The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shaken up old structures and accelerated 180-degree changes and innovation. Diplomacy and multilateral systems are no exception.
Against this backdrop, diplomats are facing multiple challenges, which encompass a broad range of elements, including access to adequate technology, the re-shaping of communication protocols, and the need to continue their work in virtual negotiation settings. The impossibility to meet face to face, given the confinement, social-distancing, and other sanitary measures, has demanded an overnight transformation of the diplomatic business as we know it.
Technological platforms have made it possible for diplomats from all over the world to continue discussions and advance the multilateral agenda across the United Nations, and more broadly, the international community. Representatives from larger and smaller delegations have gathered in front of their screens, and found themselves negotiating in a whole new environment, one that is evolving at a very rapid pace. Sometimes delegates do not have the possibility of consulting with their capital-based experts as the negotiation period gets shortened. Different time zones and the lack of systems that may provide for simultaneous interpretation have also hindered the participation of technical experts, academics, the civil society, the private sector, and other representatives that are based outside multilateral hubs.
Delegates are now required to think on their feet and oftentimes react on the spot to new proposals and developments as meetings have been reduced to address a much more prioritised agenda and within shorter time frames. In this sense, we are probably witnessing the surge of a specialised diplomacy, one that requires further technical knowledge and boosted innovative thinking.
Nonetheless, it has become clear that delegations from the developing world are underrepresented in virtual gatherings. Not only are governments focused on tackling the pandemic back home, but non-effective access to technology and the lower numbers of personnel have negatively impacted their engagement in the digital realm.
The role of governments
There is no doubt that governments undertake a tremendous amount of work in times of crisis. In this context, delegations in multilateral hubs such as Geneva, New York, and Vienna, are responding to a more dynamic environment, with their role becoming more salient as permanent missions are called to engage with specialised agencies in the search of solutions to the health crisis, to further promote international co-operation, and to participate in the reactivation of commerce.
In other words, there is a need to keep the momentum going for multilateralism, as we all have asserted that no country is safe until all countries are, and global responses must show us the way to recovery.
On the other hand, and almost overnight, diplomats have been asked to become advanced users of virtual platforms. As stated before, challenges such as the gap in digital skills, meaningful connectivity, and other matters pertaining to the digital divide, may have placed participants from the Global South in a disadvantageous position.
As the United Nations is looking for ways to increase the efficiency and optimisation of regular procedures, while respecting established protocols and developing blended mechanisms in a sort of hybrid diplomacy, we shouldn’t forget that inclusiveness, transparency, and a broader participation of all states must be guaranteed. Moreover, the multilateral system is debating over the identification of situations in which virtual diplomacy mechanisms are feasible, without losing sight of conferences and meetings where physical presence and human interaction remain irreplaceable. In this regard, the meetings of groups of governmental experts come to mind, as they usually demand a higher degree of technical expertise and interactive discussions.
In terms of participation, the inclusion of all multistakeholders must be addressed. Effective access of all interested parties to multilateral decision-making processes, in face-to-face and virtual settings, will certainly amplify the opportunities for results and outcomes to produce greater impact.
As the pandemic continues to intensify the social, economic, and environmental crises, we will probably bear witness to reductions in financial and human resource allocations for diplomatic hubs, coupled with increased demands. It will then be natural to streamline our resources as we navigate through these uncharted and unpredictable waters.
On the upside, virtual meetings will allow for reduced travel budgets, especially as travel restrictions remain in place in many parts of the world, and as hybrid settings will permit the continuation of multilateral discussions and dialogues. Notwithstanding, there may also be a need for improved access to technological tools and working methods. Diplomats may benefit from broadening their skill set, among others, through improved digital capabilities and experience in virtual negotiation rooms. In the end, multilateralism and diplomacy will continue to play a key role in tackling the pandemic, while the promotion of increased trust and co-operation will be fundamental pillars of the global response to our shared challenges.
This article reflects the personal views of the author.
Ms Maricela Muñoz is Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations in Geneva and is a member of the IGF/Multistakeholder Advisory Group. She has more than 20 years of experience in multilateral diplomacy, working with governments, international organisations, the private sector, and civil society organisations, particularly in the areas of climate change, disarmament and non-proliferation, and the advancement of more peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.