U.N. Agencies Struggle to Carry On Remotely

Human Rights Council minutes show meetings are being dramatically cut back.


The coronavirus pandemic has seen a mass migration of office workers and students to Zoom, Google Classroom, and other online apps to work and study. But at the United Nations, the shift to virtual meetings has been a long slog.

The U.N. Security Council lost more than a week tackling a host of technical difficulties and political disputes—Russia initially insisted all council decisions be taken at U.N. headquarters—before it settled on a strategy for approving U.N. mandates.

The U.N. Human Rights Council—which shuttered its operations indefinitely on March 12—is still struggling to conduct its business, according to the minutes of an internal meeting by the U.N. Human Rights Council bureau, which includes representatives of key regional groups and a senior official with the U.N. Office at Geneva (UNOG), which manages operations in the United Nations’ Swiss headquarters.

“UNOG stressed that conducting meetings via an online platform would be labour intensive and require a significant amount of human resources, thus under the current circumstances UNOG would only be able to service one meeting per day,” according to the minutes of the April 1 meeting, which were obtained by Foreign Policy and which will serve as this week’s Document of the Week.

The director of UNOG’s Division for Conference Management informed the member states that the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters, the Palais des Nations, would remain “open only to a limited number of essential staff and would not likely open for regular business within the next weeks,” according to the document.

IT technicians at the U.N. are testing various online options to determine whether they can securely encrypt sensitive diplomatic discussions and guard against hacks and other threats to U.N. cybersecurity.

The U.N. is also striving to facilitate formal meetings of the rights council, complete with live, virtual interpretation of discussion in the six official languages—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Informal meetings, without simultaneous interpretation, will not come online before the end of next week.

For the time being, the rights council bureau—which is led by Austria’s UNOG ambassador, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, and includes four envoys representing Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe—is meeting online.

In their April 1 session, the bureau members examined a variety of options to address the human rights implications of the pandemic. They agreed to hold online meetings of the bureau every two weeks. They also have tentative plans to hold an online meeting with the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, on April 9. Meetings with other key players, including the U.N. special rapporteurs, will be arranged as soon as the technology allows.

“While acknowledging the many unknowns related to the duration of the COVID-19 crisis and the developing situation in all regions of the world, the Bureau also discussed various options, along with their challenges and implications, for resuming the 43rd session and continuing the Council’s programme of work for the year,” according to the document.

But much of the council’s work will have to wait. On March 27, the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which monitors human rights abuses in the war-wracked Middle Eastern nation, informed the bureau that it would not be able to meet its deadline for delivering a final report on the crisis during the fall. The bureau responded that only the Human Rights Council had the authority to decide whether a deadline extension was possible. But that would have to wait until the council was able to meet. “[S]uch a decision could not be envisaged under the current circumstances,” the bureau concluded.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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