This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, a first take on the second annual summit of the Geneva Science and Technology Anticipator (GESDA) that started yesterday with two significant announcements.
We stay in Geneva for an update on the status of the H Building. Sarah Zeines reports on the newest and probably most unloved piece of the renovation plan of the Geneva UN campus. Many problems have been flagged in a recent audit. But what are these, and how will they be fixed? Hard to say since we are told the info is confidential (Translation: litigation with contractors is a messy business, and cost overruns covered by public funds are not a good look.)
Haiti is on a verge of total collapse, with the real possibility that the country will descend into complete chaos with horrific human consequences for its 11 million people. New York is seriously worried. An urgent call for help from Haiti’s prime minister has been heard by António Guterres, himself a former humanitarian from his days as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As Jamil Chade writes, beyond the discussion of sending UN forces to the country, the crisis has put an unflattering spotlight on what some see as a major failure of the humanitarian system.
It’s all below, with the added bonus of a few short news items. As always, thank you for reading us and for sharing The G|O Briefing far and wide!
SCIENCE AT THE MULTILATERAL TABLE
By Philippe Mottaz
Geneva is in full GESDA mode. The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator opened its second summit yesterday. Since its creation in 2018, GESDA has billed itself as a “think and a do tank.” Yesterday, its initiators opted to put their emphasis on the “do” by unveiling two concrete projects: the creation of an Open Quantum Institute (OQI) and a Global Curriculum on Science Diplomacy.
As quantum computing is widely perceived – all hype aside – as a profoundly disruptive scientific and technological breakthrough, GESDA is clearly hoping to avoid letting history repeat itself when Geneva and Switzerland let the World Wide Web, invented here at CERN and freely shared at the time, become dominated by a small group of private companies.
At the core of GESDA’s mission and raison d’être lies the conviction that science and technology should be treated as a common good. “OQI,” GESDA President Peter Brabeck-Lethmate said yesterday, “is the first prototype action to accelerate the development and use of emerging technologies for the benefit of all.”
For many, quantum computing is one of science’s critical new frontiers. Three years ago, Google announced it had reached a milestone and, thanks to a quantum computer, performed in a mere three minutes and 20 seconds a calculation that today’s supercomputers would have needed about 10’000 years to achieve. Speed is only one of its attributes and maybe not even the most important. The promise of quantum computing is its potential to solve problems and challenges that are intractable today. Quantum computers could help us create new drugs, develop more efficient batteries or solar panels, and lead to the discovery of new fertilizers.
“The time is ripe for quantum.”
As such, they could be instrumental in supporting countries to meet the objectives of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and beyond. Scientists agree that it will take time, most likely a few years, before quantum computers will migrate out of research labs. Therefore, now is the time, according to CERN Director-General Fabiola Gianotti, to get ahead of the curve. This thinking was a key motivation for GESDA to make quantum computing an area of focus when it unveiled its Science Breakthrough Radar® last year.
With more than 700 hundred top scientists from around the world contributing, the Radar maps scientific advances and their potential over the next 5, 10, and 25 years. “The time is ripe for quantum,” Gianotti told the GESDA audience, with “massive investments in public and private money made in the field, in the order of billions.” However, she warned, “the current model of scientific development is unsustainable” as science and technology too often end up in private hands or benefit only a few countries, creating a two-speed world. “ We need,” she said, “to ensure open access to science and technology, to health and education,” and this is how the development of such technologies “should be framed.”
Being able to frame it in this way, however, is undoubtedly OQI’s biggest challenge. For one, Big Tech companies are richer and more powerful than some states and are already trying to dominate the field. Furthermore, science and technology are firmly at the center of the rivalry between the US and China. Both countries are massively investing in quantum and A.I. to outcompete each other.
“I think that up until now, what has been missing in multilateralism is precisely the fact that scientists were not at the table.”
GESDA’s architects readily admit that they are launching their initiative in foul weather marked by great stress in the multilateral system and destabilizing geopolitical tensions. One more reason, given the size of the challenges, they say, to move forward. They also put their faith in what they see as GESDA’s distinguishing advantage: the fact that was conceived and is now driven by scientists, not politicians or entrepreneurs. “Collaborating and sharing on a global scale is in scientists’ DNA; this is how we work,” Dr Urbasi Sinha, professor at the Quantum Information and Computing Lab of the Raman Institute of India, told The G|O.
Patrick Aebischer, former EPFL Director and main architect behind the GESDA, had a similar take: “I think that up until now, what has been missing in multilateralism is precisely the fact that scientists were not at the table. I am not saying that scientists are better people, I am saying that it brings another way to think about” cooperation and collaboration. GESDA’s initiators also consider International Geneva’s ecosystem a considerable asset. If we think about innovation in science, Aebischer said, “intellectual property and patents are essential elements that can determine if technology will or will not be commercialized. Having the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) here is extremely important, as countries abide by the organization’s rules.”
The creation of a Global Science Curriculum, also announced on the Summit’s opening day, aims to further ensure that, with science seated at the multilateral table, conversations can be better informed. “Scientists and diplomats lack a common language, a common mindset, and a natural place to engage and exchange views. When scientists make new discoveries in the lab, they typically don't know the practical uses or potential impacts, positive or negative, that those discoveries might have on society. Diplomats negotiating to solve global problems often don't know which scientific evidence or advances are the most likely to turn into solutions since the technologies are changing so quickly,” GESDA explains in a press release.
The summit closes tomorrow. We will come back to it next week.
HAITI'S NEAR-TOTAL COLLAPSE EXPOSES FRAGILITY AND COLLECTIVE FAILURE OF THE HUMANITARIAN RESPONSE
By Jamil Chade
Three years after winding down its 15-year mission in Haiti and five years after the departure of the last peacekeeper, meetings at the Security Council at the end of September, documents from the UN, and evaluations from specialized agencies warn that the country is on the verge of a collapse. Rival armed gangs now rule major parts of the country by terror, making Haiti one of the most dangerous and insecure countries in the world. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that about a quarter of the 11 million Haitians are under the control of armed groups.
The situation has gone from bad to worse after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, which created a complete institutional and political vacuum. The situation is so dire that the UN is now asking member states to reconsider sending armed forces to help the country address yet another descent into a deeper humanitarian crisis. And the debate is also bringing a bitter truth to light: 15 years of peacekeeping operations and billions of dollars in aid have not stabilized the country. “It is tragic that the UN has engaged in Haiti so often but is still trying to sort out many of the same problems with law and order that it first addressed in the 1990s,” Richard Gowan, the UN Director for the International Crisis Group, told The G|O.
The proposal for redeploying soldiers comes a week after Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry called for help, demanding that the international community send a “specialized armed force” to his country. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, supported the idea in a 12-page long report to the UN Security Council. “Considering the extremely grave situation, international efforts to enhance support for the Haitian National Police must aim to reduce the ability of armed gangs to block access to and carry out attacks on strategic infrastructure and threaten the livelihood of communities,” Guterres wrote.
But the Haitian request forces the UN to rethink several aspects of its humanitarian actions. Not unlike war—easier to start than to end—when to end a humanitarian mission can often be a fiendishly complex equation. And too often in the past, cessations have been based more on financial consideration than on the reality of the situation on the ground.
During the Trump administration, Guterres and other member states had essentially no choice but to cave in to Washington’s blunt pressure to reduce the scope of the UN’s peacekeeping missions. In 2017, the UN agreed to a $600 million cut for its peace operations around the world, the largest cut ever imposed on the UN. The US had requested a $1 billion reduction in the blue helmets’ budget. After fierce discussions, the UN’s $7.9 billion for peace operations was reduced to $7.3 billion. Missions in Darfur, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo would suffer the most. Guterres had instead proposed deep cuts in UN administration in New York and Geneva, hoping to increase the blue helmets’ funding by $100 million. He was not followed by a majority of the member states. The UN chief now proposes that the UN Security Council (UNSC) “welcomes” the dispatch of blue helmets to Haiti, whereas in the past, such deployment had to be “approved” by the SC. Guterres’ proposal calls for an operation in two phases.
“In the short term, the UN proposal for a rapid international intervention to help restore order makes good sense. But there is a risk of mission creep.” - Richard Gowan
In the short term, the UN chief proposes that a rapid reaction force be deployed under the leadership of one member state but composed of forces from one or more countries. The funding would come from the international community; however, if governments are not ready to step forward with bilateral support, the UN itself would work out a path to provide the funds from its own budget. Simultaneously, the UN Secretary-General proposes to strengthen the Haitian’s national police, to restore order by countering and containing the gangs. Over time, what would be a rapid military deployment would be transformed into a police operation. However, UN member states remain reticent. “In the short term, the UN proposal for a rapid international intervention to help restore order makes good sense. But there is the risk of mission creep and outside powers getting sucked into another long-term deployment. I'd note that the UN seems to want member states to take on the initial enforcement action rather than blue helmets. However, I think there will be concerns at UN headquarters that if this initial plan does not work out the Security Council may start to think of a bigger blue helmet like MINUSTAH, although nobody wants to see that in the first instance,” says Gowan.
DIRE HUMANITARIAN SITUATION
But the peacekeeping conundrum is not the only one. Amongst diplomats and humanitarian agencies, it is considered that the return of a mission, even under a new format, must also come with a recognition that the current strategy of humanitarian response is fragile and gains obtained from years of investments can be lost in a short time. As of 13 October, some 7 million people were facing insufficient food consumption, according to the WFP Hungermap, the equivalent of 64% of the population, with an increase of 2.76 million over the last three months. In March 2022, the Humanitarian Response Plan estimated that 4.9 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance at the beginning of the year, the equivalent to 43% of the population. About 24,000 displaced people living on makeshift sites have very limited access to food, water, or health services, with pregnant women giving birth with no medical care.
According to OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke, “OCHA is particularly concerned about the plight of women, children, and people with disabilities whose access to protection and basic goods and services is greatly challenged.” The UN's Special Representative to Haiti, Helen La Lime, warned that “an economic crisis, a gang crisis, and a political crisis have converged into a humanitarian catastrophe.”
In a report circulated amongst member countries, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) admits, “Haiti has been experiencing a security crisis due to violence from armed gangs in Port-au-Prince and other cities, which has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country.” “The current vulnerabilities include malnutrition, internally displaced persons (IDPs), non-functional structures, limited or lack of access to health services, fuel shortages, limited access to safe water, and poor sanitation and hygiene facilities, amongst others,” it claims. “These factors would have an impact on the dynamics of the cholera resurgence and on the severity of the disease in patients with acute diarrhea.”
Access to the affected areas is difficult and therefore, timely assessment of the epidemiological situation and provision of health care for cases is complex,” it concludes. Potable water supplies have also been impacted, amplifying the cholera outbreak following three years without any cases. As of Sunday, there were 32 confirmed cases, 224 suspected, and 16 confirmed deaths.
Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian relief chief, called for emergency funding and warned that if the spread of the disease is left unchecked, it could lead to “cataclysmic levels of despair for the people of Haiti.” Gangs have blocked Haiti’s main fuel port, leading to gas and diesel shortages and forcing hospitals to shut down. The crisis has also led to a food shortage. Last week, La Lime also told the UN Security Council that 2,000 tons of food aid were lost due to attacks on warehouses administered by the UN. As result, 200,000 Haitians could be left out of supplies for the coming month. In fact, World Food Program’s (WFP) executive director Valerie Guarnieri, claimed, “the situation in Haiti has sadly reached new levels of desperation.” With inflation at a record level, 40% of the country is relying on food assistance.
IS THE CURRENT MODEL OF HUMANITARIAN AID FAILING?
In internal debates, humanitarian agencies pose questions on their capacity to assure development in the country, while some claim a sustainable transformation in the lives of millions of people will only come when elements such as political stability, fighting corruption, and the strengthening of rule of law are implemented. When asked if the current model is failing, OCHA responded that they “could not make such judgments in the middle of a (humanitarian) response. The ICRC, for its part, did not address the substance of the issue in its answer. But like OCHA, the ICRC is “concerned with the exacerbated humanitarian needs resulting from the current massive civil unrest, armed violence and the resurgence of cholera cases in Haiti.”
-JC. Additional reporting by Philippe Mottaz
GENEVA UN H BUILDING’S LINGERING CHALLENGES ONE YEAR ON
By Sarah Zeines
A year after its official inauguration, the UN Geneva campus' newest building remains plagued with problems. From heating challenges to supply chain issues to problematic sub-contractors, the initial CHF 836.5 million budget continues to rise. However, details remain opaque, and files are kept confidential. The facades of the H Building may be all glass, but the building’s ills are anything but transparent. Since its presentation to the press on November 1st, 2021, what can be said about UNOG’s H Building, a 24,000-square-meter sustainable office building that houses 1,500 staff? It seems the promise of an exciting new workplace has not, of yet, convinced staff active behind the building's scenes—a place where the press is no longer welcome, according to the guards stationed at the musty-smelling entrance. In the Strategic Heritage Plan’s (SHP) latest report, a list of recommendations made by the Board of Auditors was still “under implementation.”
Grey areas that add to the CHF 35 million of overspending were pinpointed by the Office of Internal Oversight Services, Internal Audit Division (OIOS) at the end of last year. The 11-page document also identified other weak spots of the global renovation of the Palais des Nations complex, such as risk identification and management, lack of funding for audiovisual changes, and insufficient SHP staff.
“Supply chain issues, global market uncertainty, inflation, and change management may continue to further affect the project schedule and costs,” acknowledges Rhéal LeBlanc, UNOG’s Chief of Press and External Relations. “Since the date of the financial information reported in the December 2021 OIOS report, several successful mitigation actions were taken to reduce costs and delays, including resequencing the renovation work to mitigate delays to the extent possible and implementing value engineering measures. These mitigation actions have contributed to a considerable improvement of the final cost forecast of the project in the Secretary General’s 2022 report to the General Assembly, compared to the figures noted in the 2021 OIOS report.” “Mitigation actions” remain unknown to the public. “UNOG is ensuring that the as-built (H) Building information modeling models are accurate and complete by the requirements of the contract. Such files cannot be shared, as this is confidential information,” apologizes LeBlanc.
SUBCONTRACTORS AND CLIMATE CHANGE PROBLEMS
Amongst issues with the SHP PROJECT, The Geneva Observer revealed in early 2020 a severe litigation opposing Implenia, the company mandated for the new construction, and one of its subcontractors. How has the problem been dealt with? “Substantial completion of the H Building was achieved in October 2021, and the contract has entered the two-year defect notification and warranty period. During this time, the UN is working collaboratively with the contractor on settling all outstanding financial and contractual issues,” insists LeBlanc. During H Building’s inauguration phase, several functional issues with the building’s heating system were brought up and seem to have been confirmed; employees have complained off-the-record of H’s open spaces being either too hot or too cold. With heat-retaining patches of vegetation on rooftop areas and large open spaces inside, the construction relies on mechanical ventilation, a technique involving ducts and fans rather than open windows or holes. “The summer heatwaves surely have an impact on the buildings and their energy consumption, which can be mitigated thanks to a connection to the lake water network run by the local utility company Services Industriels de Genève (SIG),” LeBlanc tells us. “This offers more stability in the costs incurred for keeping the interior spaces within an acceptable comfort range and avoids relying on electricity for actively cooling the building, which would be a less sustainable way to proceed.” He concedes: “The rapidly changing climate conditions put the buildings and their technical installations under stress and put the focus on the need to consider the energy performance of the buildings as early as possible in the design process, to reduce the needs at source and make sure that the indoor comfort conditions are ensured with the least energy use.” While we couldn’t predict the Ukrainian war and its impact on the global economy, climate change is a known and highly documented reality, which begs the question: Why weren’t extreme temperatures factored into the building designs?
FLUCTUATING STAFF AND OPEN SPACES
The H’s open-plan design was also under recurring critique from UN staff members relocated to the building, many of whom have only used the space temporarily up until this point. “The majority of Building H is currently being used as swing space during the renovation of the historic building ahead of the permanent moves of OHCHR in 2024 so the number of occupants is currently fluctuating as entities move in and out,” says Rhéal LeBlanc. “Building H serves the Secretariat of the UN; specialists in several different areas, including the Office of the Director-General, OCHA, UNECE, and the UNOG Division of Administration.
Working from home compliments and supports flexible working.” How many people actually occupy temporary desks daily and how many will make the permanent move to the space remain unclear. LeBlanc concludes: “UNOG is currently working on a post-SHP maintenance strategy that will ensure the optimal operation of the entire Palais des Nations compound, including all its buildings and infrastructure over the long term while protecting all investments made. The majority of staff moved in during a period when there were COVID restrictions imposed by the UN and host country, and as these have slowly lifted, it’s been great to witness the building coming to life and being used in the way it was intended. This state-of-the-art construction has been designed as a healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving office building that is fully aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals principles.” Is a building state-of-the-art when it can’t deal with foreseeable climate change? Can open spaces promote a fruitful work environment, despite a multitude of experts—including the Harvard Business Review—stating otherwise in the recent past? The H Building still has a long way to go before being fully adopted.
RETIREMENT? YOU MUST BE JOKING!
A week after former ILO Director-General Guy Ryder literally handed the keys to the ILO to his successor Gilbert Houngbo, he was packing his bags for New York, ending speculation and friendly internal office bets about his next act. Last Friday, António Guterres announced Ryder’s appointment as Under-Secretary-General for Policy in his Executive Office, succeeding Volker Türk, Michele Bachelet’s successor as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It is an important position, with Ryder now coordinating global policy work for the SG and the follow-up to the ambitious initiatives in the SG’s 2021 Common Agenda report, which includes the 2025 World Social Summit. Well-respected in UN circles as ILO DG, Ryder played an active role in interagency affairs, recently stepping down as chair of the UN High-level Committee on Programmes.
A RETURN TO FAMILIAR GROUNDS
It’s back to Geneva for Pamela Hamamoto, US Ambassador to the UN, here between 2014 and 2017. Ambassador Hamamoto will come back as lead US Pandemic Negotiator on the proposed accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response currently being discussed at the World Health Organization. “As lead US Pandemic Negotiator, Ambassador Hamamoto will assume management and oversight of US engagement in these important discussions, which we believe must yield an accord that effectively strengthens global health collaboration, improves systems for monitoring disease or pandemic outbreaks, bolsters national health security capacities, and enhances equity in pandemic preparedness and responses.” In stating that it believes that the negotiations about a future pandemic treaty “must yield an accord,” the US administration strengthens recent signals that it is now willing to accept a treaty containing legally binding obligations and voluntary provisions. Multilateralism and international cooperation do require ceding some degree of sovereignty. Superpowers, including the US, have for years shown various degrees of reluctance about legally binding conditions in international treaties. Beyond the WHO, that position also explains Washington’s misgivings about the WTO’s appellate body, the supreme organ to settle trade disputes whose rulings are binding.
VENEZUELA IS OUT. BUT THAT’S ABOUT IT
The Human Rights Council composition has changed. On Tuesday (October 11), the UN General Assembly elected 14 new members out of 18 candidates. HRC watchers doubt that this election will change the voting dynamics at the Council, as more than half of the 18 countries vying for a seat were recently flagged by the UN. And here is the list of the new members:
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines