Syria summit: Geneva gears up for more historic talks

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Tight security outside the Montreux-Palace hotel, which will host the 'Geneva II' Syria peace talks.Image source, AFP
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Getting ready for the VIPs: There is tight security outside the Montreux-Palace hotel, which will host the Geneva II talks

Anne Thea Geiser and her colleagues at Geneva airport are, as she puts it, in "an expecting time".

They are busy preparing for the so-called Geneva II peace talks on Syria, now just days away.

So the limousines have been polished, the secure aircraft bays are ready, the VIP lounge has been restocked. But what about the red carpet? That will be staying in storage.

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A product of its time: The art deco assembly hall at the UN in Geneva

"The red carpet is a very special protocol for us," Anne-Thea explains. "It's used only for state official visits, it's not taken out that often."

Thirty foreign ministers are expected at Geneva II, but they are not heads of state, and they are coming for the hard slog of peace negotiations, not the pomp and ceremony of a state visit.

So no red carpet for John Kerry, William Hague, or indeed anyone else at these talks.

Nevertheless Anne Thea, who has worked for the airport protocol office for over a decade, knows this particular event could be one of the most momentous.

"It kind of makes us feel that we are part of history," she says. "Many historic decisions are taken in Geneva, so yes, [right now] we feel part of history."

Peace Tradition

When it comes to peace negotiations, Geneva does have a very long tradition.

After the horrors of World War One, Geneva was chosen - narrowly beating Brussels - as the home for the new League of Nations, a body which was supposed to prevent war ever happening again.

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Much of the 'Palace of Nations' has changed little since the League of Nations first moved in.

David Rodogno, a historian at Geneva's Graduate Institute, says enormous hopes were invested in the League.

"Hopes were huge at the time," he explained, "because so many international leaders thought that the First World War would be the last war. So especially in 1919 and 1920, the early years of the League of Nations were certainly years of hope."

Of course the League of Nations did not stop war - it became instead the home of the United Nations in Europe, and peace negotiations became frequent.

For all sorts of reasons Geneva became the preferred option: neutral Switzerland was an acceptable venue for all, and on a more practical level, Geneva is an easy flight from either Moscow or Washington.

Art deco grandeur

Today the grand art deco 'Palace of Nations', built to house the League, remains largely unchanged.

When it was opened it was the second largest in Europe after Versailles. Imposing marble corridors lead, through doors still bearing the 'L' and 'N' initials of the League, into beautifully designed rooms, each donated by a member state.

Michael Moller, the current Director General of the UN in Geneva, has his office in the Dutch room, dating from 1935, panelled in rosewood. He describes it as "a wonderful place to work" - an atmosphere he needs at the moment, as he prepares for the peace talks.

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When the Palace opened it was the second largest in Europe after Versailles

A particular headache: supervising the opening day, which will take place not in Geneva itself, but just along the lake in Montreux.

"We've declared Montreux a suburb of the UN for the duration," he says wryly. "The reason is there is a huge conference of Swiss watchmakers in Geneva, which of course takes precedence in Switzerland, that being their bread and butter."

So the whole machinery of a major UN summit will be moved to Montreux for one day, including a massive security operation by the Swiss police and the army. The airspace over Montreux will be closed, and roads will be blocked.

One day later, the whole thing will move back to the UN in Geneva, where the Syrian government and the opposition fighting it will meet face-to-face for the first time.

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Geneva was where Iran and world powers agreed its recent nuclear deal

Mr Moller hopes the surroundings, with their long tradition of peace building, will encourage the negotiations.

"These walls live and breath history. You feel it when you walk down the corridors here," he says.

"I don't think there has been a major upheaval in the last century that hasn't ended up here. The Balkans, or the Middle East, Cyprus, South East Asia."

Informal diplomacy

Of course, negotiators need more than just meeting rooms, and it is a rare diplomat who has not stayed at Geneva's Hotel Intercontinental at one point or another.

"Kissinger Gromyko, Reagan Gorbachev… the last one was of course the Iran nuclear talks," says hotel manager Jurgen Baumhoff.

"If walls could talk, these would have a great deal to say."

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US President Ronald Reagan chats to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a two-day summit in Geneva in 1985

On the hotel's secure 18th floor, Mr Baumhoff provides what he hopes is the perfect environment for the informal, but often crucial, diplomacy which can take place outside the official negotiating rooms.

"You have two sides to it," he says, of the floor: "the west wing, and the east wing.

"You can create privacy any time you want it - these are solid doors."

Or you can open up those doors, and meet in the middle, in a lounge with an open fire and views over Lake Geneva to Mont Blanc.

So are the Syrian government and the opposition likely to meet in the middle? "Nothing is impossible, that's our motto," says Mr Baumhoff.

So, for almost a century, Geneva has been the world's city of choice for difficulty diplomacy, and, Michael Moller hopes, a place where there is at least the possibility of an end to the bloody conflict in Syria.

"Everybody's crossing their fingers that it will happen, I think it is very important that it does. If it doesn't, it doesn't bode too well for what's going to happen to our poor friends in Syria."

Image source, AP
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Generations of leaders have held talks at the Palace of Nations, including (left to right) Russian Premier Nikolai Bulganin, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, French Premier Edgar Faure and British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden at the 'Big Four' Geneva Summit in 1955.