“With your keycard, you can access every room, in any part of the compound. Offices, meeting rooms, plenary rooms, technical areas, and everything in between. There are only two rooms you cannot get access to, and both need a special analog key to get in. These rooms are not marked on any floor plan and have no name. Don’t try to enter these rooms, your keycard will be useless anyway”.
In 2012, I was just named Head Architect for the International Labor Organization renovation project in Geneva. The warning from my boss sounded like the Bluebeard fairy tale: someone was hiding bodies in a forbidden room, and no one could ever see them. But who could possibly be the Bluebeard at the United Nations and whose bodies were these? Why couldn’t I access it? One thing was for sure: I would find out one day. In this article I will tell you about one of the two rooms, and talk about the other one in a separate article.
There are about 20 different United Nation compounds in Geneva, and while I was working specifically for one of them, I will not reveal where these 2 rooms were for safety and legal reasons. I will also not tell you how exactly I got access to them, nor when, nor why. Let’s just say someone important wanted to show me what was inside. What I saw in there will haunt me for the rest of my life.
In addition to Head Architect, I was also the Head of Safety and Security for the renovation project. We had very specific requirements regarding fire safety, but also terrorist attacks and possible incursions. The door was reinforced and the whole room was nuclear proof. Humans could be wiped out of the surface of the Earth, but this room and what lies inside would remain intact.
I will always remember the noise of the key inside the lock. It is the kind of system you only see in movies, in a secret basement somewhere far away from civilization. When the door opened, I felt a mix of excitement, fear and privilege. Why would someone like me have access to that room, after all?
It was dark. When we found the light, I discovered a room filled with metallic shelves, with a ton of files and papers piled up everywhere. It appeared to be generally well organized, but many files were lying on tables and did not seem sorted out, as if someone just came in and left in a hurry. There was no hurry for us. When I finally understood what was all around me, my whole body filled with awe and froze, and time stopped. Time did not matter anymore.
Only my eyes could move. My eyes followed my friend’s arm extending into a shelf, and finding a file in the pile. “Look at this one… ah no wait”. He put the file back. He was clearly looking for the crème de la crème, the file that would impress me the most. He finally found what he was looking for in the mess, opened it, and slowly walked back towards me. “Don’t touch it, just look,” he said. I kept my hands crossed behind my back, and could not move a muscle anyways. “Look at the bottom of the page” he insisted.
Adolf Hitler. Signed by hand.
My excitement turned to awe. I was shocked and even felt guilty for a moment. Bluebeard was Hitler and his mustache. The room was filled with international treaties, from the time of the failed League of Nations till today. As I was speechless, my friend opened more files for me, from many dictators. “Look at this one!” he said. Joseph Staline. Signed by hand. “And that one! Don’t touch ok?” he continued. Benito Mussolini. Signed by hand.
Heads of state come and go, but the treaties they signed remain, and their signatures with them. The so-called “international law” is kept alive in this very room. These are thousands of agreements signed and ratified by hundreds of countries: international war conventions, maritime rules, labor laws, agricultural cooperation, health, travel, and all and every aspect of our lives.
Did you ever ask yourself where all of the international agreements were? Where the actual papers and ink ended up? Of course not. Well, that place was all around me, and I suddenly felt the weight of History on my shoulders, and it was overwhelming. Atlas always seemed so weak and unbalanced carrying the world. I felt beyond weak. I felt powerless, surrounded by so many powerful signatures.
Seeing my face turn blemish, my friend walked a few steps towards the other end of the room to look for another file. “Look, you’ll like this one.” Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France. Signed by hand. My friend did not know whether I voted for him or not, but he sure knew I would appreciate seeing a friendly name. Seeing his name and signature indeed provided me some relief, and I managed to crack a smile. That smile was the very moment I stopped worrying about politics, and started to care deeply about what really mattered to me: many dictators are still ruling on our planet today, and an excruciating number of people are still suffering from them.
Should we repeal the treaties signed by dictators?
No, we cannot repeal these treaties, because most of them still rule the world today, even if they were signed in 1933, by a dictator who killed millions of people. It is ironic, almost cynical: I cannot help but think how influential these heads of state were, still are, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Should we make the current heads of state sign the treaties again?
Even if it was technically possible to re-sign thousands of them by hundreds of countries, it would not change the past. Plus, who would be the judge of who’s respectable or not today? This would defeat the very principle of the UN: cooperation between countries at all costs, no matter who’s in power. Should we then ask all of the current governments to sign the treaties of the past again so there is no discrimination? We’ll always get a number of despicable dictators in the batch, no matter when the snapshot of signatures is taken.
Should we burn the despicable signatures?
Burning the past won’t bring back the dead. What is done is done. Dictators are heads of state, and by trying to replace or erase their signature, wouldn’t we be committing a crime ourselves, the crime of negating History?
European dictators hated the international organizations pre-1945, and often pulled out of them before they were given a chance to have an impact. But many of them still used the system to their advantage. The number of dictatorships at the UN is still very high today, and the number of signatures in the secret room keeps increasing. Treaties pile up at a pace never seen before. As despicable the name on the bottom of the page might be, if each signature seals a step towards peace and tranquility between nations, then the more signatures, the better.