Between lack of money and pandemic, the UN is idling

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Geneva | Postponed or virtual meetings, silent corridors: at the UN headquarters in Geneva, the Covid-19 pandemic to which was added the lack of money got the better of the usual diplomatic frenzy.

At a time when multilateralism is abused, some are calling for a rapid revival of the UN machine to prevent it from sinking into complete lethargy, in a world in the grip of one of the greatest crises in its history .

“The response to the crisis must be multilateral (…). It is therefore essential that international organizations continue their work, in compliance with sanitary rules, ”the French Ambassador to the UN, François Rivasseau, noted this week before the UN Human Rights Council. (CDH).

“The recovery is slow and we are starting to be concerned”, worried a European diplomat.

Usually crowded and very noisy, the canteen of UN officials has been, in recent weeks, like the Palais des Nations which houses it, a haven of tranquility. Yet Switzerland, which has been relatively spared from the pandemic and has never instituted containment, has eased restrictions linked to the pandemic.

In early September, of the approximately 2,900 staff of the United Nations Secretariat in Geneva, an average of only 30% came to work in the offices each day.

In mid-September, the UN asked the teleworkers to return, but with a rotation system so as not to exceed 60% present.

The CDH is one of the rare UN bodies to have maintained its meetings at the Palais des Nations thanks to the tenacity of its president, the Austrian Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, who has established a hybrid system. But only one representative per delegation is allowed to enter the room, and the UN has banned dozens of side events usually organized by NGOs and states during sessions at its headquarters.

“So it’s not as inclusive as Norway would have liked,” said Trine Heimerback, deputy representative to the Norwegian mission.

As for the other UN bodies present in Geneva, many have postponed their discussions. Too many say some.

“In terms of disarmament, annual meetings have been postponed” some countries having “pretended to want to bring people from the capital”, explained another European diplomatic source.

Others refuse to conduct negotiations and vote online for financial or technical reasons. But some diplomats fear that countries will want to take advantage of the pandemic to slow down discussions.

Overall, with the virtual, “there is an advantage, in terms of carbon footprint. But it is clear that the fact of not being able to sit down together is not ideal to try to carry out difficult political negotiations ”, raised Mme Hiemerback to AFP.

“There is a risk of governance paralysis. In some cases the health rules applied by certain international organizations seem stricter than the Swiss rules ”, added the first European diplomat.

“Multilateralism seems blocked by the countries that are against it and by the lack of a decision by the UN secretariat in Geneva,” said another diplomat.

Shortage of rooms

But the UN is also going through a serious liquidity crisis, with many countries not having paid their annual quota, which also makes it difficult to resume meetings.

Especially since “contrary to what one might imagine, virtual conferences are in fact more expensive for the UN than face-to-face meetings”, explained the director of information at the UN, Alessandra Vellucci.

According to the UN, each virtual or hybrid meeting represents additional expenses of “several thousand francs”, linked in particular to the use of online conference platforms and closed captioning.

Translation is also more expensive, as interpreters tire more quickly.

Ultimately, “budget and infrastructure restrictions have limited the conversion of existing conference rooms and only four of them can be used for remote participation in hybrid meetings,” Vellucci.

And, due to lack of sufficient liquidity, the UN in Geneva cannot host more than two virtual / hybrid meetings at a time.

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