The director of the UN in Geneva, Russia, Tatiana Valovaya, must decide with Putin on war or on the UN on peace! Political appointees are bad for the UN – UN should remember why it was created – At least UN agencies are talking openly
To Be or Not to Be: Russia’s UN political appointees on the spot. Tatiana Valovaya, a political appointee who heads the United Nations Office in Geneva, represents one of the world’s most important humanitarian, trade and conflict resolution hubs. And yet, while the UN’s specialized agencies from UNHCR to WHO have denounced the carnage in Ukraine, Valovaya is silent, writes in the editorial analysis Global Geneva, reports the swiss newspaper Le Canton27.ch
Valovaya’s uncomfortable situation highlights the UN’s already deteriorating credibility as an institution that defends human rights. Despite reform efforts, major donors from the United States to China still reserve the UN’s key positions for their political favourites, regardless whether they are qualified or not. The result is the UN’s inability to speak out against violence and injustice.
Political appointees are bad for the UN
As a Russian nominee, Dowell notes, it might be expected that Valovaya has not proven forthright in a condemnation of her former boss’s war in Ukraine. She is, after all, the bureaucratic rather than inspirational head of the “International Geneva” community, supposedly the world’s hub for humanitarian, human rights, trade, and conflict issues. Not even the UN Security Council in New York has been able to do much about Russia’s invasion.
Yet, as pointed out by Dowell, Valovaya has been avoiding the press, hiding instead behind her PR team and anodyne social media Tweets. As the current conflict – but also past events such as the U.S. election of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s Brexit – have shown, social media and the disinformation that comes with it can be easily manipulated. Twitter is no longer a credible means for establishing policy or determining what is happening. Up front questions and on-the-ground reporting are what matter. The UN needs to be more responsible.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing everything possible to ensure that ordinary citizens only receive his heavily censored version of what is happening in Ukraine. Threatening Russian reporters who dare call it a ‘war’ or an ‘invasion’, he has shut down virtually all that remains of the country’s independent press. He is now blaming anyone who criticizes him as a traitor, including the Russian mothers now finding out that their sons are being killed, wounded, or captured in a senseless war. Exactly what happened during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. (See Global Insights article comparing Russia’s war in Afghanistan to Ukraine)
More and more, it is now up to credible and well-documented journalism by the BBC, CNN, Le Monde, Guardian, NYT, Svenska Dagbladet, SRF (Swiss Broadcasting) and other newsgatherers, including freelancers, to establish the facts, even if reporting is becoming increasingly dangerous. Tragically, at least four journalists have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began, with at least one clearly marked PRESS vehicle shot at by Russian forces.
Valovaya, who Dowell describes as a “glorified housekeeper” for UNOG, has failed to set an example of what International Geneva represents. She has yet to condemn the deliberate bombing of civilians. Nor has she referred to the deplorable things occurring under Putin’s direction. For international Geneva, this is an embarrassment. (See Global Insights article on International Switzerland as a global knowledge hub). At the same time, Switzerland’s commodities traders, who are transactioning billions worth of Swiss francs in raw materials, are still enabling Putin to fill his war chest.
At least the UN agencies are speaking out
Fortunately, various UN agencies, such as UNHCR and WHO, have been up front in their condemnation of Putin’s war, notably the exodus of over three million people and the deliberate bombing of hospitals and civilians. UNICEF director Catherine Russell forcefully made her point in a recent BBC interview describing such brutal policies as ‘unconscionable’.
As UNOG’s public information team points out, Valovaya’s first commitment as an international civil servant is to the United Nations, not the Kremlin. This is absolutely correct. Yet anyone who knows the UN is aware how she was appointed in the first place. It is doubtful that she will speak out. Furthermore, Moscow has long considered the top UN slot in Geneva as a Russian prerogative. Apart from Michael Møller, a former Danish diplomat and UNHCR employee who served as Valovaya’s predecessor, the previous three UNOG appointees have been Russian or ex-Soviet.
As Dowell suggests, the reality behind the political appointment of senior officials only underlines one of the UN’s biggest problems. It is a practise that thoroughly undermines the UN’s ability to perform as an effective institution, yet is indulged in by most members of the General Assembly. Major donors ranging from the Americans and Chinese to the Swedes, British, French and others, all lay claims to the top positions. While some candidates may turn out to be good choices, others do not, often resulting in a roster of bland and unimaginative officials who fail to inspire.
For decades, the Americans have headed up WFP, UNICEF and IOM, while the British now consider OCHA theirs. The last major UN reform process presented by Kofi Annan in 2006 called for all job hires to be based on meritocracy rather than donor influence. Little, however, has changed. The UN continues to allow the naming of mainly political rather than professional appointees at senior levels.
The UN needs to remember why it was created
Unless the UN changes radically, it can expect to deteriorate even further, incapable of influencing peace and bringing wars to an end. The threat of expanded conflict in Europe is real. So is the possible use of unconventional weapons by Putin. With Ukraine only just down the road, a two-day drive from Geneva, the UN is precariously close to ending up like the failed League of Nations on the eve of World War II.
If the International Geneva community is to properly engage, then it must loudly assert that neither war nor crimes against humanity are acceptable. What UNOG really needs, however, is the sort of leadership that will crucially assert that the UN is not a limpid League of Nations, but a gamechanger. A Jan Egeland type, for example. He was the outspoken former head of the UN’s humanitarian and emergency relief operations from 2003 to 2006. Unlike Valovaya, he was not afraid to express his views and to condemn human rights perpetrators.
Le HCR, OMS, CICR.. sont préoccupés par la guerre en Ukraine. La directrice de l’ONU à Genève la rus Tatiana Valovaya, se tait! Où est la crédibilité de l’ONU ?