“These windsurfers belong to Unicef, this kayak is the ilo’s and all these boats belong to UN-affiliated functionaries,” says Daniel Benazera, the burnished chairman of the UN Club de la Plage, as he shows monocle around the organisation’s multilateral swimming club on the banks of Lake Geneva. “We try and keep this place for sportif,” he says. “So, we have a raft out in the lake to swim to, boats and pedalos – those are free for members. And, to relax, there’s the solarium – that’s the spot.”
This verdant annex of the Palais des Nations is open to the UN, all its affiliated bodies, visiting delegates, every permanent diplomatic mission in town and even Cern (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics), whose staff down tools from working on the Large Hadron Collider and come to the club for a dip at lunchtime. “Ambassadors come and go,” says the club’s secretary, Janet Weiler, who oversees the members list. “It is always a pleasure to meet them. We have a party with champagne to open the season and musical concerts, too.”
It is late summer when monocle swings by and the club is full of human rights lawyers, administrative staff and UN personnel, who bask like seals on the wooden decking. “I just cycled down from the icrc [International Committee of the Red Cross] to swim and lunch,” says Victoria Thatcher, sitting on a grassy knoll with two co-workers. “It’s easy: it’s just down the hill and through the botanical gardens and then it’s like a holiday – just for one hour, of course. There are so many people in Geneva doing stressful, difficult work that the lake is important for us all.”
The security here is tight; at the entrance, a coterie of stern guards grill any unfamiliar faces for their credentials. However, the club’s simple wooden changing block, ivy-covered moorings and relaxed atmosphere are a far cry from the polished décor and white-gloved service elsewhere in the area.
UN Club de la Plage is endearingly unkempt. That’s partly by design and partly because the UN keeps the club at arm’s length; it is completely self-funded. Up the hill in her wood-panelled office at UN Office at Geneva, Caroline Lepeu, head of central support service – and a long-standing club member – insists there is no UN mandate for a beach. “The piece of land was bought by the League of Nations in 1937 and transferred to the UN in 1947,” she says. “It has never been a place for international jet-set.”
Nevertheless, the beach club plays an important role for its dedicated members. It is a key part of what makes Geneva such an effective location: diplomacy and negotiations don’t just happen in airless meeting rooms. As monocle leaves, a group of young UN workers make their way through the minutes of a meeting on the breezy terrace while retired UN functionaries relax over lunch; who would swap a hot office for that?