The other UN

June 18th, 2012

Besides the well-known building in Manhattan, the UN has three other main HQs, one of them in Vienna, where nine important organisations do the practical work – Published on Le Monde Diplo, by Anne-Cécile Robert, June 2012.

The UN headquarters in Vienna looks like a studious village when compared with the glass-curtain-walled New York headquarters, to which the discussion of peace and security issues lends a degree of solemnity. Four thousand officers bustle down Vienna’s corridors, adorned with works of art and huge photographs of peacekeepers in action. The Viennese employees say, a little defensively, that they work for the UN’s technical agencies, unlike the political nature of the work in Manhattan. The other two main UN headquarters are in Geneva and Nairobi.  

The Viennese HQ is a few metro stops from the opulence of the old imperial city, in a star-shaped building from the 1970s, the Vienna International Centre (VIC): nine organisations operate from it (see Vienna Hub,). France has three permanent ambassadors in Vienna, to the UN, to Austria and to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); most other countries make do with two.

Dozens of treaties and thousands of resolutions and technical reports are negotiated every year at the VIC. Away from the public gaze, diplomats and legal experts wrangle over obscure amendments or wordings — “laundering the proceeds of crime” or “money laundering”? Sometimes the stakes are higher, as when it comes to defining an act of terrorism. On 8 September 2006 the UN General Assembly adopted a global counter-terrorism strategy, one of a sequence of treaties adopted since 1937. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), also based in Vienna, must help put it into effect by providing “technical assistance”, such as legal advice, field missions and training of magistrates.

There is a kind of global division of labour. Member states ask the UN’s technical agencies to clarify issues or regulate projects on the ground (development, scientific cooperation). Several Sahel countries asked the UNODC to produce a practical manual on fighting terrorism; other states have asked for technical assistance to combat corruption. For the big political issues, member states tend to turn to regional bodies like the EU or to powerful groups such as G8 or G20 (1).

Missing the boat: … //

… Daily work unsung:

Some UN agencies have suffered drastic budget cuts, and some senior officials pay their own travel expenses when they go to New York. Fixed-term contracts have become the norm for international staff, who are often highly qualified. On 23 December 2011 the UN passed a 5% budget cut for 2012/2013 (a cut of $260m in a budget of more than $5bn). “The good times of the 1960s and 1970s seem very far away,” said Bugada. “We were swimming in development money then.”

The UN has become a huge bureaucratic machine — the Secretary General employs around 44,000 people worldwide — which is active on a day-to-day basis but is not part of the mainstream debate. Certain initiatives, like the Global Compact (an initiative to encourage businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies) which began in 1999, tarnished the UN’s image with voluntary organisations. The initiative sets out to strengthen links between big business and UN agencies to make them more effective, though this might mean a conflict of interests.

A Unido officer pointed out that people only talk about the UN when things are going badly, and never praise its day-to-day work. The UN runs hundreds of health and refugee aid programmes, without which millions of people would not survive. Every agency, and every officer, at the VIC works on a specific project: preparing a treaty, negotiating, updating a code of conduct, completely a framework law, leading a working party.

In his cramped office, Niklas Hedman, from Sweden, of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa) showed me the dangers of pollution caused by the 12,000 vehicles launched into the atmosphere since the 1950s, and brought up onscreen the latest online register of space objects: “This is just the beginning of a project to inform and monitor.” On shelves behind him sat miniature satellites next to a model of Professor Calculus’s red and white moon rocket from Tintin. Unoosa functions as traffic police for outer space, deciding who is responsible in a collision. It is a sensitive issue, especially since emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil, and private companies such as Space Imaging, are all entering the race.

Airport English:

UN agencies realise they need to be better at communicating with the public and have started to do this by distributing documents, opening meetings up to journalists, and consulting interested parties. They also seem keen to work with NGOs, and this collaboration can be very close, as with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty banning antipersonnel mines, known simply as the ICBL (International Campaign to Ban Landmines).

A confusion of public and private players, who co-opt each other, may not make for a transparent, democratic process. UN officers and their NGO associates use jargon, obscure acronyms and confusing references delivered in airport English. In the corridors and canteens of the UN, the talk has been about whether to replace “MDGs” with “SDGs” at the Rio+20 summit. Even spelled out — Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals — the difference may not be apparent.

International relations have become a swirl of organisations, agencies and programmes forced to work together because of budget cuts. So Unido is cooperating with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), which is managing a programme with IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), which has a mandate from the African Union, which has formed a partnership with the EU. And so it goes round.

Vienna hub: … (full long text).

Comments are closed.