Report

U.N. Peacemaking in the Age of Plague

United Nations diplomats and civil servants fear peace efforts in Geneva may aid the spread of the coronavirus.

United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen puts on his face mask
United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen puts on his face mask during U.N.-backed talks on a new constitution for Syria at the U.N. Office in Geneva on Aug. 27. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 cases are soaring in Geneva, the site of the European headquarters of the United Nations, making Switzerland one of the harder-hit countries on the continent. But the international organization is still pressing ahead with plans to host Afghan and Syrian peace conferences later this month, fueling concerns among some U.N. staffers and diplomats that the coronavirus may spread further within the ranks of the international civil service.

In recent months, Tatiana Valovaya, the director general of the U.N. office in Geneva, has sought to keep the work of international diplomacy alive, hosting international meetings on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and running a series of cultural conferences and exhibitions.

The policies on access to the U.N.’s Palais des Nations in Geneva have been consistent with Switzerland’s laws, but they have left the organization struggling to keep the virus at bay. Since March, a total of 128 new Geneva-based U.N. staff have been infected with the coronavirus, including 46 people in the U.N. Office in Geneva and 20 in the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—including the high commissioner himself, Filippo Grandi—according to internal figures. In August, four Syrian nationals tested positive for the coronavirus when they arrived in Geneva for talks, feeding concerns that the U.N. has been too lax.

“They have been negligently permissive,” said one senior Geneva-based diplomat. Valovaya, the diplomat said, has taken a more lenient stance than other international organizations, like the World Trade Organization—and than the U.N.’s own mothership.

The organization’s Manhattan headquarters has largely stopped hosting conferences or peace talks that would require significant numbers of foreign dignitaries traveling to New York, and it even held the September General Assembly meeting virtually. U.N. officials say the restrictions have kept the virus at bay, and that there have been no infections spread at the Manhattan headquarters building (even if 138 staffers and delegates have gotten infected in New York this year). But the pandemic and those restrictions have severely restricted the U.N.’s capacity to perform its traditional role convening international conferences and peace talks, with fears of contagion keeping foreign dignitaries from visiting.

The situation underscores the difficult balancing act the U.N. must play in trying to pursue its vital peacemaking role during a pandemic, a task that is only complicated by the fact that the countries and cities where it operates, including Geneva and New York City, have varied rules and restrictions. The different approaches in New York and Geneva have both sparked blowback from certain countries—some say the Geneva headquarters have been too lenient, and others say that the U.N. in New York too restrictive.

As early as March, when the virus spread uncontrollably through New York, Russia resisted plans to take the Security Council virtual, pressing for in-person meetings. In July, Germany used its presidency of the Security Council to hold the first in-person meetings since the pandemic shut down its on-site operations, though meetings had strict limits on the number of attendees.

Before the U.N. General Assembly’s annual September session, the president of the assembly, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, urged the city and state to allow foreign leaders to attend the meeting without having to be quarantined. But U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres nixed the idea of inviting world leaders to New York, warning governments in a letter that it would be unsafe to meet in person—and the session went ahead virtually.

Bozkir is trying again, recently telling colleagues he wants New York’s two-week quarantine order for international visitors waived to allow foreign leaders to travel to New York for a meeting on the pandemic in December, according to diplomatic sources.

But that seems unlikely. Earlier this month, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations informed the U.N. and foreign delegates that a 14-day quarantine had been reduced to four days, as long as the visitor was found to test negative in two separate tests. Even that truncated quarantine is unlikely to lure world leaders to New York just to spend four days trapped in their hotel rooms.

In Geneva, things have been more relaxed—which has also drawn plenty of criticism.

As the virus abated over the summer, the Geneva headquarters began preparations to gradually reopen its doors, though not without resistance. In late May, a group of 25 member states—including India, China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—wrote a joint letter to Valovaya expressing concerns about plans to convene in-person meetings at the Palais, including the U.N. Human Rights Council session from June 15 to 23. “[I]t is our view that an in-person meeting commencing in mid-June puts our staff at potential risk especially given the transmission rate in Geneva,” the letter, which was obtained by Foreign Policy, read.

The U.N. pressed ahead with in-person meetings, allowing up to 30 percent of staff to begin returning to their offices on June 8, and organizing in-person conferences with reduced participation on human rights and disarmament the following weeks. It also secured agreement from the Swiss government to invite peace delegations from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

One senior diplomat voiced sympathy for the U.N., saying it has to balance conflicting pressure from governments that want to do more at the headquarters and others that want to do less. In the end, the diplomat said, “they follow the rules that the Swiss put in place and allow those who want to do more within the rules to do more within rules.”

Switzerland’s U.N. ambassador, Jürg Lauber, said that the United Nations and other international agencies in Geneva had most staff working from home and most meetings in virtual formats. “At the same time, great efforts have been undertaken by the permanent missions and international organizations to maintain business continuity and fulfill their respective mandates, which are as important as ever, if not more so, under the current circumstances,” Lauber said.

And U.N. officials in Geneva say the organization has been scrupulous in its efforts to ensure the safety of workers and foreign delegates. They noted that none of the infections were spread on the U.N. premises but were contracted by staff in social settings outside the headquarters, where the disease is spreading rapidly.

“The Palais is probably the safest place in Geneva,” said David Chikvaidze, Valovaya’s chief of staff, with only about 18 percent of staff on site and about 200 hand sanitizers available.

The U.N. doesn’t keep track of infections at government missions in Geneva, but the virus has led to a small new outbreak at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, which had grappled with infections in March and this summer, according to two senior diplomatic sources. At least two Western ambassadors have been infected, and the driver of the late Ugandan ambassador died of COVID-19, those officials said.

One U.N. official blamed the spike on the Swiss authorities, saying they reopened the country too quickly. “They opened up not only restaurants and bars, but discotheques, legalized prostitution, and tattoo parlors,” said one U.N. official. “We were walking around in our regimented lines in the Palais while people outside on the lake were sitting huddled in groups, drinking beer with no social distancing.”

Today, though, the city of Geneva has cracked down, imposing a wide series of restrictions in November that limit most gatherings to five people. Switzerland is on pace to become a major European COVID-19 hotspot, with a positivity rate of 28 percent as of late October, compared to just 3 percent in New York.

That’s why many question the wisdom of hosting Afghan and Syria talks. In August, four members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which includes representatives of the government and opposition groups, tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Geneva for talks. The U.N.’s special envoy, Geir Pedersen of Norway, has been keen to keep the talks on track.

The Syria talks still require approval by Swiss authorities. If they go ahead, the U.N. will impose stringent health measures that go beyond recommendations from the Swiss government and the World Health Organization, said Jenifer Fenton, the chief spokesperson for the U.N. special envoy for Syria.

“The safety and security of our staff will always be our top priority and concern,” she said in an email statement. Health protocols, she added, include testing, the mandatory wearing of masks at all times, temperature checks, and strict physical distancing. “Advancing the political process has proven to be extremely challenging, and the Special Envoy recognizes our obligation to seize on whatever small window of opportunity may present itself to achieve meaningful progress,” she added.

“I think the meeting makes no sense,” said the senior diplomat. “If there is some reasonable expectation or belief that some form of meaningful progress will take place because this meeting is being held then sure, have the meeting. But no one has suggested to me that something is going to happen.”

Alessandra Vellucci, the chief spokesperson for the U.N. in Geneva, said that there is currently a cap of five people for meetings in the Palais. And even though the Swiss government has authorized the U.N. to convene special political meetings for up to 50 individuals, she said that the Afghan talks later this month are likely to have only 30 to 40 attendees in person, with the rest participating virtually.

“It is important for us to strike a balance between these critical political activities that are at the core of U.N. Geneva, with the absolute priority of safeguarding the health and safety of the staff and delegates, which is why we take extraordinary precautions and work in constant contact and full cooperation with the Swiss authorities,” Vellucci said.

And U.N. officials moving ahead with plans for in-person peace talks can point to some concrete achievements: In September, Yemen’s government and Houthi insurgents agreed to a mass prisoner swap, and last month Geneva was the site of a truce among Libya’s warring factions.

A harder sell might be the cultural events the headquarters has held, including a Russian chess exhibition featuring the Russian grandmaster Anatoly Karpov, a Russian photographic exhibit for TASS news agency, and an exhibit of traditional Moldovan carpets and costumes, and art show.

“Amid the doom and gloom a couple of events, combined with masks and social distancing, was it so bad to do something to raise morale?” Chikvaidze said. “We planned this before the situation went south. We didn’t pull the plug, but we made sure it went off without a hitch.”

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

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