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How coronavirus taught the UN to cope with teleworking

After the first case of the coronavirus infection was officially confirmed in New York on March 1, the situation at the UN began to change rapidly

UN, April 29. /TASS/. It is no secret that diplomats in an international organization first of all conduct their work behind the scenes, testing the waters over a cup of coffee or networking at a reception with a glass of champagne. All this has been impossible at the UN headquarters for a month and a half. Diplomats now have to hash over international problems via video calls, in addition, a lot of new questions were added to the list amid the coronavirus pandemic, like should sanctions be lifted, or how should peacekeeping missions function, or can conflicts be stopped?

In February, the organization was carrying on as usual with its daily life: bustling hallways, daily negotiations, heated debates in the Security Council, and diplomatic receptions. Only hand sanitizers placed around the building perhaps reminded everyone of the spread of the epidemic. Unlike many agencies, the UN secretariat did not introduce temperature controls for visitors at the entrance. Meanwhile, staff were instructed to limit business trips to only those of the utmost importance.

After the first case of the coronavirus infection was officially confirmed in New York on March 1, the situation at the UN began to change rapidly. The organization had to scale back its already planned activities or to postpone them indefinitely. For example, the review conference on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was to become one of the top events this spring at the headquarters, was postponed. Foreign delegations gradually ceased coming to the UN, and subsequently the building ended up becoming deserted.

Finally, on March 16, all secretariat staff were transferred to remote work.

Since the outbreak of the epidemic, more than 280 UN employees around the world have come down with the coronavirus infection, so the flag in front of the headquarters is currently flying at half-mast.

It’s all about technology

The heroes are now those whose work is often less obvious, as in many areas of our lives. In the UN’s case, these are technicians and television service specialists. They come to work every day to make virtual communication between 193 countries possible.

Director of the Operations Support Division Anthony O'Mullane told TASS that the load on his department had increased significantly since the introduction of the quarantine measures. "The past six weeks have introduced substantial changes in the way the UN conducts its business and communicates," he explained.

"Many staff in UNHQ now work remotely. Regular UN business has transitioned online as the organization already had the cloud-based tools in place to facilitate."

According to O'Mullane, since the beginning of March, the number of participants in online meetings has soared from 636 to 21,000. "It is more complex from a technology perspective to support the many larger scale Intergovernmental meetings and briefings that used to take place daily in the various conference rooms at the UNHQ.  These audio, video and broadcast technologies were designed to support participants who are physically present," he noted. 

"To support the new reality of everybody participating remotely, existing equipment, systems and procedures were and are being rapidly adapted to deliver. This has been challenging and a learning experience for both the participants and the technology teams, however the meetings are taking place, the work is getting done and the quality is steadily improving," he told TASS. 

Right now, it is unusual to work at the UN, not only from a technical standpoint, but from a psychological one, too. "The UNHQ is quiet these days. It's normally such a bustling place," O'Mullane noted.

UN Security Council: even without kisses, the intrigue’s there

Non-verbal communication in the famous hall with a round table has always been almost as important as the text of the speeches. Who approached whom before a vote, who greeted whom with a kiss at a meeting, the looks delegates gave one another — every little thing counted.

It took about two weeks for the Security Council to completely reorganize itself for teleworking.

Now, meetings are held almost daily, but, unfortunately, they lack the allure of personal presence.

The voting format was one of the difficulties the UN had to face when switching to teleworking. Usually, permanent representatives raise their hands simultaneously, thereby making their choices obvious. "We did not want to set a precedent for remote voting via video calls," Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, said earlier in an interview with TASS.

"We had various reasons. This sort of procedure is not stated in the UN Charter, there are legal matters, security concerns, and the system has operational failures. It was an inconvenient option, we tried to avoid it, and we succeeded."

As a result, it was decided to vote by e-mail. Letters are sent to a special department of the secretariat, then the voting results are announced simultaneously.

All participants now deliver their speeches in English, and only after that are the texts of the speeches translated into the official languages of the organization, which is another novelty for the Security Council. Simultaneous translation into five languages was simply not possible to perform technically.

Apart from technical issues, the Security Council faces a much more important political task. On March 23, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged all countries to stop hostilities in order to focus on the fight against the pandemic. It would seem that the Security Council should have immediately supported this position with a relevant resolution, but alas. The draft has already been submitted to member-states for consideration twice, but so far it has not been able to pass the approval process in order to be put to a vote. According to sources, the United States and China do not see eye to eye on the matter and, to be more precise, there is a difference in approaches, namely cooperating or playing the blame game.

Captain at the helm

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been particularly active while teleworking. Not only does he continue to come to the office, but he also gives more frequent press conferences than usual, issues all kinds of statements, reports and calls regarding the pandemic.

"The Secretary-General is very much focused on ensuring the work of the UN continues during the Covid-19 confinement in New York. He, along with UN staffers, are following the recommendations of the New York authorities as it relates to the wearing of masks outdoors and social distancing. He does not shake hands," said the Spokesperson for the Secretary General Stephane Dujarric said in an interview with TASS.

"Throughout this crisis, he remains in touch contact with his senior leadership in New York and envoys in the field," Dujarric assured. "The Secretary-General continues to chair the daily meeting of his office staff and the weekly Executive Committee with heads of departments. When required, he briefs the Security Council and other UN legislative body. He does all of this by video conference, either from the residence or the office," the spokesperson added.

Dujarric also moved his daily briefings into his living room. "You’ll be surprised if I say that I’m looking forward to finally seeing all of you in person, although I cannot say when this is going to happen exactly," he responded ironically to a journalist’s question when the headquarters will return to its regular operations.

By Maria Khrenova