Today in The Geneva Observer, we stay in our favorite backyard with a sneak preview of Building H, the latest addition to the UN’s Geneva campus, before returning to the G20 in Rome, where a deal of significance for International Geneva was sealed on the sidelines of the summit. We also have some exciting news to share about The Geneva Observer and conclude with a very timely op-ed on the difficult balancing act of a multilateral system caught in the conflicting tensions of a pluripolar world.
Keep scrolling, it’s all below.
The H Building Inaugurated Amidst Staff Interrogations
From UNOG’s D-G Tatiana Valovaya, to Swiss FM Ignazio Cassis, to the Geneva authorities, le tout Genève internationale was gathered, despite the rain, for Monday’s (November 1) blue ribbon-cutting ceremony of the brand new UN H building. The building is part of the UN Strategic Heritage Plan, an ambitious plan to renovate the organization in Geneva.
For Switzerland (who indirectly footed the CHF 450 million bill through a loan), the H building is a concrete (pun intended) illustration of its commitment to fulfill its role as a host country and to develop International Geneva—of strategic importance for its foreign policy. For the UN, the brand new building is an exercise in optimization of its real estate portfolio and, ultimately, a cost-cutting measure: by densifying its office spaces and bringing several organizations under a single roof that are currently scattered around the city, the UN saves on high rent costs.
On schedule, despite Covid
An estimated 800 United Nations administrative staff, from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as well as the pension fund staff, have moved into the space since May. While the UNECE staff is expected to return to the adjacent E building once its renovation is completed, the others will remain in place. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights is expected to move into the H building by 2024, once the SHP is fully completed.
The H office complex might be stockier and lack the character of its older sibling—the Palais des Nations, built in 1934—but from the outside its allure is impressive nonetheless. The large glass windows are the most noticeable features of the building, which looks almost buried under its terraced green roofs.
A construction project this size always comes with its share of challenges. It is fair to say, however, that the construction of this building has been anything but smooth.
There have been water infiltration incidents, one of the main architects quit during construction, and during its initial phases, a number of contractual mishaps with H’s contractors marred the project. Amongst the difficulties was a fallout between the SHP and Implenia, the building company in charge of the site.
Will the Swiss contractor be completing the rest of the project? “The ongoing renovation is being done by another contractor,” SHP Project Director David McCuaig tells The G|O . “The procurement process is underway for further renovations, but we don’t know which company will be completing the rest of the work at this stage.”
Open plan discontentment
According to a survey of the building’s future occupants by the UN Staff Coordinating Council, it appears the jury is pretty much still out on one of the main features of the H: its open-plan design. The concept, an object of intense controversy since its invention in the early sixties, was approved for the site a few years ago. A pandemic later, and with no architectural revisions, people are clearly expressing mixed feelings—if not outright opposition—about having to move into the H.
COVID-19 has created legitimate new fears, particularly about the risk of viral contamination; fears that have been added to previous and long-documented concerns: “Our complaints have been ignored over and over,” says a Staff Council Member who wishes to remain anonymous. “The space is not adapted to work. The blinds close automatically when the sun comes out, plunging us into darkness, and there are temperature problems throughout the building. Sometimes it’s too cold and sometimes it’s too hot. Not to mention that it is difficult to make a phone call in an open space. Most of us prefer to work from home.”
Addressing these concerns, David McCuaig acknowledged to The G|O that there had been a few initial problems with the building’s systems, but said that “these have now almost all been resolved, and the new building is a state-of-the-art facility which delivers on the UN’s sustainability agenda.”
As for the challenges of space organization, he added that "this is where the hard deliverables of the project come into direct contact with everybody working in the Palais. Some disruption is inevitable and a dedicated Transition Team has been created to minimize these issues.”
ELSEWHERE IN THE ECOSYSTEM
All roads lead to Rome—and often too, to Geneva.
The coordinated and sustained effort by the US, the EU, Japan and a few “like-minded countries” to find a common answer to China (which we reported on in our last briefing) has gained some serious momentum in Rome on the sidelines of last weekend’s G20 meeting, with the announcement by Washington and Brussels to put on hold the Trump-imposed steel and aluminum tariffs and retaliatory measures. “This marks a new milestone in the transatlantic relationship,” reads Brussels’ communiqué announcing the decision, sealed last Saturday, (October 30). “This is another significant step in the wider reset of transatlantic relations. The US decision to restore past trading volumes of EU steel and aluminum exports means we can move on from a major irritant with the US,” stated the EU’s Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis. The Trump administration started the war in 2018 by slapping tariffs on €6.4 billion of European steel and aluminum exports, invoking “national security” reasons.
The dispute over metals has been one of the major sources of tension between Washington and Brussels over the last few years. What eventually convinced the Europeans to agree to the ceasefire, despite the fact that they have always maintained the “national security” argument was illegal, was a desire to fight back against China’s massive, subsidy-financed overproduction of steel. But the pragmatic rapprochement between the US and the EU also indicates a shared willingness to redefine the rules of the trading game. EU Trade Commissioner Dombrovskis’ statement that the objective is “to restrict market access for participants that do not meet ... the conditions for market orientation, or that do not meet standards for low carbon intensity,” is widely perceived as a clear sign that new trading criteria will be set by Washington and Brussels: linking market access to goods produced in accordance with financial, environmental and labor standards.
The prevailing idea that trade should be immune from politics, a philosophy that presided over the creation of the WTO, seems to be coming to an end. The potential consequences of such a shift in doctrine, while difficult to assess at this point, will arguably be momentous.
Jair Bolsonaro's security man attacks Jamil Chade and other reporters
All eyes are now on Glasgow and COP26. Among the no-shows is Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Why has he chosen not to attend? “I am not going to give you the satisfaction of answering you, my boy,” he contemptuously told the G|O’s Jamil Chade, who had asked the question while following him in the streets of Rome with other reporters at the end of the G20 summit. Instead, after having already punched another reporter in the stomach, a member of Bolsonaro’s security detail brutally assaulted Chade, twisting his arm and throwing his phone on the ground as the journalist was filming the scene. We vehemently condemn this attack on our reporter and his colleagues. You can read a Deutsche Welle report on the attack here.
The Brazilian president is known to be no friend of constitutions. James Madison—one of the fathers of the American one—wrote that a democracy “without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” Those words ring truer now—and are more needed—than ever. Jamil, fortunately, is fine.
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