States. As UNOG Director-General he maintained close relations with the Swiss authorities. He had frequent friendly and productive meetings with Geneva City and Canton authorities, as well as with the Federal Government.

In one of his last addresses he stressed: “Sometimes, when I talk to people outside Switzerland, it is difficult to explain why this country, the name of which is so closely associated with the history of internationalism and which is so heavily involved with the UN, is not among its members. We in the United Nations look forward to the day – hopefully sooner rather than later – when the Swiss flag will take its rightful place alongside those of the other 189 Member states” (note: there were 189 states in 2002). 

I remember him eagerly discussing the position of the Flag of Switzerland in the Alley of Flags – the alley itself being another of his ideas. I suggested keeping the first position empty until Switzerland occupied it, and Mr Petrovsky agreed, saying how deeply he hoped for this. It was just after Mr Petrovsky stepped down as UNOG DG that Switzerland voted by referendum in March 2002 in favour of joining the UN.

He also had a particular wish for the Celestial Sphere monument, signifying universal peace, to be restored. He dedicated years to this, organizing a special exhibition in 2000 to mobilize support for its restoration. Work did begin on separate parts of the sphere, but the project was not completed. On his departure, he turned the work over to me and my colleagues, and after many initial setbacks we finally have the sphere under restoration thanks to a donation, and the efforts of previous and current senior management.

As a result of my long working relationship with Mr Petrovsky I am deeply honoured to be included in the latest book about him, as well as to be consulted during the edit of the first one. These will not be the last books about him – Mr Petrovsky dreamt of publishing a book about the UN and Geneva International, and I hope this will come true.

Today, I will share the vision that he left us in 2000, his dream of Geneva as a place where peace may flourish, change is welcome and diversity embraced. More concretely, he wanted specialists and luminaries from all fields to come together and define and implement new security paradigms. This vision has been very successfully implemented, established and, over the past several years, has flourished. I am sure it will also be implemented for decades to come. 

While the recent pandemic has turned everything upside down, and slowed down Geneva International, its role is still vital, especially during times like these. Our lives may never be the same and perhaps we all are moving to online society or hybrid contact, and maybe in future we will continue to have virtual conferences as they save travel and can guarantee broader participation. However, there will always be a need for face-to-face diplomacy, especially in fraught and difficult situations. This is why I am sure that after the trauma of the pandemic, the potential and necessity of Geneva International as centre of diplomacy will be duly reassessed and will only become stronger. For that, the vision of Mr Petrovsky, perhaps slightly adjusted to the current reality, will be a foundation stone.

(The author expresses profound gratitude to the family of Mr Petrovsky – his spouse Mira Petrovsky and his daughter Elena, for the photos/materials from the private collection). • 

“Today, I will share the vision that he left us in 2000, his dream of Geneva as a place where peace may flourish, change is welcome and diversity embraced.“

International Diplomat (ID) Canada / ISSN 2563-818X (En ligne) – ISSN 2563-8181 (Imprimé)