Interview with Sergei A. Ordzhonikidze, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

You are the Director-General of the European headquarters of the United Nations. What do you consider to be the main role of the office here?
It is probably more accurate to talk about different types of roles rather than any particular main role. The United Nations Office at Geneva, which I head, is the representative office of the Secretary-General in Switzerland. We cooperate with the entire United Nations family here to facilitate efforts across the three pillars of the Organization’s work: peace and security, development and human rights. An important dimension is working with our United Nations colleagues to see how we may best bring more coherence to our collective efforts. UNOG hosts almost 9,000 multilateral meetings every year, with more than 25,000 delegates taking part. UNOG also provides a platform for contacts across cultures with its Cultural Activities Programme. It may not always be highly publicized, but the United Nations in Geneva carries out work that affect the lives of millions of people daily.
One of the roles of the United Nations is to promote peace in its broadest sense. What does the United Nations in Geneva do in this field? I think it is important to look broadly at the activities of the United Nations to answer that question. All our work for security, for development and for human rights is connected. And in this sense, all of the efforts of the United Nations in Geneva contribute to a safer and more peaceful world. More specifically, UNOG is a hub for multilateral disarmament. It is the home of the Conference on Disarmament and the seat of many other significant treaties on disarmament issues, such as biological weapons and conventional weapons. UNOG hosts a large number of diplomatic meetings aimed at resolving ongoing – or frozen – conflicts around the world. Often, these are behind-the-scenes, diplomatic efforts that are not in the public eye, but do help to bring peace and stability to war-torn regions.
Why is strategic disarmament so important to the maintenance of international peace and security?
It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of strategic disarmament, not only to peace and security, but also to development and to human rights. Disarmament limits the risk and likelihood of armed conflict. It helps to build trust and confidence among countries, which again strengthens stability and makes war less likely. Today, countries around the world spend around 1,3 trillion dollars on their militaries and on arms. By comparison, we spend less than 200 million dollars on overseas development assistance. So, disarmament could free up significant resources that could be channelled towards improving the lives of the over 1 billion people that live on less than 1 dollar a day – the “bottom billion”. Disarmament is also closely connected to the protection and promotion of human rights. Armed violence breeds insecurity and instability, and has a profoundly negative impact on human development and the respect for fundamental rights. On the other hand, the enjoyment of human rights contributes to prevention of conflict and to stability, which in turn facilitates further disarmament.
What is the role of the Conference on Disarmament in these efforts?
The Conference on Disarmament is central in this respect as it is the world’s only multilateral body dedicated to strategic disarmament. Among the items on the Conference’s agenda are the use of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes, the cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament, the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon States against the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons. All of these are vital strategic disarmament issues. Regrettably, the 65 Members of the Conference cannot agree on priorities to start substantive work on these issues. A large majority of States, however, remain determined to keep up the momentum generated over the past two years in order to reach an agreement on the priorities of the Conference. The political will of Member States is critical here. But one thing is certain: without progress in the Conference, we cannot hope to reap the benefits of disarmament.
Peace and trade is the main theme of this issue of DIVA. Do you think that these themes are inter-related, and if so, why?
Peace and development are closely linked. Without stability, there can be no long-term development. Without development to lift people out of poverty and to ensure dignified lives for all, we will not live in a secure world. As a key engine of economic growth, trade is part of that equation. So, yes, I do see a close, positive relationship between peace and trade. At the same, we have an obligation to ensure an open international trading system where all countries can participate and make the most of the opportunities of global trade. If we do not take this responsibility seriously, trade can become a source of tension, and eventually instability. This is why a successful conclusion of the ongoing Doha negotiations, with a reduction in trade subsidies in developed countries, is needed to address existing inequalities in the trading system that disproportionately disadvantage developing countries.
We know that the United Nations Headquarters in New York is going through a major renovation. Will we see something similar here?
I certainly hope so! And I see it as one of my key priorities to lay the foundation for a complete renovation and refurbishment of the Palais des Nations. The main parts of the Palais were built in the 1930s and have not been renovated since, so it is not surprising that critical infrastructure urgently needs to be modernized. I am grateful that several Member States have stepped forward, as a Group of Friends of the Palais des Nations, to mobilize support for such a necessary overhaul, and I hope that many more will join this open group. The Palais des Nations is more than merely a building: it is a symbol of multilateralism and is the unique heritage of the international community. This building belongs to us all, and it is our responsibility to preserve it for future generations.
Finally, Director-General what do you consider, on a personal basis, as being your most rewarding achievement?
I believe that I have managed to attract more attention to the problems of strategic disarmament, and to the challenge of arms competition and its negative impact on development, be it at the Conference on Disarmament – with my colleagues, the Ambassadors – with NGOs, the media or the scientific community. The Director of UNIDIR, Dr. Patricia Lewis, has also made an active and imaginative contribution to these efforts. Our regular meetings with regional organizations in Europe, in the so-called “Tripartite” format, I think, continue to be an important demonstration of the value of collaboration with our regional partners. The discussions on peacebuilding in the European context, hosted by UNOG, were among the most rewarding in this area. Among the most moving moments of my time here was the long-overdue, in 2003, unveiling of our memorial to colleagues who have lost their lives in the service of peace. It is a constant reminder of the commitment, and sadly sometimes also sacrifice, of those who work for this Organization. It is humbling. But I hope that I not only have achievements to reflect on, but also to look forward to, and I continuously strive to raise the political profile of Geneva and of the many issues that are addressed here.