Michael Møller, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva during Geneva rally: "Educating the Future" for 250 young migrants, 16 september 2016. (UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré)

“Most people now closing the doors are going to be just as affected as the ones they are closing the doors to…” (Michael Møller, United Nations Director General, Geneva)

Zurich, Bern, Basel and other cities of Switzerland’s more dominant German-speaking cantons have traditionally looked down on the Lake Geneva region as somewhat of an unpredictable sibling backwater. However, many are now begrudgingly admitting that the ‘International Geneva’ concept – increasingly ‘International Switzerland’ with Geneva as its hub  –  is emerging as a key global influencer. This is a theme that U.N. chief Michael Møller has been doggedly emphasizing for the past several years.

As many of its proponents point out, this is being achieved primarily by International Geneva’s role as a focal point for informed expertise and new ideas and also the development of innovative business, aid and research approaches that incorporate the whole of Switzerland, including cities and regions in the north, Ticino and the Valais. Many such initiatives, whether dealing with humanitarian action, climate change, health (See William Dowell AGORA piece on real time cancer research), peace and security, the protection of cultural heritage, scientific research (See EPFL piece on protecting Red Sea corals) or education, have helped make Geneva the global hub for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

Nonetheless, for Michael Møller – who was appointed Acting Head of UNOG in November 2013, and Director General of UNOG in June 2015 – it has been no easy task getting both the Swiss – and the Genevans – to embrace the International Geneva brand name as a pivotal asset on the world stage. Or to get people to understand what precisely the 17 SDGs mean.

The U.N. diplomat, for example, has been actively involved in supporting a new sustainability index that has analyzed more than 400 of the world’s biggest companies in an effort to persuade them to “walk the talk” with regard to the SDGs. As a result, “an increasing number of them are changing their policies and business models,” Møller says. For some critics, however, this may often have more to do with PR or image than genuine concern. Switzerland’s Global Compact Network, which includes companies such as Novartis, ABB and Nestlé, may make the right noises, they say, but the group sometimes tends to skim over critical issues instead of full transparency in the public domain.

At the same time, many, including Møller, agree that it is proving difficult to persuade the public, both at home and abroad, to recognize the often complex but vital role of the U.N. itself, an institution which has made Geneva its European headquarters since 1947.

Highlighting the importance of the United Nations and International Geneva. The U.N.’s Michael Møller walking with Swiss President Alain Berset on rooftop terrace of the Palais des Nations with Lake Geneva in the background. May 8, 2018. UN Photo/Pierre Albouy

The emerging importance of the International Geneva brand

International Geneva, however, – and what it implies – can make a crucial difference. Whether addressing international aid representatives, business leaders or high school students at conferences, concerts, exhibitions and festivals, he has persistently hammered away at promoting the International Geneva brand with short, to-the-point speeches, but also imaginative outreach projects such as a road show and books on international cuisine and fairy tales. There is a very clear reason, he maintains, why so many U.N.  agencies and NGOs are based in this crucial heart of Europe, along with cutting edge financial, cultural and research institutions. “What international Geneva has to offer is exceptional. But it is up to all of us to make sure we can benefit from it,” the U.N. diplomat says.

His webpage on the UNOG site points to his achievements in these areas:

A key priority for Mr. Møller is to assist the Member States in the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the 193 Member States of the United Nations in 2015. To that end, the SDG Lab was launched in 2017 to facilitate dialogue, connect would-be partners and encourage the exchange of best practices and innovative ideas in Geneva and beyond.
Mr. Møller is also keen to foster a better understanding of the vital work done in Geneva. In 2014, Mr. Møller launched the Perception Change Project (PCP) to convey the impact of the collective work of International Geneva, the unique ecosystem of actors found on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Project now has over 100 partners, including UN and other international organizations, NGOs, permanent missions and foundations.
Since 2015, and following an agreement with the Department of Political Affairs, a Senior Mediation Officer is serving in Geneva to support ongoing peace processes and develop partnerships with the rich network of organizations operating in the area of peace and security.
Mr. Møller also strives to promote gender equality at UN Geneva and in International Geneva at large. In 2016, UN Geneva established its first “Policy for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women”, which aims to improve gender parity, particularly in senior positions, and to combat discrimination. In addition, Mr. Møller, U.S. Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto and Women@TheTable in 2014 launched the Geneva Gender Champions initiative, a leadership network that brings together female and male decision-makers to break down gender barriers, while generating a strong impulse for action at the highest levels. In 2016, the Geneva Gender Champions became the International Gender Champions when it expanded to New York City and other UN duty stations.


Swiss authorities in Bern are underwriting much of what Møller represents, including a hefty chunk of the CHF837m Palais des Nations’ renovation, some 400 million CHF in the form of interest free loans from the Confederation as well as City and Canton of Geneva.

While the Federal authorities may not necessarily be providing the information support needed to promote the International Geneva concept (there is very little effective backing for independent media, for example, whether at home or abroad), they appear to be finally recognizing its rising global prominence that far belies the official 489,000 population for both city and canton.

On 19 February 2019 the Swiss Federal Council announced CHF3m for a new Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator for “innovative partnerships among a variety of stakeholders across national borders”. Former Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe of Austria is to be its President and Patrick Aebischer, former head of the Lausanne Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), was named Vice-President, though some critics would consider this an unholy alliance of business and academia common in Switzerland.  In the first three years, scientific and political experts will identify the issues and launch the first projects, the Federal Council said.

At the same time the Federal Council announced “a new strategy aimed at enhancing Switzerland’s attractiveness as a host state and centre of global governance”. However, its planned 2020-23 budget for this effort, CHF113m, subject to Parliament’s approval, is less than the CHF117.2 million spent in 2016-19.

Geneva’s city and cantonal authorities will give CHF300K each to the Anticipator, subject to their parliament’s approval.

Møller sees International Geneva as part of the changing governance structures now emerging across the globe. Cities and their mayors are more important every day, because it is where citizens get their services…It is in the cities that you will find these new solutions.”

As Møller points out, other urban communities world-wide are “helping each other” through the exchanging of information and best practices. “There is not a [national] government in sight; it’s all done at a city level. They are the ones finding solutions…Geneva is only doing what many other members of the worldwide SDG city network are now undertaking.”

Michael Møller during the slow biking contest at the Cycling Festival Europe, organized by the Permanent Dutch mission in Geneva at the city’s Parc des Bastions, April 14, 2016. UN Photo/Pierre Albouy

A skilful, polyglot diplomat pushing the UN and International Geneva agenda

Møller’s multi-cultural background helps explain why he is such a convincing International Geneva advocate. As friends and colleagues point out, Møller is that rare bird at the U.N. – straightforward and scrupulously principled.

Born in 1952 (Danish father, French mother), this skilful and polyglot diplomat (he is fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Greek and Danish), Møller has a wry Nordic sense of humour, particularly when making suggestive points about difficult subjects such as public chastising of the U.N. system. “The U.N. has been criticized plenty of times,” he admits. “And will go on being criticized, often quite rightly. But the U.N. is not a magical organization, full of saints. It’s a human endeavour run by governments – 193 bosses, who do not see eye to eye on many issues. It’s at times very messy”.

With a B.A. in International Relations from Sussex University in the UK followed by an M.A. in 1978 – also in International Relations with a focus on the EEC – at Johns Hopkins’ Bologna European campus in Italy, Møller joined the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Geneva before working in New York, Iran, Mexico, Haiti and other locations. Since November 2013, he has been Director-General in Geneva, a mandate which was renewed in June 2015. He is expected to step down in June at the completion of his current mandate.

Based in one of the world’s most international – and for many – beautiful parts of the world with its easy access to Africa, Asia and the rest of Europe, Møller quietly ponders whether he considers his job an easy one or not.  “I am both satisfied and frustrated,” he declares with an intent, no-nonsense stare. “I am satisfied because we have done quite a lot with very few resources. I am frustrated because we can do a lot more.”  The U.N. diplomat points out that he would like to find more resources, particularly in the private sector, to expand International Geneva’s activities. “In this age of financial constraints, we have to show far more imagination in how we use those resources to translate what member States are asking us to do,” he says.

Moving from lip-service to real commitment

For some critics, there has been a general reluctance among Genevans to pay more than just lip-service to the International Geneva concept, including the role of the U.N. Møller agrees that Genevans could become more engaged. “We have planted the seeds for a different way of telling the story of what we do…We have to make people understand the importance of what the United Nations means in their lives.”

Michael Møller has sought to explore new ways of telling the UN narrative. “It’s a really a unique story,” he explains. “Many people don’t know about it.” Initially, he points out, the objective was to arrive at a stage whereby anyone in the streets of Geneva could give you an informed answer about what the U.N. actually does – and the impact it has on their lives.

Floods in Mozambique in April, 2019. The UN has the ability to play a crucial role during disasters – but must also be provided the means to do so. (Photo: UNICEF)

But in a fragmented world, that’s not enough, he says. While the U.N. has been in the forefront whether promoting peace in Somalia, ensuring that refugees are treated with dignity in the Mediterranean, or responding to humanitarian crises, such as the recent flooding and disaster risk reduction in Mozambique, it still has far to go in what it seeks to achieve.

“Our purpose is to make every citizen understand the importance of the U.N. to their individual well-being. After all, it’s a system that has been around for 70 years…So we have to show that.” This particular point is vital, he stresses. “If the U.N. did not exist today, one would have to reinvent it.” The encouraging reality is that – despite what critics say – the U.N. has played a crucial role in what is happening in the world today. “People’s lives would be a lot poorer and less positive than they are now.” (See Thomas Weiss’ Multilateralism Under Siege: Would the world be a better place without the UN?”)

Civil society, business and academia: becoming more integrated

Much, too, depends on member states themselves and how far they are willing to go to support the U.N. “I am not that interested in convincing any particular member State,” he explains. “The U.N. is after all their organization; their business…We are at a historical point where the support they are giving us is fragmented.” For Møller, “this is where the importance of civil society and individual citizens emerges.”

Does the U.N. need to do more in order for ordinary people and civil society to have a say? Many NGOs argue that they are often left out in the cold. Human Rights Council meeting at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, 13 June 2016. (UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré)

Numerous NGOs still complain that they are being side-lined by governments at various meetings hosted by the U.N. These include independent human rights rapporteurs barred from discussions on situations they are investigating, such as Myanmar/Burma or Sri Lanka, or medical groups, notably Médecins sans Frontière (MSF), being kept at arm’s length by the World Health Organization. Nevertheless, Møller maintains that civil society, business, and academia are being increasingly integrated into what the U.N. is doing. “They are becoming part of the decision-making processes,” he notes.

Notwithstanding such efforts, however, there are public complaints that the UN – and particularly the Palais des Nations – is cutting itself off from ordinary people, primarily for security reasons. Even with Open Days, the Palais is not easily accessible, which means that the UN is losing part of its magic as an international gathering place for all concerned, whether people or States. Only delegations or those who sign up in advance for events are allowed in. It is not a convening place of the people but rather of governments and official delegations. How can this contradiction be solved?

Michael Møller admits that “there is a constant tension between the desire for greater openness and the – unfortunate – need for greater security. It involves trade offs, but our desire for maintaining and strengthening the Palais des Nations as a House of the People never diminishes. We keep trying to do better!”

Dealing with change remains a critical UN problem

Seeking to explain how – and why – things have changed, Møller argues that member States are fully aware of the U.N.’s role. This is illustrated by the fact that they have to take political decisions, which are either for or against. “In some cases,” he says, “you can bring about change by proving that what we are doing makes sense. At the same time, we need to step up our efforts to convince, to educate and to inform the public about what we are doing.”

Møller concedes that some of the actions, or lack of action, by certain countries are contributing toward impatience if not frustration, resulting in two significant structural problems. The first is that most countries have short-term political systems based on three or four-year cycles. Such short-term approaches, he maintains, are “increasingly at odds with the long-term solutions that we need to apply if we are to resolve today’s problems, such as climate change. That gap is getting bigger.”

The second is that this creates a system whereby the link between financial and political decisions has evaporated. “The people who make decisions about our budgets, or financial support, don’t necessarily talk to the people who make the political decisions.” Governments often impose demands on the U.N. without necessarily providing the funding, he says. As a result, peacekeeping initiatives or humanitarian action often suffer. This, he adds, can affect mandates, objectives and priorities. “When you put these two structural problems together, you have the constraints that we are obliged to deal with on a daily basis.”

So does he consider the UN in danger by recent decisions such as Washington’s withdrawal from UNESCO or threats to cut U.N. budgets? Møller shakes his head: “I don’t believe so.” Nevertheless, there has to be drastic reform if the U.N. system is to confront the fast-emerging challenges of today. One constant criticism, for example, is the number of political appointees, often with little appropriate experience, still being imposed by member states rather than seeking the most qualified for the job. “Any bureaucracy, including the U.N., hates change, but this takes time,” notes Møller. And change itself represents a critical structural problem. Particularly in the technology arena, he adds, this is “happening so fast that our own structures and those of individual members states, including the personnel involved, are having a very hard time adapting quickly enough.”

Ensuring that peacekeepers uphold UN standards. Members of the Jordanian battalion of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) rescue children from an orphanage destroyed by hurricane “Ike” (Photo: United Nations)

The world is in a massive surge of distrust

How to resolve this? Better collaboration and integration represent the only way, Møller states without ambiguity. This means “more concerted action in terms of understanding what is going on and rethinking the way we are working.” The U.N. has already embraced various reform processes, which are all part of the U.N.’s effort to recalibrate.  But the U.N. needs to do more. It needs to confront serious issues at hand, such as dealing more effectively with abuses, be they Blue Helmets doing things they should not, or failing to “fix a war”, such as Yemen, South Sudan or DR Congo.

The U.N. is also at an interesting phase, when it comes to questions of sexual misbehaviour or harassment, Møller points out. This is where the public has helped bring pressure in the right places. The #MeToo Movement is forcing governments to ensure that the organizations and those who work in them behave properly. The fact that some of these same governments do not behave properly in their own countries is another question.

For the U.N., Møller maintains, “the question is not whether it is going to survive or not. The question is if – and how – we are going to survive. We have to determine where the U.N. can play an important role and how?”

The UN chief is abundantly aware that reform still has far to go, particularly with regard to the Security Council. “Sure! The reform of the Security Council is a sine qua non,” he notes with a slight smile. “But all of us are caught up in a massive surge of distrust. No one trusts anyone. People don’t trust the U.N. They don’t trust their governments. They don’t trust their media. They don’t trust their teachers. Nor their doctors. And they don’t trust each other, or anybody else for that matter.”

As far as the U.N. is concerned, it needs to gain back its credibility not only as a single, overall organization, but as a network of organizations. In other words, the UN needs to develop more effectively as a system. “If we don’t, we will fail!” Møller declares. “We have to show that we have an impact and that we are useful…and that we are making a difference in your life, and in our lives.” Despite varied criticism, whether by civil society groups in India or right-wing conservatives in the United States, who claim that many of the deep and broad reform processes undertaken by the U.N. have little to do with efficiency and more tinkering to meet political demands, Møller argues that these seek to meet “the overall aim of proving to the world that the system is indispensable.”

Reaching out to young and old. Michael Møller, Director-General, United Nations Office Recipes for Peace cook book signing at Geneva at 70th Anniversary of the United Nations. 24 october 2015. (UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré)

For Michael Møller, this can only be done by ensuring that the U.N. continues to provide the remarkable well-being and peace that it has enabled over the past seven decades, ever since it was created after the Second World War as a new and, it was hoped, more effective version of the League of Nations. (The Palais des Nations was originally built to house the League). “We tend to forget that,” he says. While populations in past and present conflict zones might beg to differ, Møller adds that “many people don’t realize that humanity has never been so well off in its history as it is today.”

While leading human rights groups point out that the U.N. needs to become far more assertive with regard to often blatant abuses by some of its members, such as Saudi Arabia, Myanmar (Burma) or Turkey, Møller recognizes that unless the U.N. takes effective action, it risks sliding back. “It is now up to the international community, including civil society, to convince those who govern us to get things right again,” he says.

Of course, Møller, who has witnessed conflicts and their impacts first-hand, is fully cognizant that matters remain intensely complicated, notably the ongoing tragedies of Syria and Yemen. The world will continue to witness such disasters, he maintains, and yet, “look at the facts, look at the statistics. But if you look at the numbers, fewer people are dying today in war than ever before. More people die in traffic accidents than in armed conflicts.”

An urgent need to re-create trusted journalism

One area where attitudes can be changed is the way news is presented, Møller believes. Society needs to deal more effectively with the problems instigated by fake news and the disinformation it engenders. This includes rethinking how to educate – or inform –  young people. “In most cases and in most countries, we are still educating our kids for yesterday, not for tomorrow,” he argues. (See Global Geneva article on helping young people better understand journalism). There has to be a recalibration of the way news is presented, and how such content is made available to youth. “There has to be a re-shaping of their perception so that they can become the next journalists to speak the truth and not seek to manipulate. This represents a broad social responsibility, a social engineering project of sorts. This will take time, but we have to do it.”

For Møller, who has been pushing hard to bring the private sector on board, a significant number of companies are proving not only sensitive to such concerns, but are actively supporting the SDGs themselves. Even if the SDGs – and what they imply – are difficult to put across to the public-at-large, Møller believes that they are becoming “the global road map”. “I have never seen such a readiness amongst companies to appropriate and inject them into their business models.” (See Møller speech at the EPFL Showcase 2030 Open day in 10 April, 2019). One reason for this, he adds, is because the SDGs “simply make sense”. Another is that a growing number of firms have realized that unless they act sustainably and adopt decisive approaches for mitigating climate change and all the other sustainability issues, they will die.

The world’s Millennials: An emerging voice – and influencer

One key factor is the influence of the Millennial generation, Møller points out. “They are the ones saying very clearly that they will not buy products from companies that are not sustainable. They will not work for them and they will not invest in them.” One example is the enormous amount of money expected to change hands over the next 10 to 20 years through inheritance. “That money has to go somewhere, but it will not go to companies that are not sustainable.”

These same people, he adds, have created a fund and started investing accordingly. “The return on investment in sustainable companies is a lot higher than from non-sustainable companies. There is increasing evidence to show that if you wish to remain successful as a company, you’d better become sustainable. And this needs to happen over the next decade,” Møller maintains.

The importance of involving all members of the community to better understand both the U.N. and International Geneva. Participants during the fourth session of the Escalade Race in the Ariana Park and around the Palais des Nations. 8 November 2015. (UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré)

Turning the refugee and migrant crisis into a positive factor

For Møller, no matter how bad a situation is portrayed, notably Europe’s refugee or migrant crisis, there are always solutions. “The fact that politicians have used negative xenophobic stereotypes for short political gain reinforced by a small minority in their own societies has turned the ‘crisis’ into a much bigger problem than it really is,” he maintains.

Compared to Europe’s total population, recent migration involves a ridiculously small number, Møller says. “We need these migrants! Most European countries don’t have a replacement birth rate. There are more people dying than born. Germany alone needs between 350,000 to 400,000 migrants a year just to maintain the economy at the level it is now. The same goes for the United Kingdom. If it hadn’t been for all the migrants who came over the years, its economy would be far less positive than today. It’s no different in Italy and other countries.”

The real problem, Møller notes, is the narrative. One that is fed by disinformation  promoting fake facts with short-sighted and ill-informed politicians taking advantage of the situation. It is a very difficult balancing act to persuade them otherwise because much is happening at a time of financial difficulty in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The past 10 years have not been particularly easy for a lot of countries, he says; there has been a fight between the finance sectors of governments and the political humanitarian reflexes that emerge, even in traditionally open societies such as his own, such as Holland and the Nordic countries.

For Europe, this is particularly frustrating because societies need these people. “We have been there before and we have found solutions,” Møller reminds listeners. Harking back to his UNHCR days, he suggests that one can easily take pages out of the 1980s playbook, when the Vietnamese boat people sought haven around the world. Doors closed and yet the international community found solutions. “We placed several millions of people in an orderly fashion, and today these Asians, and particularly Vietnamese, have become some of the most productive citizens of their new societies.”

Globally, he points out, the world is looking at potentially massive migrations in the years ahead, unless stricter remedial actions are implemented. And yet, the world is acting in an exceptionally short-sighted way with regard to climate change and other issues, which could lead tens of millions of people to flee their countries. “Most of the people who are now closing the doors are going to be just as affected as the one they are closing the doors to.”

Moving from an old system to a new one

Møller sees all this as part of the changing governance structures, notably an “old system” which has not quite been re-structured into a new one. “This is where we are today,” he determines, adding that while societies may be facing enormous dangers, but they also have resilience. “They will figure out a way of seeing how this works. It is the cities and their mayors where interesting things are happening, this is where citizens get their services.” Over half of the world population now live in urban zones, he adds. Over the next several decades, it will be 70 to 80 per cent. “So we need to act. Now.”

As head of the UN in Geneva, Moller initially came for three months. He was persuaded to remain longer and dealt with the development of the International Geneva concept. This has meant confronting a host of new and old challenges. For someone who has worked in the field, does he ever miss it? Africa for example? Or Asia? Moller smiles slowly. “I have done the field. And I go there sometimes. But I don’t miss it. Because this is field. Seen from Uganda or from elsewhere, Geneva is the field!”

Luisa Ballin is a Geneva-based Swiss journalist and contributing editor to Global Geneva.

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