COVID-19 cases are increasing in Geneva, the seat of the European headquarters of the United Nations, making Switzerland one of the hardest hit countries on the continent. However, the international organization is pushing ahead with its plans to host Afghan and Syrian peace conferences later this month, raising concerns among some United States staff and diplomats that the coronavirus could spread further through the ranks of the international civil service.
Over the past few months, Tatiana Valovaya, Director General of the UN Office in Geneva, has tried to keep the work of international diplomacy alive, hosting international meetings on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and holding a number of cultural conferences and exhibitions.
The guidelines for access to the United States' Palais des Nations in Geneva were in line with Swiss law, but have resulted in the organization struggling to keep the virus at bay. Since March, a total of 128 new UN employees in Geneva have been infected with the corona virus, including 46 people in the UN office in Geneva and 20 in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – including the High Commissioner himself, Filippo Grandi internal figures. In August, four Syrian nationals tested positive for the coronavirus when they came to Geneva for talks and raised concerns that the United States had been too lax.
"You were negligently permissive," said a senior Geneva diplomat. Valovaya, the diplomat said, took a more lenient stance than other international organizations like the World Trade Organization – and than the United States' mother ship.
The organization's headquarters in Manhattan has largely stopped hosting any conference or peace talks that would require a significant number of foreign dignitaries to travel to New York, and has even held the September General Assembly virtually. US officials say the restrictions kept the virus in check and that no infections were spread in the main Manhattan building (even if 138 employees and delegates were infected in New York this year). However, the pandemic and these restrictions have severely constrained the United States' ability to fulfill its traditional role in convening international conferences and peace talks, with fears of contagion preventing foreign dignitaries from visiting.
The situation underscores the difficult balancing act that the United Nations must play in trying to continue its vital role as peacemaker during a pandemic. This task is only made more difficult by the fact that the countries and cities in which they operate, including Geneva and New York City, have changed rules and restrictions. The different approaches in New York and Geneva have both sparked setbacks from certain countries – some say Geneva headquarters has been too lenient, others say the United States is too restrictive in New York.
As early as March, when the virus spread uncontrollably in New York, Russia opposed plans to make the Security Council virtual and pressed for face-to-face meetings. In July, Germany used its presidency of the Security Council to hold the first face-to-face meetings on site since the end of the pandemic, although the number of participants was strictly limited.
Ahead of the annual September session of the United States General Assembly, the President of the Assembly, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, urged the city and state to allow foreign leaders to attend the meeting without being quarantined will. But United States Secretary-General António Guterres turned down the idea of inviting world leaders to New York, warning governments in a letter that it was unsafe to meet in person – and the meeting went virtual continue.
Bozkir is trying again, and recently announced to his colleagues that he wanted the two-week quarantine order for international visitors to New York lifted so that foreign leaders can 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 notified the United States and overseas 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 this curtailed quarantine is unlikely to lure world leaders to New York just to spend four days in their hotel rooms.
It was more relaxed in Geneva – which also aroused a lot of criticism.
As the virus subsided in the summer, Geneva headquarters began preparations to gradually reopen its doors, albeit 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 concern over plans to call face-to-face meetings at the palace, including the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council from June 15th to 23rd. "(I) We believe that a face-to-face meeting beginning in mid-June exposes our staff to potential risk, especially given the transmission rate in Geneva," read the letter received from Foreign Policy.
The United States has pushed face-to-face meetings, with up to 30 percent of staff returning to their offices on June 8, and organized face-to-face meetings with reduced attendance on human rights and disarmament in the weeks that followed. It has also received approval from the Swiss government to invite peace delegations from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
A senior diplomat expressed his condolences to the United States, saying it needed to balance conflicting pressures from governments wanting to do more at headquarters and others wanting to do less. In the end, the diplomat said: "They are following the rules that the Swiss have introduced and allowing those who want to do more within the rules to do more within the rules."
Swiss U.N. Ambassador, Juerg LauberThe United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva had most of their staff home and most of their meetings in virtual formats. "At the same time, the standing missions and international organizations have made great efforts to maintain business continuity and fulfill their respective mandates, which are still important, if not more important, in the current circumstances," said Lauber.
And United States officials in Geneva say the organization has been diligent in its efforts to ensure the safety of workers and foreign delegates. They found that none of the infections were spread within the United States, but rather were transmitted by workers in social services outside of HQ, where the disease is spreading rapidly.
"The palace is probably the safest place in Geneva," said David Chikvaidze, Valovaya's chief of staff, with only about 18 percent of the staff on site and about 200 hand sanitizers available.
The United Nations is not tracking infections on government missions in Geneva, but the virus has led to a small new outbreak in the U.S. mission to the United Nations in Geneva, which dealt with infections in March and this summer, according to high-level diplomatic sources. At least two Western ambassadors were infected and the driver of the late Ugandan ambassador died of COVID-19.
A US official blamed Swiss authorities at the top, saying they reopened the country too quickly. "They opened not only restaurants and bars, but also discos, legalized prostitution and tattoo parlors," said a United States official. "We walked around in our regimental rows in the palace while people sat huddled in groups outside by the lake and drank beer, without social distance."
Today, however, the city of Geneva has been cracked down on and imposed a number of restrictions in November that limit most gatherings to five people. Switzerland is well on the way to becoming a major European COVID-19 hotspot. At the end of October the positivity rate was 28 percent, in New York it was only 3 percent.
That is why many question the wisdom of having Afghan and Syrian talks. In August, four members of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which includes government officials and opposition groups, tested positive for COVID-19 upon arriving in Geneva for talks. The United States' Special Representative, Geir Pedersen of Norway, tried to keep the talks on track.
The Syria talks still require the approval of the Swiss authorities. If they act, the United States will impose stringent health measures beyond the recommendations of the Swiss government and the World Health Organization, said Jenifer Fenton, key spokesman for the United States' special envoy on Syria.
"The safety of our employees will always be our top priority and concern," she said in an email statement. Health protocols, she added, include testing, the compulsory wearing of masks at all times, temperature checks, and rigorous physical distancing. "The advancement of the political process has proven to be extremely challenging and the Special Representative recognizes our obligation to use every small window of opportunity to make significant progress," she added.
"I think the meeting doesn't make sense," said the senior diplomat. “If there is any reasonable expectation or belief that any form of significant progress will take place because this meeting is taking place, then you surely have the meeting. But nobody suggested to me that anything would happen. "
Alessandra Vellucci, the United States' main spokeswoman in Geneva, said that there are currently a maximum of five people present for meetings at the Palais. And while the Swiss government has authorized the United States to call special political meetings for up to 50 people, it said the Afghan talks will likely only have 30 to 40 participants in person later this month, while the rest will participate virtually.
“It is important for us to strike a balance between these critical political activities that form the core of the United Nations in Geneva, with keeping the health and safety of staff and delegates an absolute priority. That is why we take exceptional precautionary measures and are working to maintain constant contact and unrestricted cooperation with the Swiss authorities, ”said Vellucci.
And US officials advancing plans for face-to-face peace talks can point to some concrete successes: in September, the Yemeni government and the Houthi insurgents agreed on a mass prisoner swap, and last month Geneva was the scene of a ceasefire between the warring Libyan parties.
A more difficult sale could be the cultural events the headquarters held, including a Russian chess exhibition with Russian grandmaster Anatoly Karpov, a Russian photo exhibition for the TASS news agency, and an exhibition of traditional Moldovan carpets and costumes and an art exhibition.
"Amid the doom and darkness of some events, combined with masks and social distancing, was it that bad doing something to improve morale?" Said Chikvaidze. “We planned this before the situation went south. We didn't pull the plug, but we made sure it worked smoothly. "