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Home » Home, UN NEWS » UN In Post-Pandemic Era

UN In Post-Pandemic Era

Author John J. Metzler, columnist, UN correspondent and academic (Photo private archive - for education only)

Samir Sanbar with former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Photo archive for education only).

US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (Photo by Erol Avdovic through UN TV, General Assambly 22 September 2020).

UN Post Scriptum in new Ecco-system 2020 (Photo by Erol Avdovic, Webpublicapress)

United Nations, spring 2020, under the grim sky (Photo by Erol Avdovic - WebPublicaPress)

World Health Organization - WHO (UN logo)

Antonio Guterres wearing anti-coved mask at the 75th UN General Assembly  opening 21 September 2020 (UN Webcast TV image by Erol Avdovic for education only)

Antonio Guterres wearing anti-coved mask at the 75th UN General Assembly opening 21 September 2020 (UN Webcast TV image by Erol Avdovic for education only)

By Erol Avdovic – UNITED NATIONS (WEBPUBLICAPRESS) – When UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his annual statement on the 75th General Assembly session warned against “vaccinationalism”, he hit the very heart of the problem. In the era of “apps” (a software programs that we use online or on our mobile devices, even we are not fully aware of them) he even invented that slogan – a reminiscent of political rhetoric from the past, though all future-oriented.

His address, as well as the talk of absolutely all heads of states and governments at this year’s main United Nations global gathering, was marked by a coronavirus pandemic. Despite the fact that no one explicitly asked how and whether, or in what form the UN will survive in the post-pandemic era – everything they said actually refers to that question of all questions. Their discussion was only seemingly – business as usual, but far from it: Those who understand this world are justifiably concerned.

 

How long will the agony last? 

 

Thalif Deen IPS UN's Bureau Chief (Author's courtesy photo)

Thalif Deen IPS UN’s Bureau Chief (Author’s courtesy photo)

“With the UN locked down for over six months now and the physical absence of world leaders from the General Assembly sessions this year — the political glamour was gone,” said Thalif Deen, senior editor and director of Inter Press Service (IPS) at the UN. So we were all faced only with the bare reality. Yet, nobody really knows will the UN will ever regain its old glory and importance.

“The questions raised by most world leaders were: Is there an end in sight? How long will it take for the emergence of a vaccine? Will it be made available to the world’s poorest nations on a no cost basis,” he said. “But unfortunately, there were no ready answers,” Deen said.

The UN Secretary General said he is against a new kind of practice – some countries to make “side deals” in order to get vaccines first. Neglecting others is not an option with more-less same suffer from Asia to Latin and North America, from Europe to Africa, Australia and distant Oceania. But, clearly, some countries are less likely to recover, as they are poor.

Deen told Webpublicapress it was quite right for the UN Secretary General to focus on the devastation caused to humanity by the coronavirus pandemic which has already claimed the lives of over one million people worldwide.

The World Health Organization (WHO) already warned there might be a new pandemic in the aftermath of COVID-19. We should learn the lesson and be all vigilant. We are all-in, beggars and kings, big and small – vulnerable, in particularly those who do not show enough prudence, or worse – ignore science. We can’t get out of the woods without global and local solidarity, neither without “humility and unity,” as United Nations’ Guterres declared.

 

 

Solidarity and medical treatment for all

 

Known for his diplomatic expression, to say most of it, without offending anyone, always avoiding names – this time Guterres spoke almost without gloves. “None of us is safe, until all of us are safe,” he said. And, the worse is yet to come. Actually, he characterized the current global health crisis as a “dress rehearsal” comparing the challenges ahead.

At the same time, he showed maximum discipline by his personal example. Guterres adopted the new health-protocol and took off his black anti-COVID mask (with UN emblem on it) only when he delivered his speech. He was the only one world leader that addressed world - “urbi et orbi” from the United Nations rostrum in New York. Or others went virtual.

Although virtual reality, as a parallel macro-cosmos, saved this year UN General Assembly, if it continues, actually threatens the future of world diplomacy, which loves and needs large gatherings in grand buildings such as the United Nations. In the meantime, looks like that many have adopted working from distance as a business advantage, which may be difficult to give up in the near future.

Author John J. Metzler, who is also a UN correspondent told WPP –  some kind of glitter works in

Author John J. Metzler, columnist, UN correspondent and academic (Photo private archive - for education only)

Author John J. Metzler, columnist, UN correspondent and academic (Photo private archive – for education only)

favor of the UN. “The annual diplomatic pomp and let’s say September circus of the General debate each autumn is a good thing, and revives the status, place and energy of the organization,” he said.  And the 75th UN anniversary “must be properly celebrated next year hopefully, with a in person recommitment to the UN and its history.”

“Equally as importantly it must refresh and refocus on values and recommitments to the people’ s of the world”, he said.

 

Populism doesn’t work

 

This year Guterres finger-pointed populism and nationalism as a wrong approach to fight coronavirus that “have often made things manifestly worse.”  He said that only days before US president Donald Trump tested positive on COVID-19 after almost never wearing a face mask. Looks like, Mr. Guterres is a quite opposite politician, who cares about the institution he heads. And what the future holds and can weather is end in sight.  

From the UN podium Guterres warned – developing world was left alone and without solid pandemic rescue package. Indeed. Some countries were simply not capable to fight with all issues related to COVID-19.

World Health Organization - WHO (UN logo)

World Health Organization – WHO (UN logo)

Although many previous pledges for various global tragedies ended with only partially fulfilled promises Guterres expressed almost optimistic belief -  it may work this time. To get all, especially poor economies running again the United Nations estimated the “equivalent to roughly 10 per cent of global economic output” will be needed. UN chief was convinced – developed countries could ensure to back up those less fortunate and not rich states. It is a must to “avoid a downward spiral,” he suggested.

But, did everybody heard him, wanted to hear him, or even understood him – it’s a quite different issue. Or, UN Secretary General’s words echoed even better in the almost empty General Assembly hall?

The question is: Will this less glory – more growy ambient work even better for the UN? And is this a last or just first virtual UN General Assembly.

 

Optimism and charm vs. reality

 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the press-conference with his chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric, September 2018 UN HQ New York (Photo Erol Avdovic - Webpublica)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the press-conference with his chief spokesman Stephane Dujarric, September 2018 UN HQ New York (Photo Erol Avdovic – Webpublica)

Chief UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told WPP he expects things should return to normal by the fall of 2021. Answering to our question at the daily (virtual) press briefing how UN Secretary General sees the future of this organization after moving to the micro-cosmos of virtual diplomacy – he said all at the United Nations Secretariat “very much hope that a virtual General Assembly is not the future of the UN.”

“It is something we have to deal with this year for the particular circumstances that we’re currently facing. We very much hope that next year will be different and we will be able to meet again in person,” Dujarric said.

UN spokesman also said it was easier for heads of UN member states to address the General Assemblywithout having to travel to New York (and not obtaining US visas as well). But, it is the is the human aspect of diplomacy that UN is missing.

He reminded that every year UN organize “hundreds and hundreds of bilateral meetings” between heads of states, who, for various political or other reasons, won’t travel to each other’s countries or can’t do it. “And this provides a huge amount of positive informal diplomacy,” Dujarric pointed out.

And Dujarric also pointed the Secretary General was missing the bilateral meetings that he usually has, but some-how it was be easier for Mr. Guterres to go virtual as well.

“On the positive end,” Dujarric told WPP with some laughter, “you won’t have to have deal with the hundreds of readouts that we issue every year and that are so full of vivid information.”

 

What are the real options and opportunities?

 

While the concept of work has already been evolving towards a less rigid and more “flexile patterns,” as Metzler explains – the second option (often called “flexitime” ) “is certainly worth considering.”

“Given that the traditional workplace offers most people a stable and predictable social pillar —which many would prefer — it appears the mix of traditional workplace and flextime for some workers or even totally online are options now worth considering,” Metzler told Webpublicapress.

United Nations, spring 2020, under the grim sky (Photo by Erol Avdovic - WebPublicaPress)

United Nations, spring 2020, under the grim sky (Photo by Erol Avdovic – WebPublicaPress)

He expressed optimistic view that “when conditions allow, many (UN) staff in New York will be willing to return for the sense of purpose, focus, conviviality and yes,  social interaction.”

“Let’s face it, this does not happen smoothly on Zoom,” pointed Metzler. And, he said the UN Secretariat “must not be transformed into a virtual office space,” since this would send “almost a poor message.”

But, Thalif Deen told WPP, he expects “the UN will never be the same again.”

“All meetings will continue to be virtual and the overwhelming majority of (UN) staffers will continue to work from home. And, most importantly, if the UN’s cash crisis continues, it will be forced to lay off staff, reduce salaries and eliminate long term contracts.”

At the same time WHO has already predicted the world will not return to normal — at least until 2022.

But seems that UN will not surrender so easily. Obviously, there is a fear – if it turns that the building on East River – what is called the headquarters of the UN system (without branches in Geneva and Vienna) become “superfluous” for the new virtual world without traditional diplomacy – the UN will not be the same.

“If this holds true, the UN will undergo a metamorphosis,” Thalif Deen predicted.

PS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen interviews Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who was the UN chief from January 2007 to December 2016). /Photo by Lyndal Rowlands/IPS/.

PS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen interviews Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who was the UN chief from January 2007 to December 2016). /Photo by Lyndal Rowlands/IPS/.

“We very much hope that this is not the future of the UN, but of course, we’re learn… this will have an impact, and we’re learning to work in new ways, as well,” Dujarric told WPP, still expressing some hope.

But this could be also an opportunity. The missing UN political parade and red-carpet diplomatic protocol, with less media circus that went hand in hand with every recent General Assembly in New York – could be used to focus on real messaging. This is a lesson for media as well.

Indeed, there were some very good speeches during the 75th UN GA session including one by the UN Secretary General. The problem is that the UN, unfortunately, has long been used for political self-advertising, and the inertia of that mentally could go on for a while, if not for ewer. Unfortunately it can be portrayed even in these times when many things are turned upside down, even in this unusual atmosphere and – due to pandemic in a different UN “eco-system”.

What about UN Secretary General

The question that arises in itself is that related to leadership in the UN. And, this cannot be reduced primarily to gender equality or first and foremost to any of political correctness, but rather focus on vision and responsibility at the very top. The question is also, how will Antonio Guterres cope with the new realm? Will any new criteria emerge through which one can measure his impact to make UN more effective and less bureaucratic in the 21st century facing this and more pandemics. And this can also be linked to dilemma – how long is the life of the Organization whose 75 years we have just virtually celebrated.

“Guterres is doing his best under the most trying circumstances,” Thalif Deen said. But some political calculations seem to be inevitable even now. And institutional memory must be respected.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres UN 4 February 2020 WPP photo

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres UN 4 February 2020 WPP photo

“If he is planning for a second term as Secretary General, he will have to play up to the big powers — UK, US, France, China and Russia. Perhaps he is well aware of the fate that befell Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the only Secretary-General who failed to get a second term, because he antagonized the Americans triggering a veto.”

“The bottom line is,” Deen said, “you either play ball with the big powers and ignore their human rights violations and war crimes in ongoing conflicts, or suffer a veto and pack your bags homeward-bound.”

He concluded – it is “a choice between standing up to your principles or yielding to your personal, selfish ambition.”

And it is difficult to lobby virtually.

 

Absence of basic relevance 

 

Others say, the Secretary General is doing quite well, bearing in mind he and its predecessors are mostly symbolic figures without a voice heard far away. UN does not have an army to achieve more global leverage; peace-keepers are have a different mission.

“Antonio Guterres is trying his best but a combination of current challenges are way beyond an individual role,” Samir Sanbar, former Assistant Secretary General and head of the UN Department of Public Information said.

Samir Sanbar with former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Photo archive for education only).

Samir Sanbar with former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Photo archive for education only).

Sanbar who was the UN Secretariat’s highest-ranking civil servant from the Arab world, told WPP – Mr. Guterrs rightly called for a world ceasefire although we knew it would not be fully followed.

“Perhaps more could have been accomplished if all the heads of UN agencies organizations, funds and programs, whose work covers every aspect of human life were able to operate dynamically and collectively in all member states.”

Sanbar, who’s latest book is Inside the United Nations: In A Leaderless World” (a memoir of his life at the UN for more than 30 years) said UN Secretary General  “is really trying, but it’s not just up to him.”

“The UN is a mirror of the world,” Sanbar reminded to the old definition of the United Nations. “Yet pressing issues of concern to all countries across national borders will require joint action mainly through the only inclusive international framework.”

But virtual General Assembly “seemed distanced from actual relevance at the UN landmark 75th anniversary.”

“Without a single head of state attended (this 2020) compared to 143 (heads of states and governments) on the 50th session (1995) – it was a lonely sight.” With one delegate for each country at the UN General Assembly hall (193 all together) this year “indicated a politically correct stance, yet an absence of basic relevance,” Samir Sanbar told WPP.

 

Will masks stay forewer?

 

If we want to maintain the relevance of the world’s most important multilateral organization in the post-pandemic era, some of the old routine will have to be applied again. Only in this way can the UN survive.

US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (Photo by Erol Avdovic through UN TV, General Assambly 22 September 2020).

US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (Photo by Erol Avdovic through UN TV, General Assambly 22 September 2020).

And, which is a good and which is a bad routine. How to abandon bad habits, and accept only the good that this pandemic has taught us, are rightly asked questions by analysts who have UN experience.

“Naturally the Pandemic has confronted us with stark choices,” John Metzler told WPP.

“Consider for a moment the virtual Security Council meetings. This worked well from a technical point and may I say the staff of UNTV and the technical side are some of the real heroes that made everything work. But the Security Council meetings are a unique opportunity for fifteen members to assess a crisis situation and then in the relatively small room to assess and read each other’s intentions,” Metzler said.

“Nuance, and many emotions are not obvious on Zoom or Webex.”

“So, I feel in person meetings are absolutely vital moving forward. A diplomat must “feel” and “read” the room in any deliberation,” he added.

Others also say the “Ball under masks” is not an option for the UN, if we do not want to become an army of irrelevant henchmen. And, thus denied, not just the joy of the life, but the ethics of professionalism. Perhaps it even completes the possibility of grasping for the truth looking each other in the eyes.

Until then, we have to be part of the mutual trust and follow medical protocol, since masks, as doctors say are best protecting against COVID-19.

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