UN Closed

Diplomacy at the UN in the Time of Coronavirus

Lobby of the UN General Assembly building after being closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic. (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The spread of the coronavirus in New York and around the world, and the quarantine measures placed in response have prompted questions about how the United Nations functions, and indeed the very nature of diplomacy. More broadly, it is a time consider whether or how the UN can be made fit for purpose to address this unprecedented global challenge.

For those who remember the old Delegates Lounge at UN headquarters, with its worn dark leather sofas and ubiquitous veils of smoke, the new and brighter décor could be a metaphor for the current transition to digital diplomacy, mandatory during the coronavirus pandemic. While the vividly colored furniture and brighter windows convey a sense of modernity, efficiency, and transparency, the sense of intimacy and deliberation seems lost in the new setup.

As the UN adapts to a world of virtual meetings, diplomats and staff will eventually face questions on whether to return to the old ways of doing business once the pandemic has abated. In short, what will the future of diplomacy look like and will the UN as we know it still be fit for purpose?

As countries and communities grapple with the human and socioeconomic costs of COVID-19, questions like these may seem superfluous. However, changes in response to immediate crises can breed new norms. As international affairs and institutional responses are influenced in great part by personalities, relationships, character, and tradecraft, changes that reduce the scope of personal interaction can have long lasting consequences, for better or worse. Anyone who has spent time in a negotiation can attest to the importance of personal interaction and recount stories about a call or quiet chat that made all the difference to the overall outcome.

On a positive note, the switch to virtual platforms is likely to highlight many opportunities to enhance the efficiency of UN business. Enormous resources are committed to processes and working methods that have accumulated over time, and, once established, are virtually impossible to change. Coronavirus may be the catalyst needed to reevaluate approaches. Proving that it is possible to conduct a great deal of business virtually can generate and inspire other new and creative ways of conducting business. There are likely to be opportunities to reduce travel and target remaining travel more effectively. Carbon footprints will lighten.

However, it is more likely that critical matters will get lost without accompanying experts and meetings to give them context. If the UN’s business is boiled down to the transmission of reports without any discussion or consideration, expertise and understanding on the matters will reduce.

There are also valid questions about the role of the UN and whether it can function in a world under quarantine on a long-term basis, with a virtual space replacing the horseshoe table of the Security Council. As one diplomat said after a trial of virtual platforms, “just pray we don’t have to use it.” Yet, the Council has informally met online and it is increasingly likely that more business will be conducted in this manner. As the meetings are closed, there are questions about the visibility of the Council and access by other member states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the media.

Beyond questions about how diplomacy is done at the UN, there is the broader question of the role of the organization—especially the Security Council—in responding to this unprecedented global challenge. The UN’s swift response to the Ebola crisis in 2014 and its willingness to cast it as a threat to international peace and security has been cited several times as an example for action. There are lessons that can be taken from other areas of the UN’s work as well, including the UN’s response to international terrorism.

In the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the international community grappled with what the role and relevance of the UN should be in addressing a threat that traversed borders through decentralized networks with amorphous objectives, and one that melded local grievances and exploited regional conflicts to forge a global dynamic. While the bulk of counterterrorism undoubtedly still takes place in the bilateral sphere, the UN possesses three comparative advantages that are now relevant to the coronavirus pandemic: a global membership that confers legitimacy on its actions; a convening capacity that brings together states, experts, and civil society; and, expertise and field presence that bring together development, security, and political dimensions.

For counterterrorism, member states moved rapidly to establish a unique institutional architecture—the New York-based Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED)—tasked with monitoring compliance with Security Council counterterrorism obligations and identifying technical assistance needs. In 2006, following the adoption by the General Assembly of the UN Global Counterterrorism Strategy, the system moved further to establish a centralized hub for the coordination and delivery of capacity-building assistance– eventually the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism—through over thirty UN entities and partners. In great part, this effort has focused on harmonizing states’ responses and ensuring that legal, political, and operational frameworks enable more joined up responses. This has formed the basis for nearly two decades of expanding UN work to counter terrorism and prevent violent extremism.

In recent weeks, some have called for “a body of the UN, but not in the UN,” capable of identifying and assessing global threats like COVID-19. Similar calls had been made to allow the UN greater analytical capacity to identify global threats and assess emerging trends. In the realm of counterterrorism, this expanded role was given by the Council to CTED. Moreover, several UN entities have been conducting research and analysis on aspects of terrorism and violent extremism, contributing to deepening the knowledge base to inform policy and practice.

There have already been calls for governments to exert greater roles in monitoring the movements and health of their citizens, and concerns about the impact on human rights and individual freedoms bear heeding. As the development of the counterterrorism agenda and framework demonstrates, actions taken to address immediate crises can have long-term unintended consequences on human rights, humanitarian action, and fundamental freedoms.

Just as many member states have been working to ensure that human rights issues are integrated throughout international counterterrorism efforts, member states need to ensure that the immediate steps taken to contain and control COVID-19 do not institutionalize measures without appropriate checks and balances. The UN has played an important role in promoting a “whole of society” and “whole of government” approach that ensures that all relevant stakeholders—governments, experts, NGOs, the private sector, and communities—are involved in developing and implementing responses. Indeed, many of the developments regarding human rights, gender, and civil society in counterterrorism have been the result of heated negotiations and quiet conversations between diplomats, experts, and officials in and around the UN. The UN is uniquely placed to play a similar role in developing responses to other global crises.

We don’t know what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have or when it will end. There is talk of a “new normal,” of “lessons learned,” and new ways of doing business that will allow for the structural conditions that led to current circumstances to be addressed and for more compassionate societies to emerge. We must not lose sight of that imperative. But we aren’t starting with a blank slate, and have many lessons learned and good practices to build on. Moreover, while virtual interactions will carry us through this period and even offer new opportunities going forward, they will often build on relationships that have been forged in person. So, when we eventually go back to conference rooms and to meeting our colleagues over coffee rather than through a screen, we should apply them to improving the effectiveness of the UN system and how we interact with it.

Naureen Chowdhury Fink is a Senior Policy Advisor on Counterterrorism and Sanctions at the United Kingdom’s Mission to the UN, New York.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of the United Kingdom.