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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

Director-General of UN Geneva Tatiana Valovaya on the International Day of Multilateralism & Diplomacy for Peace

by Yunshi Liang on 2022-04-24T09:00:00+02:00 in Behind the Scenes, COVID-19, International relations, Sustainable Development, Women & Gender Equality, United Nations, League of Nations | Comments

 Natalie Alexander 

Hello, I'm Natalie Alexander and welcome to The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library and Archives Geneva, designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. 

Today we release a bonus episode to mark the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, established in 2018 by the UN General Assembly and observed each year on today, the 24th of April. 

At the heart of our podcast is the aim to enrich and promote understanding of the values of multilateralism and international cooperation. To mark this day, our director at the Library and Archives Francesco Pisano speaks with the Director General of UN Geneva Tatiana Valovaya. We hope you enjoy this conversation. 

 Francesco Pisano 

Welcome everyone to this new episode of The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library and Archives Geneva designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. And today we have a special episode on the Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, and we have invited in our studio, the Director General of the United Nations Geneva Tatiana Valovaya. 

The UN Secretary-General appointed Tatiana Valovaya to her position back in May 2019 as the first woman to take the position of Secretary-General of UN Geneva. She arrived in the midst of a severe liquidity shortage here in the UN secretariat, in just months before the global crisis sparked by the COVID pandemic. And she narrated large renovation works on top of it, because the Palais des Nations is being renovated for the first time since its construction in the mid 30s, 1930s last century.  

This has not really stopped her and the good team at UN Geneva from achieving great things under her leadership. So for example, just to give you an example, two big achievements, the opening of a new environmentally friendly building on the UN compound, completely new. This hadn't been done in decades, and the completion of the full digitalization of the League of Nations archives which are now digital and available to everyone. Also, leading the repositioning of UN Geneva conferencing to continue the work of multilateralism in the challenging COVID situation, that was also an achievement under her leadership. 

Tatiana Valovaya’s profile and experience are very rich. She was trained as an economist and she's holding a PhD in economic sciences, and she brings to the end 35 years of experience in journalism, diplomacy, multilateral negotiation and government service. 

So, Director-General Ms. Tatiana Valovaya, welcome to the podcast. And before we delve into the matter of today, which is “UN Geneva today and tomorrow”, could you please introduce yourself to your audience who may not know you, and how you came to international diplomacy and then became the Director-General of UN Geneva? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Thank you very much and it's a pleasure to talk to you today, especially on the Day of Multilateralism, because practically all years I worked for international organizations or for my government I was dealing with international affairs with multilateral system.  

I was always very much interested in international relations, though in my generation international relations, international corporations were not the field too much open for women. It was still a male-dominated sphere, but I was really interested in international relations, so I have chosen this field of international economic and monetary relations. I was among the very few girls in our department in the university. But at the same time I was very much interested in journalism because at that period of time journalists were really something which could help to change the world because in the period when there was no internet, people were receiving information about the world from the newspapers, from the television. And journalism was a career where you really could influence the world, so I worked as a journalist in a specialized economic newspaper. And then it was a little bit unusual offer which I received by one of my authors who published an article in our newspaper and we had a very good cooperation while preparing his article when I was taking the interview. And he was the diplomat and he was nominated the ambassador, the first ambassador to the European Communities at the time, not yet European Union. That's how I found myself in the diplomatic state service. And since then, I was working exactly in international affairs, working in Brussels later back to my native country. 

And because I was really always very much interested in multilateral system and also how supranational systems work like European Union, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, I started working together with my colleagues in other projects around regional integration. That's how I became working for Eurasian Economic Union. I worked all these years a lot with United Nations, especially on SDGs. That's why when I was nominated to become the Director-General of office here in Geneva, it was a great honor, great surprise, but that was really something I was looking to. 

 Francesco Pisano 

And indeed, your career sort of prepared you for the job, yet you landed in the UN at the peak of a transition time. Not only multilateralism is in transition, there is a lot of a lot of literature on this transition happening right now in our era, but also the UN is going through a time of many forms, a time of redefinition of many mechanisms. Not the values, with the values of the Charter are fixed stars for the international system. Some authors even refer to the Charter as the Constitution of the international community. Not that. But the UN's mechanism is undergoing, you know, scrutiny from the outside and reform from the inside.  

So I like to ask you for the benefit of our audience, what can you say about your experience in your first formal UN job that came under the Secretary General? How does working for the UN secretariat compared to the other international institutions where you worked before? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well, I would say that one thing which really surprised me when I came here working for United Nations, was how multifaceted United Nations is and what kind of a great work is being done by the organizations. 

Because even me who worked all my career in international affairs, who worked a lot with different UN organizations, I've been coming to Geneva before to participate in the meetings of UNCTAD, of UNISEE, I was participating in all high-level political forums in New York on sustainable development etc. Even as a professional person, maybe I knew 10% about the work the United Nations really are doing, and that's a pity. That's a pity because the United Nations is quite often perceived from the point of view of conflicts, of political discussions, of Security Council. And very few people realize that the majority of things, the meeting around the world. I have a connection to the United Nations, it's not only peacekeepers or humanitarian support or refugees, though it's crucial, but let's not forget about human rights conference on disarmament, and many everyday topics like flying technical standards, communication standards, and that's a pity. As a former journalist, I know and there are no former journalists who try to analyze the information how you could communicate it to people.  

As a former journalist I know that of course journalists are more interested in problems. They are less interested in some positive stories because that does not sell your newspaper, so it's a problem to tell the people about positive things, about achievements of the United Nations. But we have to find a way how to communicate it.  

To be more personal about it, because really, people should know that the world, which is really in transition now, it's amidst many global challenges and crises. The worst geopolitical crisis we have ever had since the Second World War. Nevertheless, the world would have been a much worse place if we did not have the United Nations.  

 Francesco Pisano 

That goes without saying, I think there's no doubt about that.  

I am very interested in the phenomenon and practice of leadership, so I need to ask you this. As the first woman to serve as Director-General, what do female leadership skills bring to this job? And what are the main differences, vis-à-vis masculine leadership styles in your personal opinion and experience? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well, first of all, I don't think that there should be female leadership or male leadership. It should be balanced leadership, because exactly men and women, they do have different leadership styles. By the way, it wasn't so seen before, why? Because in the previous period, women who came to the top or to the power, they had to behave and to lead like men. For example, Margaret Thatcher was an Iron Lady. She was not perceived as somebody who was leading as a female, but many modern political female figures are leading like females. 

 So we have to understand that of course men and women quite often are analyzing situation differently. They have different perspectives and for example I would say women are much better in multitasking than men, and that's good for the modern era when you have so many crises to attend to, and each new crisis changes the focus of your attention but you shouldn't forget the previous crisis, so that's a very important. 

Also women quite often are more flexible in looking for some solutions, and we have analytical data proving that for example, if women are participating in negotiating a peace treaty, conflict settlement, there are high chances that these agreements are going to last. So it's important to combine these styles with the visions and to have a balanced leadership. That's why we're speaking, not about female or male leadership, exactly about balanced leadership. 

 Francesco Pisano 

And thank you for that. I think it's very wise.  

Let me ask you also something connected to this question. What is your most memorable moment so far in your job as Director-General here in Geneva? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well I would say there are two moments.  

The first moment was meeting our stuff. It was at our first town hall and it was in person with hundreds of people in the assembly hall. I was really impressed how inclusive, how diverse, how big is our personnel, and what kind of strength and power we have here in Geneva to work for the benefits of world. I was really very much impressed by communicating to the staff, talking to them, answering to their questions, and really to see that there is a very strong force here in Geneva which can go on. 

And the second was meeting our Palais des Nations. It was later, because in the first month I was always running around from one conference to another. But during the confinement in April 2020, when I was walking around the Palais all by myself and just finding, well, the new roads, the corridors, I was really impressed by the beauty and the symbolism of Palais des Nations because we really have to realize that it was built in the 30s, but it was conceived immediately after the First World War, after very tragic war, after a pandemic. And nevertheless the Member States decided to invest lots of money, lots of efforts into building this Palais des Nations because they really thought that you need to build a multilateral system. You need to build a multilateral organization. And you have to provide this organization with this beautiful building because it's a symbol of a multilateral system and that shows how wise our ancestors were. And really, we have to follow in their steps because we have to preserve the Palais des Nations, and we have to preserve and strengthen multilateral system. 

 Francesco Pisano 

And you're referring to an episode that our audience may not be aware of. During the pandemic, at one point we had to close the building to people, and you're referring to your walks in the deserted Palais des Nations. So enormous as it is, completely deserted of people, and on that occasion you also took a series of very interesting photos that were also exhibited here in Geneva, in a local museum, and with some success I must say. The photos are very, very impressive. I had a glimpse of what you've seen through the lens of the camera. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing that. 

And let me stay on the pandemic for a little while because the pandemic has changed the world of course, but also the way we work as professionals in international affairs here in the secretariat. And would you say that it has also changed the way you do your own job as Director-General? And what do you see going forward for the Secretary in Geneva as the way of working? Has the pandemic really changed the way we work? Or we're going to go back to what we were doing before? And how's the work of the Director-General done now, that it's a little bit virtual, a little bit hybrid, a little bit in person? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well, I would say of course the pandemic did change our priorities, because before pandemic we had our priorities lined for the next several years. And of course our priority was, and it still is, sustainable development goals, the strengthening of multilateral system. But really what we are doing, these are the instruments for reaching sustainable development goals. They have stayed. But at the same time there were some very urgent priorities. Remember at the beginning of the pandemics there were too many question marks. We didn't know how long it's going to last, what are the consequences, how and if we will be able to go on working. There were so many question marks.  

So it was necessary to take all these decisions because first, the priority was of course to protect the health and safety of the staff, of the delegates, to make necessary decisions. But the second was to resume our activities, to find new ways of how we can do business, that's why we started these discussions on these two tracks together with my senior team, how we can resume our activities? And because we started these discussions immediately after we went into lockdown, we were able to start reopening already in May and June. In practical terms we in Geneva were the first duty station of the United Nations which resumed its activities. Human Rights Council sessions, conference on disarmament and then others, because the Member States needed our support in order to resume these activities. 

And of course they took lots of planning and efforts because at the beginning of the pandemic we did not have a single room in our Palais des Nations which was equipped for hybrid or virtual conferences. And immediately we started doing this and managed by June and July to have certain rooms, later the number was increased. And now we're able to provide our Member States with hybrid and virtual conferences. 

I am absolutely sure that the future will be hybrid. We will not go back to the way we worked before, not because it was a bad way of work. No, we all need in-person meetings, in-person communication. And one thing which really pandemic really confirmed is that even in the digital age there is no replacement, especially when we're speaking about diplomacy, international cooperation, to in-person meetings. We are going back to in person meetings. 

But we also, as a result of the pandemic, moved faster to this new digital way and the hybrid possibilities are the possibilities to provide us with inclusion. For example, Geneva Peace Week, the last time we had 3000 participants from more than 100 states all round the world. And of course we are not going back to have these events only in person and limiting the participation. Of course it will be always the choice of the Member States to make a decision what kind of format suits better this or this, and that would allow us to use these different ways of work of communication. But of course the future will be different. 

 Francesco Pisano 

Let's look for a moment now beyond this Palais des Nations is into this international Geneva. After all, Geneva is a very special host city for the UN. Unlike any other city, it is imbued with international NGOs, international ventures, associations, you name it. There are so many international actors in Geneva, so much so that we talk about the international cooperation ecosystem in this town. So from the League of Nations to the UN and beyond, Geneva is really the cradle of international cooperation and organized multilateralism, and its history is full of facts and people that shaped international thought and also practice. And so, how do you view this heritage, is there any episode or any historical figure linked to Geneva that is of particular significance to you as the leader of UN Geneva? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Yes, there is such a historical figure, and of course all of you know the name, but I think you do not realize this figure is connected to League of Nations to Geneva and I am speaking about Jean Monnet, one of the père fondateurs, founding fathers of the European Union or the European integration. For me it's exactly well, a revolutionary in economic and political thinking, because without his vision, without his revolutionary ideas, European Union wouldn't be born. Without a European Union there would be many European conflicts still there, because he found a solution how to really find a settlement to all these historical conflicts. 

And at the same time, without the European Union, there wouldn't be other regional organizations which we see around the world in Latin America, in Asia, in Asia, Eurasia in Africa. He really created the idea, but very few people realize that he was the 1st Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations. He worked here in Geneva till 1922 at the founding period of building League of Nations. He was the deputy to the Secretary-General and now because of these fantastic projects, when all League of Nations documents are digitized, you can make a research and find many documents on online about his activities here, because he really participated in establishing the secretariat. He really participated in creating an atmosphere of work for the Member States. And one of his memorandums was very interesting. Back in 1920 he was speaking about the necessity for the Members States of the League of Nations to work permanently together, not to meet only when there is a conflict, but to work permanently. And this work, this knowing each other, receiving information, briefing each other could help to prevent a conflict. And I am absolutely sure, and it's clear that his experience here in the League of Nations allowed him later to offer his revolutionary ideas for the European Union.  

So really, this experience of League of Nations as a multilateral system is important not only for us for the United Nations as a multilateral system with Member State, it's both important for supranational organizations because also there are certain things which were born here in Geneva. So for me, Jean Monnet is one of the figures about whom we should talk here in Geneva. 

 Francesco Pisano 

And let's talk more about this concept of “International Geneva”. I don't know how familiar our audience is with the concept of “International Geneva”. Even people in Geneva I'm not very sure about the definition of international Geneva, but by and large it means that is a city in which there are a lot of international actors or a lot of actors that are active in international relations. 

And I'd be interested to ask you there, Director-General, what is the relationship between the UN Secretariat here, the team that you lead here in the Palais des Nations, and this entity known as International Geneva?   

It's made of the other international organizations. There are many here in Geneva, but also academic institutions, the Graduate Institute just across the street, University of Geneva, over 300 NGOs, the private sector itself, the media. And I'm asking you, what is international Geneva to you in your position as Director-General, does it mean more support for the work that we do as UN or just more complexity and silos? How can we make use of this wealth of experience there exists around us here in Geneva? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

For me, International Geneva is a pilot project. It's a pilot project of the modern multilateralism fit for the 21st century. Because exactly what we have in Geneva, we have sovereign Member States, we have for more than 180 permanent missions. and Member States are the key actors in the international area, key actors in the multilateral system. But they are no longer the only ones. We have also quite a number of international organizations with which we cooperate, exchange ideas, try to work together. We have representations of regional organizations because there are permanent missions, for example of African Union, Organization de la Francophonie, and that's important. We have a civil society and nongovernmental organizations. 750 nongovernmental organizations are represented here and we work with them as United Nations. 

You mentioned private sector, academia, universities, young people with whom we regularly meet, etc. That's exactly the key actors in the modern, inclusive, integrated multilateral system. That's why we try here in Geneva exactly, to work together and to show this possibility of working together, of finding solutions to their challenges, to work, not in silence but really together without any barriers involved, and not as I said only within UN family which is huge here. More than 40 members of the UN family, organizations, programs agencies are here in Geneva, but as I said with other key actors in the multilateral system. So if we succeed in Geneva, working within this ecosystem that shows this model is viable and this is the model for the 21st century. 

 Francesco Pisano 

And this is a perfect segue into the next part of our conversation about the future of multilateralism. As we said before, we're releasing this episode on the occasion of the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. And there is, and there has been an important conversation ongoing about the transition from the old form of multilateralism in which sovereign states were the only actors, to a new form of multilateralism which is yet to be designed that could help nations overcome global problems that can turn into big, big crises for the whole of the planet, just like climate change, migration crisis, conflict, inequalities. As we speak there are still dozens of armed conflicts ongoing in the world and the war in Ukraine is the most recent addition to this sad list of conflicts that we don't seem able to solve in a systemic way. So multilateral is both an aspiration for people that work in international affairs, but it's also a pragmatic tool for coordinating economic and security interdependence. 

So I want to ask you, the specialist in the UN, also the specialist in international affairs and in economics. How can we upgrade today's multilateralism? What do you think is missing in today’s multilateralism that we can develop in the future so that it works better? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well, the world is in transition. You said about it in the very beginning of our conversation. Really, we are going to a new social, economic, political order, new paradigm. We're still in transition, but it will be absolutely different perception of how we live, more globalization, more interconnectedness, more equality, more sustainability, many other things. But even in this transition, we are going to have a hopefully new and better social and economic and political paradigm. That means multilateralism should change itself and it's absolutely clear that now, in the 21st century, even the United Nations is no longer the organization if you look into its membership when it was in 1945. In 1945, 50 Member States signed the Charter. Now we have 193 Member States. In 1945, many of them were not yet sovereign Member States. So even if we are looking from the point of view of Member States, we see it's a different composition and we have to change and adapt multilateral system to this new composition, because many countries, developing countries, African continent are under-represented when we think about the decision-making within the United Nations. 

But t that's just the part of the issue. As we already said, multilateral system is no longer only about the Member States. There is a certain number of key players which we already mentioned, international organizations, regional organizations, civil society, non-governmental organization, private sector, academia. so they all should have a place at the negotiation table. That's how we have to adapt multilateral system.  

And at the same time when we are talking about all these actors, there are also two very important issues. Even if we have all these actors around the table but if these actors are not inclusive enough, there will be no effective result. And when I speak in common inclusivity I am speaking about gender balance. Without female representation in all these key actors, there will not be gender balance and really strong leadership, and half of the humanity are women. But also the representation of young people, because again, if we are looking from a different statistical view, half of their humanity are young people under 30. And if they are not participating in decision making which really affects their future, we do not have effective leadership. So we have to adapt to this new, integrated and inclusive multilateralism.  

And I would say United Nations is leading this conversation. There are reports on Our Common Agenda released by the Secretary General last year. I would say is a revolutionary document. As an expert and an analytical, I really advise everybody to read it. It's not too long, but it's really a brilliant piece of work of political thought. It's very important. And that's the basis for further discussions within the United Nations. The Secretary General has recently appointed 12 men and women high level panel on discussions for future of multilateralism which will present their ideas to the Member States. We plan as suggested by Secretary General, to have summit of the future in 2023. So there is lots of work being done. And that's why it's the high time to have these conversations about the multilateralism, to listen to all points of view to their ideas, because there is a place where you can bring these ideas. This is the United Nations and there are mechanisms how we could put these ideas into work.  

 Francesco Pisano 

I think hearing you talking about the future of multilateralism, my minds go back to so much literature talking about multilateralism being under pressure or even under attack. Beat as it may, yet it is still the best solution for the world's increasing complexity and global challenges, so that's the way forward. And I'm very glad that you mentioned Our Common Agenda, because it is a strategy for a better world, as you say, and you said that people should read it. And this is perhaps one of the problems with UN documents is that people have grown tired of the kind of formats and language etc. But sometimes the UN is able to put out documents that are really significant. One is of course Agenda 2030, and the other one is Our Common Agenda. 

So I wanted to ask you as an individual and an expert, a woman in a leadership position and a UN staff, what are the reasons that make you hopeful that in the end, international collaboration will provide over negative forces of disaggregation of the international community? 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well, first you know I love history and I really believe that history is one of the sciences which are crucial to the development of humanity. Without history, without drawing lessons from history, we really do not have a future, and history teaches us that after each geopolitical conflict, the humanity realizes that the only possibility to prevent similar conflicts in the future is to unite, is to build multilateral cooperation.  

Well, there were many ideas and discussions back in the past. I will not speak about too ancient history, but recent history in the 20th century. After the First World War, League of Nations was built. After the Second World War, the United Nations. Now we are midst the most serious geopolitical conflicts since the Second World War, and I'm absolutely sure that the result of this conflict will be also the understanding that we need stronger multilateral system to prevent conflicts in the future.  

But it's not only history. In 2020, in order to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, we had a global conversation with the people around the world. We asked them via surveys and via many types of discussions, what you think about the future? What kind of the United Nations do you need? Do you want stronger United Nations? And the results of these conversations, and people all around the world, from all the Member States participated in it, was that people want more multilateralism. People want more United Nations. In many parts of the world, in many countries, people trust more United Nations than they trust their local or national governments. Because for them exactly the basic documents of the United Nations, UN Charter, our Human Rights Declaration, Sustainable Development Goals are really the documents they understand and the aims they share. So I really think that we have the support, not only other Member States to move to a stronger multilateral system, but also, and that's much more important, the support of people all around the world. 

 Francesco Pisano 

I think that is very important too. Director-General Tatiana Valovaya, as we wrap up this conversation today, mindful that is, International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. If you had one message for those who are listening to take away in their hearts and minds, what would it be?  

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Well, my message would be, wherever you work, in international organization, for national government, for private sector, for yourself, you are a student or you're working at home, etc, you still can participate in multilateral work. And what's more important, you should. Because if you are not involved in multilateral activities, if you are not participating in the gender of multilateral organization, if you are not participating in Sustainable Development Goals, you are not doing everything you can in order to have a better future, peace and prosperity for all people around the world.  

So my message is you shouldn't be a diplomat to work for multilateral system. You can do it wherever you are working now and that's important. 

 Francesco Pisano 

The Secretary Tatiana Valovaya, Director-General in UN Geneva. Thank you so much for being with us today. 

 Tatiana Valovaya 

Thank you. 


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