Why Geneva is the world's peace capital


Geneva's commitment to peace goes far beyond the United Nations. Here we explore the city's history of concord.


13th December 2019

Hotel d'Angleterre

“Post tenebras, lux,” reads the Latin motto of Geneva. Translating to “after darkness, there is light,” it’s a description befitting Geneva’s role as protagonist in the evolution of contemporary Europe. This majestic canton was the birthplace of the Red Cross and the League of Nations and is today home to over 30 leading international non-profits and initiatives, including the European United Nations. We explore Geneva’s reputation as the world’s peace capital, narrating its historic peace-keeping role from Julius Caesar to the present day. Furthermore, we highlight the amazing cultural centres and international headquarters guests can visit from Hotel d’Angleterre on the scenic banks of Lac Léman.

Hotel d'Angleterre Geneva

The Classical period

Geneva has been a confluence of different cultures since its earliest days. In 58 BC, Roman general Julius Caesar was assigned the task of developing this then-small border town into a prosperous city, to establish it as a regional trading hub. Through its gates, goods from the Roman Empire’s southern boundaries began to pass towards far-flung northern provinces and beyond. By the 5th century, the city had been granted a bishopric within the Empire and was a key participant in resolving the various doctrinal conflicts that characterised early Christian theologies, such as the First Council of Orange, which ratified the right to sanctuary.

statue of Julius Caesar

The peace capital and the Reformation

Geneva once again entered the world stage towards the end of the Middle Ages, as a capital of the Reformation. Europe’s nascent Protestant movement arrived in the city with a wave of French refugees fleeing Catholic persecution in the early 16th century. Given shelter, these early Protestants preached their reformed version of Christianity to the Genevan populace. Their teachings emphasised personal and open learning as opposed to exclusively church-led religious education and guidance, and soon became popular throughout the city. Such was the mass appeal that in 1536, the entire Genevan citizenry swore allegiance to the new Lutheran faith and proclaimed Geneva an independent republic—a proclamation that gave birth to La Republique du Genève, which lasted from 1541 to 1798.

stained glass depicting Protestant leaders

The Republic’s early days of Protestantism were defined by the famous preacher and theologian John Calvin, based in the city from 1541 until his death. Widely credited with transforming the Swiss city into a liberal, modern city-state, under Calvin’s tenure, Geneva became a haven for Protestant refugees persecuted throughout Europe. In addition, Geneva adopted several welfare initiatives, including the founding of a general hospital and the creation of a centralised education system.

Geneva’s role in the great Enlightenment

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, Geneva became a stronghold of the European Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that championed the human capacity for reason and rational action. The most famous Geneva-based Enlightenment philosophers were the visionary Voltaire and the widely influential Rousseau, who was born in the city. Voltaire championed social progress and tolerance—especially in religious matters—and argued against authority by birth right. Similarly, Rousseau discussed inequality and the poisonous role of property in forging social differences. The philosophies of these two thinkers deeply transformed western psyche and helped form the revolutionary ideals of the 18th century that fought against classism and bigotry. They would widely influence the world’s modern ideals, helping Europe to shake off the rusting fetters of Feudalism.

Statue of Rousseau

The birth of the Red Cross

Geneva’s modern reputation for peace began with the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. Its Genevan co-founder, Henry Dunant, visited Italy in the direct aftermath of the bloody Battle of Solferino and was moved by the plight of soldiers dying on the battlefield without basic care. Following his experiences, he resolved to create an international set of agreements that would guarantee the humane treatment of injured and prisoners of war during international conflicts. The first Geneva Convention in 1864 ratified Dunant’s beliefs, requiring its 12 participating countries to care for wounded, both friendly and hostile.

Cavalry at Battle of Solferino

Since its founding, the Red Cross has expanded to become the largest humanitarian network in the world, earning well-deserved credibility for its peace-keeping roles in both World Wars. Over 190 national Red Cross organisations and almost 100 million affiliated volunteers now help carry out the International Committee’s worldwide aid initiatives, while the Red Cross’ mission statement has grown to provide assistance in times of peace as well as war. The organisation currently holds three Nobel Peace Prizes, the most of any organisation in the world. To this day, its international headquarters is based in Geneva.

The blossoming of the United Nations

The pre-cursor to the United Nations, the League of Nations was created in 1919 to foster international dialogue in an effort to prevent a repeat of the carnage of the Great War. While ultimately unsuccessful, the League of Nations established the belief that war is a crime against humanity and that peace should be upheld at all costs—core tenets of today’s United Nations. Geneva was chosen as the League’s international headquarters for its commitment to neutrality throughout the First World War and relative economic stability in the wake of the conflict. The League famously approved Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality in 1920, and Geneva remained the gathering place—via both the Palais Wilson and the Palace of Nations—of League conventions until the society’s dissolution in 1946.

League of Nations meeting Geneva

Adopting the League of Nations’ mission statement, the United Nations was founded in 1945, following the Second World War. While the UN’s ultimate headquarters is based in New York, Geneva remains a principal destination for its summits and annual meetings: the League of Nations’ old headquarters, The Palace of Nations, serves as the UN’s primary offices in Europe. Throughout the UN’s lifetime, Geneva has served as meeting-place for several of its most important negotiations. In particular, the ground-breaking Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was the result of the Geneva-based Committee on Disarmament. More recently, the Iran Deal interim agreement was negotiated in the Peace Capital in 2013.

Palace of Nations

The peace capital today

Geneva remains the capital for several UN specialised agencies and organisations, including the International Labour Organisation, which advocates for humane working conditions and worker rights, and the World Health Organisation, which focuses on the eradication of harmful diseases (most famously smallpox). In total, 34 international headquarters, ranging from the World Council of Churches to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, have their headquarters in the city. To top it off, nearly one per cent of the city’s annual budget is devoted to international solidarity, financing overseas infrastructure and humanitarian projects.

aerial view of Geneva

Today, Geneva is home to some 30,000 diplomats. International organisations based in the city have been recipients of Nobel Prizes on over 40 separate occasions, and the city is regularly the centre of over 8,000 annual UN-led meetings and conferences, which brings over 200,000 international delegates into the city. As we progress further into the 21st century, the city is leading the war on waste from the front, having committed to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050. Over the past 40 years, the city has reduced water consumption by over 35 per cent, electricity consumption by nearly 40 and heat consumption by 40, with 20 solar voltaic plants built since 2000. With the adoption of sustainability drives and waste management technology, we are eager to be part of the Peace Capital’s commitment.

Touring Geneva’s past

Hotel d’Angleterre, situated on the scenic Quai du Mont-Blanc and looking out over Geneva’s Jet d’Eau, is in an ideal location to visit the many peace-keeping offerings of the central city. The Edenesque Cimitière des Rois, also known as the Geneva Pantheon, is a short walk across the Rhône river. This cemetery is reserved solely for persons of extreme distinction who have devoted their lives to Geneva, and houses several of the city’s peace-seeking protagonists in its Elysian groves. John Calvin was buried in the cemetery in the 16th century—though his body had to be discreetly moved soon after initial burial to discourage the growing cult of visitors crowding his grave. In addition, Gustave Moynier, co-founder and longest serving president of the Red Cross, is buried here, alongside other notable historical figures.

nave of St. Pierre's cathedral Geneva

Nearby, the 12th century Cathedral of St. Pierre was the home and preferred preaching place of John Calvin. Its broad, skeletal vaulting urges the eyes upwards while its stained-glass windows project a kaleidoscopic colour collage on the cathedral’s washed stone walls. The Cathedral and the adjacent Reformation Wall pay homage to Geneva’s role in spreading Protestant doctrine. Also of note is the Place du Borg-de-Four, a wonderful old square in the heart of town, built up specifically to house Protestant refugees amassing in the city.

Experiencing Geneva’s present

On the other side of the Rhône, less than a 10-minute walk from Hotel d’Angleterre, lies the historic Palais Wilson. Named after America’s wartime President and key advocate for peace, Woodrow Wilson, the illustrious Mont Blanc-facing palace was originally built as a hotel. After the end of the First World War, the building was chosen as the headquarters of the League of Nations, witnessing the birth of modern international law. Even today, its offices are devoted to upholding the cause of human rights.

the historic Palais Wilson exterior

Further north is the striking Modernist masterpiece, the Palace of Nations. Designed from the ground up to be a space worthy of large-scale international collaboration, the so-called palace was, at its completion, the second largest building by volume in Europe. Whilst originally built for the League of Nations, today the Palace of Nations is the United Nations’ European headquarters. Highlights include the proud row of Member State flags in front of the main building, as well as the Celestial Sphere Woodrow Wilson memorial, a sign of Geneva’s lasting commitment to peace.

United Nations headquarters in Geneva

Abutting the Palace of Nations, the International Museum of the Red Cross charts the organisation’s incredible achievements and involvements over its near 150-year history. Right next door, the Red Cross’ headquarters is still in full operation, continuing to showcase Geneva’s role in international peacekeeping.

view from Hotel d'Angleterre

Explore Geneva’s incredible collection of world-renowned buildings and historic spaces, all dedicated to the advancement of peace and easily accessible from Red Carnation Hotels’ Hotel d’Angleterre.

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