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The small miracles of Bonn

by Harald Ganns, Ambassador (ret.)

The opening of Haus Carstanjen on June 20, 1996, laid the foundation for the German UN City of Bonn.

June 20, 1991: by the narrowest of margins, the German Bundestag decides to move parliament and government to Berlin, Germany’s old and new capital. A dark day for the city on the Rhine: loss of many jobs, dwindling tax revenues, plunge into insignificance, doomsday mood.

Today, three decades later, we know that none of this has happened. On the contrary, the city has grown, it offers more jobs than ever, the office vacancy rate is minimal, the construction and rental markets are booming, and, and, and....

The reason for this is what you may call "the small miracles of Bonn". Starting with the fact that everyone - including Berlin fans – agreed that Bonn would not be left alone in this difficult situation. It was clear that this city, with its important role in the history of the young German democracy, deserved energetic help for a fresh start and a safeguarded future.

The first step in this direction was the passing of the Berlin-Bonn Act on April 26, 1994, listing priorities for Bonn's future development, including the goal of making the city on the Rhine the home of international organizations.

A naïve, a pie-in-the-sky premise? In view of the worldwide efforts to locate international organizations - why should such organizations, especially the United Nations, of all places, come to Bonn, a small city that had been deprived of its function as a capital city? Yes, they did come. First, the UN Volunteers programme, shortly afterwards, the UN Climate Secretariat - against strong competition from, amongst others, the overwhelming UN city of Geneva – what an important breakthrough!

Prompted by the rapid and unexpected growth, the German government handed over Haus Carstanjen to the United Nations as an office building on June 20, 1996, a day that is now celebrated as the birth of Bonn as a UN city. Historians may point out that there had already been smaller UN field offices in Bonn since the year 1951 and, as an entity for the protection of wild animals, UNEP/CMS since 1984. Nevertheless, this beautiful summer day in 1996 has its special significance due to the solemn ceremony in the presence of three federal ministers and especially UN Secretary-General Boutros Ghali. Since then Bonn has been regarded - and appreciated - worldwide as a genuine UN city.

Bonn's development into an important UN location is without doubt an impressive success story! A few dozen employees have now grown to almost 1000 staff in twenty-five different secretariats. As a result of this rapid development, there is now an impressive UN Campus next to Haus Carstanjen with the former office buildings of the German Bundestag.

The UN organizations in Bonn have created a clear hallmark for themselves: Sustainable Development. In the overall UN context, Bonn clearly stands for this theme, illustrated also by the headquarters of the United Nations Action Campaign for the Sustainable Development Goals and the Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development of the United Nations System Staff College.

The UN's work in Bonn is substantially accompanied and supported by an environment here that is also committed to the centennial task of sustainability: numerous international and national governmental and non-governmental organizations, a number of important scientific institutions, and not least the City of Bonn itself and the surrounding districts, all of which strive to operate in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner - a "cluster of excellence", as a senior UN official has recently put it, that does not exist in this form in any other place.

After all, almost 50 years of experience as a capital city plays an important role here, especially in a city of manageable dimensions. In the Rhineland tradition, people are hospitable and cosmopolitan. They know how to deal with other cultures and lifestyles. And that is why the international employees feel comfortable and in good hands.

All this adds up to a development that, back in 1990 and the following years, was not to be expected in this manner at all. These are the small miracles of Bonn.