As pointed out by veteran journalist Bill Dowell in his recent Global Insights article, Valovaya, a Russian political appointee, has been avoiding the press. She has yet to comment openly on the war although as some observers also note, she cannot be expected to do so. This is not the job of the UN’s Geneva head. It is up to the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, to speak out which he has.
But the way that some critics perceive is that Valovaya has sought to hide behind her PR team and anodyne 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 trusted means for determining what is happening. Up front questions and in-the-field reporting are what matter. It would help Valovaya’s case if she spoke more directly to the press on the issues that matter.
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. Coupled with threats of prison for those reporters who dare call it a ‘war’ or an ‘invasion’, he has shut down virtually all that remains of Russia’s independent press. He is now blaming anyone who criticizes him as being a traitor, including the Russian mothers now finding out that their sons are being killed, wounded, or captured in a senseless war. Even members of Geneva’s Russian mission, which is located opposite the Palais des Nations where the UN is headquartered in Europe, are horrified at what their boss is doing to their country’s reputation.
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. Operating with vehicles clearly marked as PRESS has not prevented them from being shot at by Russian forces.
For Dowell, who describes Valovaya as a “glorified housekeeper” for UNOG, she has failed to set an example of what International Geneva is supposed to represent. She has yet to condemn the deliberate bombing of civilians. Nor has she referred to the horrific things currently occurring under Putin’s direction. For some in international Geneva, which the Swiss are seeking to push as the world’s focal point for humanitarian and human rights concerns, this is somewhat of an embarrassment. (See Global Insights article on International Switzerland as a global knowledge hub)
Fortunately, certain UN agencies, such as UNHCR and WHO, both located in Geneva, have been forthright in their condemnation of Putin’s war. They have criticized the war, which has already caused nearly three million people to flee. They have also condemned the deliberate bombing of hospitals. UNICEF director Catherine Russell forcefully made her point in a recent BBC interview describing such brutal policies as ‘unconscionable’.
Political appointees: One of the UN’s biggest problems
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. She also takes her lead from the Secretary General in New York. This is absolutely correct.
Yet anyone who knows the UN is aware how Geneva’s DG was appointed in the first place. 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.
At the same time, Dowell notes, 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. 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 do not inspire.
For years, 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. As Dowell says, the UN continues to allow the naming of mainly political rather than professional appointees at senior levels.
Of course, the UN may sometimes hit the jackpot with excellent and highly competent individuals. Ghana’s Kofi Annan, for example, threatened to emerge as a bland Secretary General (1997-2006), but then appeared to fall into the job based on his knowledge of how the UN system worked.
Similarly, Møller used his two terms (2013-2019) as UNOG chief to firmly place ‘international Geneva’ on the map. He was constantly reaching out at dinners, conferences and events persuading key humanitarian, environmental and climate change players to engage with both the Swiss and international business community. Martin Griffiths, the UK’s current head of OCHA, has years of experience in the humanitarian field and is proving a deft galvanizer for support with regard to Ukraine, but also ongoing concerns such as Yemen and Afghanistan. (See Global Insights article comparing Russia’s war in Afghanistan to Ukraine)
The UN needs to remember why it was created
Fortunately, the UN has a broad array of exceptional professionals and consultants who are trying to make a difference regardless of who is in charge. But 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 and even beyond is real. So is the possible use of unconventional weapons by Russia. 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 needs to loudly assert that neither war nor crimes against humanity are acceptable. It is all about perception.
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. At this time of crisis, perhaps what is needed is a Jan Egeland type. He was the outspoken Norwegian former head of the UN’s humanitarian and emergency relief operations from 2003 to 2006. He was not afraid to express his views and to condemn human rights perpetrators.