On 5 October 2023, the Geneva Alliance Against Racism was launched at UNOG © UN Photo

The foundations of the Geneva Alliance Against Racism
Marie Diur, Chair of the UNOG Working Group against racism, discusses why the Geneva Alliance was established
1 Dec 2023

Racism has been officially recognized by Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Ms. Tatiana Valovaya. In 2022, she said: “Unfortunately, racial discrimination is alive and well at the United Nations”, adding “As surveys have indicated, a great number of staff have experienced various forms of racial discrimination at the workplace. This is unacceptable and is why I have committed to address the issue of racism at UN Geneva”.

Following reports that staff were experiencing racism and racial discrimination in the workplace, Ms. Valovaya made a commitment to change. After several consultations with staff, a new UN Working Group was established to facilitate that commitment, chaired by Ms. Marie Diur, who will explain more about what is finally changing.

Ms. Diur played a crucial role in the creation of the Geneva Alliance Against Racism and explains more about its raison d’être: “Following UNOG’s adoption of the Secretary-General’s Strategic Action Plan on Addressing Racism and Promoting Dignity for All in the UN Secretariat, a UN Working Group developed a series of targeted recommendations – made in consultation with staff – for the Director-General. These were endorsed in April 2023. One of these recommendations was the creation of the Geneva Alliance Against Racism, which was launched in October”.

Also appointed as the anti-racism advocate for UNOG, Ms. Diur explains: “The fight against racism is a priority for UNOG and the Director-General. The idea was for the Alliance to be led by Heads of entities to share and coordinate good practices and planned initiatives to maximize impact. We wanted to start in Geneva, with UNOG, where many organizations are based”.

The Alliance itself, the first of its type through any of the UN headquarters, has several objectives, she says: “Our main objective through the Alliance is to work together, to have common initiatives, common activities, and above all, to adopt common pledges and commit to them according to a timeline. Right now, Heads of entities are being asked to appoint focal points, which will enable technical discussions about how that can be achieved. Much of this thinking is based on the success of the Gender Alliance, which we want to mimic”.

When asked what impact the Alliance hoped to achieve, Ms. Diur said: “For matters of racism and racial discrimination, creating a quantitative method that measures impact is complex. That is something we are aware of and are currently working on. What we absolutely want to achieve is to make sure that talking about racism and discrimination within the organization is no longer taboo; people must feel empowered.” 

Ms. Diur also says she believes people within the United Nations were and may still be surprised to learn that racism is alive and well within the organization because it was not talked about openly prior to 2022 and the creation of the Alliance.

She won the Secretary-General award for Workforce Diversity earlier this year. When asked about her other achievements, Ms. Diur says in fact the real achievement is that people now feel far more empowered. “What’s most important to me is that people are now acknowledging that there is a problem and that something needs to be done. People are no longer ashamed to stand up to racism and are far less scared than they were even two years ago. Previously, to speak up would have been seen as disruptive – that is no longer the case, and that has taken courage from within the UN. This is the first time racism and racial discrimination have ever been addressed at this level”.

Racism and racial discrimination are manifested in various ways within the organization, according to Ms. Diur, ranging from obstacles to career progression to differential treatment: “In some places, there is no diversity at all. If there is no diversity, and the UN is meant to represent the world, there is a problem somewhere. However, I am proud to work for an organization in which racism has been recognized by its leader, and something is being done”.

Ms. Diur will retire in June 2024 and hopes that the fight against racism will continue. To ensure that combating racism remains a high priority for the UN and its leadership, she emphasizes the importance of continuous advocacy: “In addition to the adoption of pledges and the implementation of some of the recommendations of the Working Group, I hope that others will continue pushing and advocating for change. It is crucial not to assume that at a certain point, we are done. We are not done. We have a long journey ahead of us, and I am optimistic, but we must keep pushing”. 

* Jamie Barclay is a Freelance Writer and Communications Consultant.
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