Coronavirus, cash crunch leave United Nations limping

Agnès Pedrero, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 18 2020 11:51 AM

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan addresses the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 27, 2019. Dave Sanders/The New York Times

GENEVA, Switzerland - Meetings postponed and marble-clad hallways echoing empty: The coronavirus pandemic and a liquidity crunch have all but silenced the usual frenzied diplomatic wrangling at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

As the world grapples with multiple towering crises linked to COVID-19, fears abound that the world body is sinking into lethargia and that the already suffering multilateral system risks buckling.

"The response to the crisis must be multilateral," French Ambassador Francois Rivasseau told the UN Human Rights Council this week, stressing that it was "essential that the international organisations resume their work."

"The resumption of activities is slow and we are beginning to worry," agreed a European diplomat who asked not to be identified.

Usually bustling with delegates and UN staffers from across the world, the UN cafeteria has for weeks been eerily quiet, with a handful of masked people carrying trays of pre-portioned food past a former salad bar draped in plastic.

The dramatic slowdown at the UN's Palais des Nations headquarters has come even as host country Switzerland has remained relatively unscathed by the pandemic, dodging the strict confinement measures seen in neighbouring countries. 

The UN, which usually houses thousands of staff, delegates, activists, journalists and others on any given day, decided back in March to halt all in-person events and shut its doors to all but a few dozen essential workers.

By early September, only around 30 percent of the UN Geneva Secretariat's some 2,900 staff members had returned to their offices.

The UN has since asked remote workers to come back, but on a rotational basis so as not to pass 60 percent of the pre-pandemic occupancy. 

'NOT IDEAL'

The Human Rights Council is one of the only UN bodies that has maintained physical meetings at the Palais, largely due to the tenacity of council president Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger of Austria, who quickly pushed through a hybrid system.

But only one representative per country delegation is allowed into the meeting hall, and the UN has barred countries and non-governmental organisations from holding their usual slew of side events on its premises during the council sessions.

Trine Heimerback, Norway's deputy permanent representative in Geneva, hailed the UN for doing its best in difficult circumstances, but voiced concern over the reduced access for civil society actors.

"It is not as inclusive as Norway at least would have liked," she told AFP.

As for other UN bodies, many have postponed or cancelled their planned assemblies and meetings. Too many, some say.

"When it comes to disarmament, the annual meetings have been postponed," another European diplomatic source said, blaming some countries who had insisted people from their capitals needed to travel in to participate.

Other countries have balked at the idea of negotiating and voting through decisions online, pointing to financial and technical challenges.

"Obviously, when it comes to inter-state negotiations, it is not ideal to have these online," Heimerback said.

"We are in a business where personal contact is needed to build trust and finding solutions relies on... people spending time together. And we are blocked from doing so now," she said.

Some diplomats meanwhile complain that the anti-virus measures at the UN are too strict, and suggest that certain countries are using them as an excuse to put uncomfortable discussions on ice.

"There is a risk of paralysis in the decision-making process," the first European diplomat warned. 

"Multilateralism appears blocked," another diplomat said, blaming countries generally opposed to multilateral dealings, as well as a lack of clear UN decisions on how to move forward.

ROOM SHORTAGE
 
Even before the pandemic hit, the UN was struggling to keep up the expected high pace of international meetings amid a drawn-out liquidity crisis brought on by numerous countries failing to pay their dues on time.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated those financial woes.

"Contrary to what one might imagine, virtual conferences are actually more expensive for the UN than in-person meetings," Alessandra Vellucci, head of the UN information service in Geneva, told AFP. 

Travel restrictions and the UN's strict distancing measures have pushed most meetings online, but every virtual or hybrid meeting requires the UN to dish out "several thousand" additional dollars, she said.

This is in part due to technical costs as well as the additional staff needed to operate the platform and audio-visual infrastructure.

There is also an additional cost for translation into the required six UN languages, since interpreters tire quicker due to poorer audio quality online, so more of them are needed.

"Making these types of meetings accessible through adding sign language and closed captioning requires even more staff support," Vellucci said.

"None of these costs have been included in the approved budget for 2020."

Due to infrastructure challenges, the UN has only been able to equip four conference rooms to accommodate hybrid meetings, and budgetary constraints mean it is unable to host more than two such meetings at a time.

"Even though activities have been planned, budgeted, and approved for 2020," Vellucci said, "the shortage of funding and staffing means they cannot be fully implemented in this more complex and expensive format."

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