Celebrating UN75 amidst monumental challenges
In October, the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations will reach their peak. A fitting moment to look back on the past months and reflect on what lies ahead.
The multilateral system is being challenged – now is the decisive test
At the start of 2020, no one could have imagined that we would celebrate the UN’s 75th anniversary under such extraordinary circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us in a multitude of ways: from the immediate health and economic impact to our way of living and working. And over the past months, we have had to deal with other related challenges – such as growing global and regional tensions, the spread of misinformation or malicious cyberattacks to name but a few. To call this pandemic a ‘moment of truth’ for our international system is certainly no exaggeration.
But even before expressions like ‘social distancing’ or ‘flattening the curve’ had entered our regular vocabulary, we had seen a multilateral system under pressure. Cross-border challenges, such as the climate crisis, massive inequalities, the impact of digitization or global mistrust are not just abstract problems. UN staff members deal with them daily – professionally and personally. On top of these transnational problems comes a paradigm shift. What has been true for decades in terms of global governance, power relations or technological possibilities is fundamentally challenged. Such transformations occur maybe once in a century. And with the financial situation of international organizations continuing to deteriorate, our room for maneuver is further limited.
UN75 brings us together for a dialogue – we are departing towards a new kind of multilateralism
The UN can be proud of its achievements in the last 75 years. However, this year is not the time for joyful celebrations. It is a moment for serious reflection on where we stand and the direction we want to take for our common future. The UN75 global dialogue initiative aims at engaging everyone around the world to think about our collective future. And we have been successful so far: we organized numerous virtual conversations, including two large-scale virtual events on the future of multilateralism in Geneva.
We asked – what is the future we want to live in? What do we need to get there? And who needs to be involved? By September, over a million people had participated in UN75 by taking a public survey on the future we want. The results are telling: 87% of the participants believe in multilateralism and cooperation. Most of them also acknowledge the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead – from climate change to conflict and health.
For us, as international civil servants, an important take away should be that our work matters. It has an important impact and our efforts will become even more relevant. But we must respond more efficiently to changing needs and fast-evolving challenges.
Seventy-five years after the United Nations Organization was founded, we are faced with a stark choice: we can continue with business as usual, but this will not provide us with the means to tackle 21st century challenges or create a better and more inclusive multilateralism able to address today’s challenges and rebuild trust in international governance. I firmly believe that the latter can be achieved, and I foresee four main changes for a new multilateralism:
- More multilateral problem-solving instead of unilateral approaches. The largest challenges ahead of us are transnational in nature. COVID-19 is just another example that shows us the need for more robust mechanisms for international cooperation.
- A new form of inclusivity. International decision-making needs to include the voices of not only governments, but also of local and regional actors, civil society, the business community, academia and others who are often overlooked, such as young people and women.
- A more sustainable focus on global problem-solving. We only have one planet Earth. To preserve it, global actions must adhere to the principle of sustainability.
- Using the tools that the 21st century advancements offer. Digital solutions can help us meet cross-border challenges, from new healthcare opportunities to improved digital cooperation.
International Geneva: A city that shows the UN’s relevance and is best equipped to foster the change we need
When we look at the requirements for a new multilateralism, we see that UN Geneva is already well equipped to lead by example. Geneva hosts a plethora of strong and effective UN and other international organizations, engaged Member States, active NGOs and a large academic and private sector. Also, we have access to a vast and renowned expertise on a wide array of global issues – ranging from climate change to human rights and technology – providing an excellent basis for an all-inclusive, cross-sectoral cooperation.
Of course, the past months have been challenging for all of us. Transitioning from on-site to virtual work was no small feat. The Conference on Disarmament and the Human Rights Council were confronted with issues such as ensuring virtual interpretation and managing time differences. Seven months into this crisis, we can certainly look back with pride at the resilience, nimbleness, innovation and professionalism that staff members, delegates and their families have displayed. We are acquiring crucial experience in virtual collaboration, which we can continue using long after this crisis is over. However, the virtual way of working cannot replicate the richness of interaction in a real meeting. This is especially true in multilateral diplomacy and development cooperation, where context and fine nuances matter greatly. Still, we can use our experience to our advantage: the Palais des Nations can become a center of excellence – for hybrid conferencing, virtual events and virtual collaboration.
I cannot deny that the past months have been a challenge for me as well. This is my first year in office, and managing this crisis is a monumental task. We were and still are in a completely new and often unpredictable situation. But I have professional and devoted staff at my side – we are in constant dialogue, using every new piece of information to steer through the unknown while maintaining transparency, inclusiveness and an open mind.
Even after this time, flexible working arrangements will stay in place – for efficiency reasons for some professions and as an individual choice. But full-time teleworking, which is a burden for many and does impact our work, will not become the new normal. Also, the UN’s financial situation looks worse than one year ago. This creates real difficulties for the Organization. While we continue to advocate for timely payments of contributions to the Regular Budget of the Organization, we must be prepared for financial constraints. These are exacerbated by the current global economic outlook. Our hiring policy will be affected by this situation for some time to come, but our priority remains the timely payment of all salaries.
Working in the Palais during the confinement was also special for me: I discovered the building in a completely new way. Seeing the Palais in its remarkable beauty made me appreciate once more the historical heritage in which we work – and the necessity to protect it. We are forging ahead with the Strategic Heritage Plan to prepare the Palais des Nations for the challenges of the next 75 years. I am convinced that we need to communicate more about the important value the Palais des Nations offers. When looking to the future, I am convinced that it will remain one of the most important diplomatic hubs in the world.