The Small Wonders of Bonn – the 25th Anniversary of Germany’s UN City

When the German Bundestag decided on June 20, 1991, to move the parliament and government back to Berlin, it was a black day for the city on the Rhine. The fear of losing jobs, shrinking tax revenues, and the plunge into insignificance was prevalent.

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

The reason for this is what can be called „the little wonders of Bonn”. In the early 1990s, everyone – including Berlin fans – agreed that Bonn should not be left alone in this difficult situation and that the city with its important role in the history of the young German democracy deserved help for a new start and a secure 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. In view of the worldwide efforts to attract such organizations, this seemed rather naive. Why should international organizations – above all the United Nations – come to modest Bonn, a city that was recently deprived of its function as a capital city? Nonetheless, they came. First, the UN Volunteers Programme moved to Bonn, shortly after the UN Climate Secretariat opened its headquarters in the city – an important breakthrough as Bonn had competed with the UN city of Geneva to host this important UN entity.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks at a town hall meeting with the UN staff in Bonn, Germany. UN Photo Mark Garten

On June 20, 1996, and prompted by the rapid and unexpected growth, the German government handed over Haus Carstanjen as an office building to the United Nations, a day 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 1951 and secretariats such as the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals 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 including Angela Merkel who was then Federal Environment Minister and especially UN Secretary-General Boutros Ghali. To this day, Bonn is seen 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 staff members have now grown to almost 1,000, and the United Nations in Bonn currently counts 24 different entities. Today there is an impressive UN Campus apart from Haus Carstanjen in the form of the former office buildings of the German Bundestag.

Sustainable development has become a clear trademark for the UN entities in Bonn reinforced by the location of the SDG Action Campaign and the UN System Staff College Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development.

The work of the UN in Bonn is substantially supported by Bonn’s environment with numerous international and national governmental and non-governmental organizations, a number of important scientific and academic institutions, and last but not least the city itself. All of these institutions strive to operate in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner – according to a senior UN official, a „cluster of excellence“ that is unique.

Finally, the fact that Bonn was capital for almost 50 years plays an important role, especially in a city of manageable dimensions. Here, following the Rhineland tradition, people are hospitable, cosmopolitan, and know how to deal with other cultures and lifestyles. That’s why the international employees feel comfortable and in good hands.

All this adds up to a development that was not to be expected in this form after 1990. These are the small miracles of Bonn.

Contribution of Harald Ganns, Ambassador ret.