Tatiana Valovaya, director general of the United Nations in Geneva, speaks to Geneva Solutions in her first interview this year.
It’s 9am and Tatiana Valovaya, I’m told just before our interview, is feeling “under the weather”. Despite the summer heatwave, the director general of the United Nations in Geneva has caught a chill she puts down to sleeping with the window open (a Covid test came back negative) and with an agenda crammed with meetings, speeches and inaugurations, she’s worried about her voice lasting through the day.
Valovaya arrives, apologises for her croaky voice, and we sit – a wide precautionary gap between us – in her offices in the new “H” building of the Palais des Nations. Completed in October last year, it’s the first part of a big and pricy renovation of the stark-neoclassical complex that launched only months after Valovaya had put her feet under the desk.
Like the modern glass building – so much has changed since we last sat down together three years ago for one of her first interviews after taking up her role in Geneva. “It was a completely different world”, she says – one before Covid and the war in Ukraine were sending shockwaves around the world – and one where her nationality wouldn’t have sparked the same questions.
Appointed in 2019 by the UN’s top boss Antonio Guterres to run the organisation’s European headquarters – the first woman to do so – the Russian diplomat, economist and former journalist gives her first interview since the war in Ukraine began. Her allegiance is firmly to the UN, Valovaya says below. “We are all here at the UN showing a good example of how we all can work together.” She gives her account of the current global situation and role of international Geneva in helping to overcome current crises.
Geneva Solutions: The renovation of the Palais des Nations has been one of the biggest tasks you've had to oversee over your time in the role, and it has had its fair share of headwinds, including delays due to Covid. How would you describe the progress so far and how have member states responded?
Tatiana Valovaya: Taking into account the Covid pandemic, the problems on the markets and the risks of disruption in the supply chain as a result of the Covid lockdown etc, I think we’re doing very well so far. We are practically within the budget, the excess of the budget is less than one per cent. (The total cost of the project was budgeted at CHF836.5m - ed.) That’s the result of the hard work that everybody in my team has been delivering over these very difficult years.
We’re now sitting with you in our new building H and that was, I would say, the first part of the project, and we’re now practically approaching the end of the next part of the project, which is the renovation of the historical building. We hope that we’ll be moving back to our historical building starting this autumn and that the whole project will be over sometime at the beginning of the first half of 2025.
When our predecessors decided more than 100 years ago to build this amazing Palais, they really wanted to build a place for multilateralism – a palais for peace, a palais for the nations. We have to protect it, but we also have to turn it into a building fit for the 21st century. So for us there are two challenges here: to make it a modern conference centre but at the same time preserve its heritage.
This is a difficult time for multilateralism and institutions that promote multilateralism. In the latest example of events here in Geneva, WTO members managed to agree some watered-down deals – but only just. Does multilateralism have a future?
The results of the World Trade Organization conference sent a very strong and positive message, because they managed to agree on issues which they couldn’t agree on over a pretty long period. So that shows that multilateralism is very much alive, that it’s needed, and that the member states are ready to work on multilateral solutions. But of course, we all know that multilateralism is under attack, and it's under attack when we need it most. Because of all the challenges we’re facing these days – whether you take climate change, geopolitical conflicts, food insecurity, markets, the pandemic – if we want to find real global solutions, these solutions can be only multilateral ones. We can’t have national solutions or regional solutions if a challenge is global – they have to be implemented by the whole international community.
You have frequently spoken about a “renewed multilateralism”. What do you mean by that and what role does Geneva have in shaping the future of multilateralism?
When we’re talking about strengthening multilateralism, we are always putting an emphasis on the fact that we want to develop and shape a “renewed multilateralism”. Last year, the UN Secretary-General released his report “Our Common Agenda” in which he talks about the necessity of having a “United Nations 2.0” and of having an inclusive multilateralism. What does inclusive mean? Well, first of all, we have many more member states than we had at the time of the creation of the United Nations, and the voices of all these member states should be taken into account. To promote this inclusive multilateralism, we also have to promote new ways of working, including the possibility of hybrid conferences, so everybody can participate in all the activities.
While member states remain the key actors in the international arena, they’re not the only ones. We have many international organisations and regional organisations; we have the non-governmental sector, and without them we can’t implement solutions for all spheres of our activities. We have the private sector, and we need their support for implementing the sustainable development goals; and we also need the support of academia. Then there are different groups, like female organisations, for example, who are our best partners in addressing challenges such as gender discrimination and the rights of women. Here in Geneva, we’re exactly the place where we can shape multilateralism in this inclusive, integrated way because we have all these key actors I mentioned. And what we’re trying to do here is to show how all of us can work together.
With the paralysis of the Security Council, the HRC has played a more prominent role as a forum where member states can make a stance and vote on issues without veto - like the decision to suspend Russia from the HRC. On top of this, so many of today’s most urgent global issues are human rights issues. How can the UN in Geneva do a better job in elevating the HRC?
Geneva is absolutely rightly considered to be the capital of human rights, because here we do not only have the Human Rights Council but also other treaty bodies and special procedures. We also have, as I said, non-governmental organisations working in this sphere; and all of them are working together to promote and protect human rights. And at the beginning of the pandemic, when many organisations closed their in-person activities, here in Geneva, we were practically the first to start conference activities again as early as June 2020. This was because the member states of the Human Rights Council asked us to resume the activities as there were, as a result of the pandemic, new challenges to human rights.
So we’re very proud that we were able to support them and as a result, I would say the Human Rights Council was maybe the only international body here in Geneva which fulfilled 100 per cent of its programme. It was also very important that over this period (2020-2021), the Human Rights Council worked often in a hybrid way. I was told that, for example, many small Pacific member states who could never send a special delegation to the Human Rights Council previously, were able to participate online. So we see that Geneva is very active on human rights, and I think that’s why the secretary general Antonio Guterres chose Geneva to launch his call for action on human rights in 2020.
Do you worry that power politics and the emergence of two opposite blocks – the West and democracies on one side and China and Russia with like-minded states on the other will paralyse the UN agencies in general and the HRC in particular?
In January 2020 before the pandemic, the secretary general spoke at the World Economic Forum about the unprecedented level of geopolitical tensions in the world. So these tensions existed well before 2022 and, of course, we have to address them and understand their consequences. It’s the key thing which we, at the United Nations, are trying to do. Because we all understand that when we're looking for the solutions, we have to take into account the interests, the views, of all the member states. We have to work together in order to discuss things, to make decisions and to implement them. Of course, in order to achieve this, we have to work together to ease geopolitical tensions, because the world is in a very bad state.
Just (last week), the FAO’s report on the state of global hunger was published; in 2020 - 2021, the number of people suffering from hunger increased by 150 million – an immense growth. Now we see, as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, the rising prices of food and energy supplies, and these are jeopardising the stability of the markets. So, it’s clear that these geopolitical tensions between certain groups have global consequences.
That’s why we at the UN and my colleagues in many other institutions here, for example, at UNCTAD who are leading the way in assessing the impact and finding solutions, are working around the clock, precisely to minimise the result of these consequences, first of all, for the most vulnerable nations, communities and people.
It’s a difficult time to be Russian and a UN diplomat in this highly tense and politicised environment. How have you navigated this and has it thrown up any uncomfortable situations for you?
Indeed, I am a Russian citizen by nationality but when I joined the United Nations, I took allegiance to the United Nations. UN officials are not representing the countries of their nationality and we’re not receiving any instructions [from governments]. And I would say that we all here at the UN are showing a good example of how we all can work together in very difficult situations: here, I work every day with my colleagues who, by nationality, are Americans, French, German, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Georgian – you name it. And I haven’t had a single, uncomfortable moment because we’re all working together. We understand that we are representing the United Nations and that we now have to intensify our efforts, and to work together in order to bring peace to Ukraine, and to minimise the economic and social consequences of the conflict for the world. And to find solutions, which would really bring peace, prosperity, and stop this crisis.
Do you think diplomacy between Russia and the West is still possible, and how Geneva could be a conduit for that?
As I said, working for the United Nations, I believe only in peaceful solutions. I believe in diplomacy, in negotiation, in sitting around a table and discussing all the issues. I am absolutely sure that there are solutions to the current hostilities, there are possibilities for cooperation. The world, as I said, needs to lessen the level of geopolitical tensions. I really believe that we have to work for the future, and always hope that these solutions will come sooner than later.
You are also the secretary general of the Conference on Disarmament. What can the CD do to get out of its insignificance? Are you hopeful that it can someday take the lead to push for nuclear disarmament?
I’m absolutely certain that the Conference on Disarmament has a future. It’s the only multilateral body on disarmament, and each year, member states repeat that they want to preserve and develop this body. You are absolutely right that for 25 years the Conference on Disarmament couldn’t start negotiating on substance and since 2009, it couldn’t agree on a programme of work. But at the same time, there are other activities going on. For example, this year, in spite of the current level of geopolitical tensions, the Conference managed to agree on creating subsidiary bodies which could allow it to structure discussions on many issues.
It is very important for us to also work with a wider audience. We need a higher participation of women, because research shows that when women participate in negotiations on peace and security, there are more and more results. We also have to work very closely with civil society….why civil society? Because people, especially young ones, have to realise that the risks of armed conflict are very high and the current situation confirms it. That’s why it’s really important to speed up the work of the Conference on Disarmament, to work on the issues which have potential negative impact on disarmament infrastructure, taking into account the new types of armaments. So despite the current situation at the CD, I see that the member states want to preserve this instrument, because all of them, I think, believe the day will come that they will be able to start negotiating.
You’re a former journalist. the UN in Geneva has also played host to some important debates and discussions around growing threats to press freedom around the world. How do you feel about the current media situation and increasing restrictions on press freedom, in Russia for example?
Of course, we have to protect freedom of the press, and we have to protect the safety of journalists. That’s the key issue. You're right, I started my professional career as a journalist, and I really saw the results of my work. It was a very interesting period when journalists were leading the discussion on crucial political and economic reforms in my country and we could influence lots of policy decisions. We have to protect journalists and provide their full access to our activities. But what’s even more important is to protect their safety. Unfortunately, the list of journalists who are losing their lives in many countries is very, very long every year.
On my side, I’m doing everything within my authority to provide journalists with access to information. Even during the peak of the Covid pandemic, when the Palais was closed in April, May and June 2020, we allowed all the journalists who have offices here to come and work. And we’re really trying to work hard to provide journalists in Geneva with all the facts. But as I said, the situation is much more difficult in many other parts of the world. And that’s really a challenge, but freedom of press is an absolute necessity for democratic society.
Much has changed since you took up your role three years ago, with Covid being the biggest agent of change - or paralysis. How has its left its mark here in Geneva and how would you characterise your term as director general so far?
I came here to work in Geneva in an absolutely different world. A world before Covid and without such crisis and conflicts (as we see today). And of course, that did have an impact on us. But I think that means that we have a very important role to play. That the United Nations, the multilateral system really has a very important role to play, that we really have to strengthen multilateral institutions, to strengthen multilateralism. Because these three years showed how interdependent we are: Covid starts and well, after a couple of months, half of the world is in a lockdown; the war starts in one region of the world and less than a half year later, we are discussing the possibility of hunger all around the world; climate change, we see its results all around the world.
So I think these three years showed how necessary the multilateral system is, how important our work is, how important sustainable development goals are, because that’s the only roadmap to a world where everybody has the right to peace, prosperity, human rights and education, and where nobody’s left behind.