U.N. Peacemaking in the Age of Plague

U.N. Peacemaking in the Age of Plague

United Nations diplomats and civil servants fear peace efforts in Geneva may aid the spread of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 cases are soaring in Geneva, the site of the European headquarters of the United Nations, making Switzerland one of the harder-hit countries on the continent. But the international organization is still pressing ahead with plans to host Afghan and Syrian peace conferences later this month, fueling concerns among some U.N. staffers and diplomats that the coronavirus may spread further within the ranks of the international civil service.

In recent months, Tatiana Valovaya, the director general of the U.N. office in Geneva, has sought to keep the work of international diplomacy alive, hosting international meetings on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and running a series of cultural conferences and exhibitions.

The policies on access to the U.N.’s Palais des Nations in Geneva have been consistent with Switzerland’s laws, but they have left the organization struggling to keep the virus at bay. Since March, a total of 128 new Geneva-based U.N. staff have been infected with the coronavirus, including 46 people in the U.N. Office in Geneva and 20 in the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—including the high commissioner himself, Filippo Grandi—according to internal figures. In August, four Syrian nationals tested positive for the coronavirus when they arrived in Geneva for talks, feeding concerns that the U.N. has been too lax.

“They have been negligently permissive,” said one senior Geneva-based diplomat. Valovaya, the diplomat said, has taken a more lenient stance than other international organizations, like the World Trade Organization—and than the U.N.’s own mothership.