Global Diplomacy Grinds to a Halt on Infection Fears

One by one, the U.N., WTO, and other major international players are canceling regular gatherings.

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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference on the coronavirus in Geneva on Jan. 30. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus has all but halted the world of international diplomacy, derailing major summits and leaving diplomats stranded as governments temporarily ban international travel.

The coronavirus has all but halted the world of international diplomacy, derailing major summits and leaving diplomats stranded as governments temporarily ban international travel.

The World Trade Organization on Thursday joined a raft of United Nations agencies, financial institutions, and international organizations that have been forced by the virus’s spread to cancel, suspend, or postpone conferences on everything including human rights, the Law of the Sea, and antimicrobial resistance.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres sought to assure anxious staff that he was doing everything possible to protect them, telling them “your health and well-being remain my greatest concern.”

“Our world is facing an unprecedented threat, and the United Nations is facing one of the biggest challenges in our history,” Guterres wrote Thursday in a letter to staff, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. “The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is having a major impact on us and our work, both at headquarters and in many of our field offices and duty stations.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Guterres said he has instituted a policy that would allow staff to telecommute three days a week, five for high-risk employees, to reduce the population density at U.N. headquarters. He also said he canceled all side events at U.N. headquarters from March 16 to the end of April and has urged member states to do the same.

“These are difficult times for everyone,” he said. “My message remains: be safe, be smart, be kind.”

The trade agency announced Thursday that it would suspend all of its meetings until March 20, following confirmation that one of its staff members tested positive for coronavirus. It is also expected to postpone a June 8-to-11 meeting of health ministers in Kazakhstan, according to a senior diplomatic source.

The WTO staffer, who has not been identified, had been in contact with a group of some 30 ambassadors at a conference on plastics, hosted by the Chinese government and the Graduate Institute Geneva on Feb. 19, according to a senior diplomat. At the time, the staffer was showing no symptoms of the disease.

The revelation comes as the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. General Assembly, the world’s parliament, have announced plans to reduce the number of diplomats they bring to meetings and refrain from inviting visitors into the U.N. headquarters building. The U.N.’s International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, scheduled for April 24, has been canceled.

It’s hard for the machinations of international diplomacy to act on big decisions without these summits, noted Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “The summits are forcing mechanisms for action, and in a crisis they take on an added importance. If you don’t have that, you’re more likely to just have more inertia,” he said.

“It is our firm belief that we should not panic,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun, who is serving as this month’s president of the Security Council, told reporters on Wednesday. But he said, “we should take all precaution[ary] measures to prevent the spreading of the coronavirus in this building.”

Among the steps, he said, the council would likely reduce the number of diplomats permitted to participate in council debates. Meetings in the cramped Security Council consultations room would move to the larger formal chamber, “making sure that we have more space and less people.”

But he insisted that the council, which has the primary responsibility for managing international peace and security, “will continue to work and to work as hard as it was in previous days.”

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The U.N. General Assembly president, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, on Wednesday announced a set of steps to stem the spread in the assembly chamber, urging U.N. members to cancel side meetings at the U.N., refrain from inviting visitors into the U.N. building or asking “non-New York area residents to serve as panelists, speakers and participants at meetings,” according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy. The letter, a portion of which was previously reported by Reuters, also urged delegations to scale down the number of people at gatherings on U.N. premises, limit participation at U.N. meetings to two New York-based delegates, and postponing or scaling down national day celebrations.

It remains unclear what impact the coronavirus will have on the U.N.’s vital, and far-flung, humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. “The [U.N.] agencies are assessing how and where humanitarian operations are being disrupted to try to identify solutions as quickly as possible,” Stéphane Dujarric, the chief spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, recently told reporters. “To date—and, again, I’d have to stress, to date—the U.N. and all of our humanitarian partners are maintaining humanitarian operations while taking the utmost precautions to ensure staff safety.”

France’s former ambassador to the United States and the U.N. Gérard Araud said it is too early to determine what impact this will have. “We are all wondering whether this is a blip or not a blip,” he said.

The experience of countries such as South Korea or Taiwan, which have seen the virus spread abate, suggests that the rest of the world is headed for “a short and violent storm” that will see a return to normal in a couple of months. “This is not the black plague; it is something that can be contained,” Araud said.

The practical impact may be mitigated by the fact that even without the virus, some multilateral institutions are already paralyzed, in part over by big-power rivalries and U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.

Even before the coronavirus struck, the U.N. Security Council was unable to muster sufficient international agreement to resolve nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran or to tackle conflicts from Libya to Syria and Yemen. The World Trade Organization, Araud noted, is “more or less paralyzed for the last 10 years, and the Trump administration has opposed the appointment of judges to its disputes resolution panel.”

The Trump administration’s response to the virus appears to be increasingly inward-looking, taking drastic measures to combat the virus without consulting its global allies, despite the chorus of warnings from public health officials that such a virus knows no boundaries. “The bigger picture is that there’s no desire by the U.S. to actually lead on this,” Wright said. He said in a traditional U.S. response would include a flurry of presidential calls with key foreign dignitaries, joint statements, or other major diplomatic lifts to coordinate a global response. “You’re just not seeing that here. … It’s the dog that isn’t barking.”

The Trump administration’s funding supplements to fight the virus don’t include a request for increased funding to the World Health Organization or other multilateral bodies fighting the spread of the pandemic. Last month, before the virus swept through Europe and came in full force to the United States, the administration proposed in its annual budget steep cuts to global health programs, including halving U.S. funding to the WHO.

On Wednesday evening, Trump announced a ban on travel to Europe—except the United Kingdom and Ireland—shocking senior EU leaders who said they “disapproved” of the decision as they weren’t consulted in advance. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back on that statement, tweeting that the administration has “been in frequent contact with our Allies, and will continue to engage with them.” He didn’t outright deny that the United States hadn’t consulted with Europeans in advance.

Araud said the crisis provides the world, and diplomats, with an experiment that may ultimately speed the transition from physical diplomatic meetings to video conferencing. “This could actually accelerate the fact that sooner or later the technology will allow people to meet in the virtual world,” he said.

Earlier this month, the heads of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, and the World Bank, David Malpass, announced they would jointly host their annual spring meetings, which typically draw the world’s most influential finance ministers to Washington, by virtual linkup. “Like everyone else around the world, we have been deeply concerned by the evolving situation of the Coronavirus and the human tragedy surrounding it,” they wrote in a joint March 3 statement. “Our goal is to serve our membership effectively while ensuring the health and safety of Spring Meetings participants and staff.

Among the other diplomat gatherings scrapped or postponed this month: The 179-member Inter-Parliamentary Union canceled its annual Geneva assembly in April—though it still has plans to convene in Kigali, Rwanda, in October. The International Telecommunication Union, the International Labor Organization, and the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development have postponed a meeting scheduled in the coming weeks. An Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit set to take place in Las Vegas was postponed, a major annual U.N. conference on women’s issues was curtailed, and Chinese President Xi Jinping delayed a highly anticipated trip to Japan—one that Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called a “once-in-a-decade event.” In Washington, the State Department has temporarily barred travel for most of its diplomats, several officials tell Foreign Policy.

Singapore’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Umej Bhatia, said that the diplomatic freeze could “throw into sharp relief” which international agencies are most vital in confronting a global scourge like the coronavirus.

“The challenge of a global pandemic demands do-or-die action and do-or-die diplomacy, not more formalistic, set-piece grand assemblies that deliberate more than they decide,” he told Foreign Policy. “This will sort out what’s really required instead of the rituals of diplomacy and might ironically help revitalize international organizations. WHO, in particular, plays a vital role at this time as an operational agency but also for setting norms.”

The rapid spread of the virus has dealt something of a blow to Geneva, the host of World Health Organization. “The city and the wider federation appear woefully underprepared to deal with the pathogen and its spread,” said one Geneva-based ambassador.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it intends to indefinitely suspend its annual session, citing concerns about the spread of the virus. The decision came weeks after the council banned side meetings and implemented a plan to ensure “‘social distancing’ between participants” at council meetings. But the plan proved difficult to enforce, and U.N. member states and the Swiss government raised concerns about the safety.

“We had taken new measures almost every day to create a safe environment for the continuation of the Human Rights Council,” the council’s Austrian president, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, said in a statement announcing the suspension. “But yesterday, when WHO declared this is a pandemic which stretched to well over 100 countries and when we also had recommendations by the Swiss authorities, by UNOG and actually a lot of worries from various delegations we said the responsible thing now is to suspend the session in an orderly way, as we say.”

Human rights advocates voiced sympathy with the U.N.’s measures, but they expressed some concern that some member states may seek to use the crisis to maintain restrictions on the advocates’ access to the council after the virus is contained.

China, Russia and other countries skeptical about human rights have persistently sought to reduce the U.N.’s capacity to scrutinize rights abuses and to restrict access to U.N. meetings by independent rights advocates, said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.

“The coronavirus should not become another excuse to further reduce the capacity of U.N. rights personnel to do their extremely important work,” Charbonneau told Foreign Policy.

But it appeared unlikely to upset the United States, which withdrew from the council in June 2018, citing its disproportionate focus on alleged human rights violations by Israel. The council was due to consider Israel’s rights record in the coming days.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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