The semi-confinement period from mid-March to mid-June resulted in a partial shutdown of the Palais des Nations during which in-person meetings could not be held. The United Nations globally, led by its Office of Information and Communications Technology, identified and contracted with companies to provide remote participation in multilingual meetings via online platforms that must allow for interpretation in six languages, voting, and advanced security features for closed meetings.
These virtual multilingual meetings use United Nations staff – interpreters, sound technicians, and IT technicians – to allow delegates and civil society to participate in official meetings from wherever they are, whether quarantined in their homes in Geneva or in capitals around the world.
Setting up this new modality for meetings was a major effort, requiring investments in technology, training for meeting participants and UN staff, and equipment in conference rooms and for interpretation staff. At UNOG, budget and infrastructure restrictions limited the conversion of existing conference rooms and currently only four can be used for remote participation as part of hybrid meetings. In parallel, intergovernmental bodies reviewed their working methods and, in some cases, have made changes that reduced the number of meetings required for their work.
Furthermore, contrary to what one might imagine, virtual conferences are actually more expensive for the UN than in-person meetings. Using the remote participation modality, whether on its own in fully virtual meetings or combined with participants in a physical conference room in a hybrid meeting, adds several thousand francs to the cost of a meeting. Additional costs include usage of the platform, and dedicated staff for operating the platform and the associated audio-visual infrastructure.
Making these types of meetings accessible through adding sign language and closed captioning requires even more staff support and use of the UN TV studio to integrate video feeds from multiple sources. None of these costs have been included in the approved budget for 2020, and the severe liquidity crisis facing the United Nations makes it extremely difficult to divert resources from other areas.
As such, at present the UN Office in Geneva cannot accommodate more than two virtual/hybrid meetings at a time.
It should also be noted that the vast majority of regularly scheduled meetings are inter-governmental, and participants from Member States pay for their own travel and accommodation, so the savings from reduced travel benefit the Member States, not the UN.
The partial shutdown did lead to reduction of some expenditures as a result of the lower occupancy of the buildings. These savings were primarily limited to lower consumption of utilities and reduced cleaning. To prepare for the reopening of the Palais, UNOG introduced measures to safeguard delegates, staff and visitors. These measures required increased spending on disinfection, reconfiguration of spaces, and the purchase of materials and supplies designed to limit the spread of the virus.
There were additional expenses tied to increased staffing requirements for medical support and overall coordination of the Covid-19 response. On the whole, the additional costs from returning safely to the Palais far outstripped the small savings realized during the building’s closure.
Yes, UNOG expects to hold fewer meetings than usual through the end of the year. The primary difficulty results from the physical distancing required to comply with public health measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
These measures result in reduced capacity within the meetings rooms, as well as limiting the number of interpreters who can occupy interpretation booths. Due to these restrictions, there are only four conference rooms in the Palais des Nations that can be used for meetings with six languages of interpretation.
UNOG will be reaching out to see if other conference venues might be available that could accommodate six languages of interpretation, but it would be problematic to cover any additional costs involved.
Another restriction is the limited number of conference rooms that can accommodate hybrid meetings, which is in high demand, given that international travel is limited. In addition to these infrastructure restrictions, the UN is also in an extremely difficult financial situation.
An accumulation of non-payment of assessments by some Member States, and late payments by others, has led to an acute shortage of liquidity which has forced the UN to place restrictions on the level and timing of funding being released throughout the Organization, as well as the implementation of a recruitment freeze.
In particular at UNOG, it is proving difficult to provide the extra technical and audiovisual staffing required to run the requested hybrid meetings, including for webcast. As a result, even though activities have been planned, budgeted, and approved for 2020, the shortage of funding and staffing means they cannot be fully implemented in this more complex and expensive format.
UNOG is working closely with headquarters in New York, conference secretariats, and Member States, to find a way forward to fund the staffing resources needed for hybrid meetings and allow the fullest possible use of the Palais des Nations for the important multilateral meetings that are core to the work of the Organization.