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Vienna´s weekly European journal

International Organisations

Vienna International


International Organisations

International organisations located in Vienna

Vienna’s impressive tradition as the seat of international organisations dates back to the years following World War II. In 1951 the United Nations established a branch of its refugee agency in what was then a still widely ravaged Vienna. It was filled with refugees and occupied by the four allied forces. Since then more than 25 international and intergovernmental organisations have moved into Vienna.

Vienna has thus become a pivotal point for international diplomacy.

UNHCR – the oldest international organisation in Vienna
UNHCR logo

In order to ease the tragic situation of millions of displaced or expelled persons in post-war Europe the international community formed UNHCR, the UN High Commission for Refugees in 1951. In that same year UNHCR set up its own representation in Vienna. This makes UNHCR the longest-standing UN body in Vienna. The main reason for choosing this location was that the UN wanted to be in a position to organise and financially assist relief for the large refugee problem resulting from the Second World War.

More than 2 million refugees since 1945

At the same time there was a growing recognition among the international community for the special geographical location of Vienna and Austria as a capital city and pivotal location, as well as its role as a place of encounter and refuge. As the UNHCR itself acknowledges, Vienna and Austria were the most important places for the initial reception of refugees and emigrants in the whole of Europe for several decades after WWII. The proud tradition of Austria as a country of asylum is reflected in UNHCR figures. Altogether more than two million refugees, according to UNHCR, have come to Austria since 1945. 700,000 of them stayed here, and many found a new home in Austria.

Only four years after the foundation of UNHCR Austria regained its liberty and joined the UN as a full member on 14 December 1955. In 2005 Austria celebrated its 50th anniversary as a member of the world body.

1957: the International Atomic Energy Agency comes to Vienna

Just two years later the international community not only recognised the contribution of Austria towards solving the desperate plight of refugees in post-war Europe but also its potential as an east-west metropolis in curbing the intensifying nuclear arms race. This was to be countered by the creation in 1957 of IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was intended to be a centre for international cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, mainly as regards peaceful uses of the latter. From the very start it set out to be an “Atoms for Peace” organisation. In summer 1957 a first preparatory committee was formed in London. In August of the same year it transferred to Vienna where it set up its offices in the Music Academy in the centre of the city. The atomic guardians studied their scores there alongside music students and ongoing orchestral musicians. The first general conference of IAEA was opened on 23 October 1957 in the adjoining Konzerthaus. Since then the IAEA has become one of the leading UN related bodies with 2,500 employees from more than 90 countries. In 2005 it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

CTBTO to detect nuclear weapons testing

Additional nuclear controllers came to Vienna. They include, in particular, the so-called Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation, CTBTO. From its Vienna headquarters it monitors whether any prohibited atomic weapons tests are carried out – or whether any other illegal nuclear explosions take place.

1965: OPEC moves to Vienna
OPEC logo

By the mid-60s Vienna’s role as host to international organisations was so well established that several large inter-governmental economic bodies such as OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, decided to move to Vienna. It was founded in September 1960 in Baghdad. Its purpose was to form an oil cartel as a balance to the international petroleum companies.

During the first five years of its existence OPEC had its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. On 1 September 1965 it transferred its main seat to Vienna. OPEC celebrated 40 years in Vienna in 2005. In 1976 OPEC set up its own OPEC Fund for International Development to assist developing countries with low-interest credits and humanitarian aid.

1967: UNIDO sets up its headquarters in Vienna

To bring economic assistance to the world’s poorest people – this is the declared aim of UNIDO, the UN International Development Organisation, which was founded on 17 November 1966. Helmi Abdel-Rahman became its first director and in the same year he decided to set up its headquarters in Vienna. Accordingly, in 1967, the entire UNIDO staff was transferred from New York to the Austrian capital. As of 1 January 2015, UNIDO has 169 member states.

1979: the VIC is built in Vienna

Vienna’s really big breakthrough as an east-west junction for international diplomacy came towards the end of the 1970s with the construction of the Vienna International Centre (VIC), popularly known in Vienna as the UNO City. This was a real turning point as well as an opening to the world. It also marked the beginning of a new trend towards architectural modernisation, particularly along the left bank of the Danube. And an opening to the world in so far as Vienna, alongside New York and Geneva, became the third permanent seat of the UN, to be followed a few years later by the addition of Nairobi in Africa as the fourth one. Guided tours in various languages inform visitors about the work of the United Nations:

Vienna International Centre on the so-called Old Danube

Vienna International Center, known popularly as UNO City in Vienna, is one of the four permanent headquarters of the United Nations in addition to New York, Geneva and Nairobi.

The building of the VIC was, in all relevant aspects, an Austrian project. It was conceived during the time in office of the long-time social-democratic federal chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1911–1990). The building complex was planned by the Austrian architect Johann Staber. Its most striking feature is the basic Y-shape form of the individual blocks. The VIC was finally handed over on 23 August 1979 to the then UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim, a native Austrian. As of 1 January 1980 the UN formally moved into their “United Nations Office at Vienna” (UNOV).

A quarter of a century ago many critics saw the building of the VIC as a waste of money. Today, however, its importance for Vienna’s international role is widely acknowledged. It stands as a symbol of Vienna’s openness to the world which has made it one of the most important centres of international diplomacy. In Vienna the many strands of world politics – especially in the crude-oil sector, nuclear control, development aid, refugee matters and anti-drug policies – all come together.

According to official figures an annual EUR 360 million of VIC spending find their way into the Viennese and Austrian economies. More than 5,000 people are employed there, approximately one-third of them Austrians. All in all, the image of Vienna as an important centre of international diplomacy has greatly benefited from these developments.

Dynamic development 1979–2006

Since the VIC was built further international organisations have moved to Vienna.

- As early as 1979 the United Nations Commission for International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) was transferred to Vienna. It is concerned with the legal aspects of international commerce.

- In 1993 the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) was relocated to Vienna. It is mainly concerned with promoting the peaceful uses of outer space.

- During the 1990s Vienna became the world centre for implementing the UN’s anti-drugs policy. The basis for this was formulated by UNDCP, the UN Drug Control Programme. In 1997 this body was entrusted with combating drug crimes. In October 2002 it was given the status of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The office also works together with the independent International Narcotics Control Board. The latter’s task is to ensure that the planting, production and use of drugs is restricted to medical and scientific ends, and to see to it that chemicals are not used for illegal drug production.

- Since 1995, the headquarters of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) are located in Vienna. The organisation emerged from the final act at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) in Helsinki in 1975.

- Since the ratification of the Danube Protection Convention in 1998 the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) has been overseeing its implementation. The commission’s main seat is in Vienna. The joint aim is to keep the Danube clean and use it as a transport artery in an environmentally friendly way.

Vienna gets the ESA office for space affairs
ESA logo

The European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), a joint venture by ESA (the European Space Agency) and Austria, was opened on Schwarzenbergplatz in the centre of Vienna in mid-September 2005.

The Institute was intended to serve as an independent think-tank for European and global space policy. Broadly speaking the institute is to be open to space researchers from around the world and to act as a contact point for opinion leaders and teachers.

EIB opens regional office in Vienna in 2006

In the first quarter of 2006 the European Investment Bank (EIB) – the EU’s private bank (based in Luxembourg), so to speak – opened a regional office in Vienna. The Vienna EIB office supports the setting up and development of projects in the new member countries under the EU’s structural and cohesion funds within the framework of the new EU programme “Jaspers” (Joint Assessment for Preparing Projects in European Regions). It also acts as a coordinating body for the financing of large-scale projects, in particular those connected with the completion of TEN (Trans-European Networks).

The EIB is owned by the member countries of the EU. It is the world’s largest public development bank.

EU Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) was established in 2007 and is based in Vienna. It is a commission of experts that monitors the protection of fundamental rights in Europe. The FRA emerged from the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia), which had also been based in Vienna. However, its tasks have been significantly extended since then. While the EUMC was only allowed to report incidents of racism and xenophobia, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which came into force together with the Lisbon Reform Treaty at the end of 2009, also extended the FRA mandate. Today, the FRA contributes significantly to ensuring the protection of fundamental rights in the European Union.

The FRA carries out reports and surveys for the EU, points out problems and suggests solutions. However, it does not handle individual complaints regarding fundamental rights violations: these fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg.