The United Nations Security Council ran a secret cybermeeting simulation on March 9 to prepare for a possible lockdown of the UN building and the rest of New York City, amid the coronavirus outbreak. So far, the UN is trying to address the epidemic at its headquarters by asking diplomats to meet offsite a few days a week and taking other measures, but such limits could have political consequences, experts say.
On Monday evening, Council members took part in the online simulation, in which they practiced what they do in real time, making statements and even voting. (The simulation was first reported in Le Monde.) But in the dry run, they worked from home or at their respective missions. The experiment, done with the Council members’ political coordinators and not with the ambassadors, was carried out by the UN Secretariat. Meetings could be streamed live like any others, so observers can watch. A diplomat told PassBlue there were glitches, however, during the trial.
Another diplomat added, “Pray we don’t have to use it.”
As of March 10, the Security Council was still meeting at headquarters, but the UN is suddenly prepping for the worst, “out of an abundance of caution,” Stéphane Dujarric, the secretary-general’s spokesperson, wrote in a release. UN staff members are being “strongly encouraged,” one manager told PassBlue, to work from home three days a week. Staff members coming from China, Italy, South Korea, Japan and Iran, all of which have been identified by the United States government for self-monitoring of returning travelers, must work from home for 14 days.
At the insistence of security officials, who worried about contagion, a source said, the UN is closing the building to tourists, some of whom pour in by the busload to tour the world body. Journalists with resident passes are still allowed inside to work. Last week, UN member states agreed to cancel the annual women’s rights meeting, scheduled from March 9 to 20.
The precautionary steps taken by the UN regarding the Council are extraordinary measures related to the health threat posed by the coronavirus, but it’s unclear if cybermeetings will ever happen and who would decide that. Legally, nothing prohibits the Security Council from meeting online, but there may be repercussions if the Council is not meeting in one room and facing one another at the horseshoe-shaped table.
Invariably, the human side of the Council is important in its interactions. Richard Gowan, a UN expert with the International Crisis Group in New York, told PassBlue that in recent months, for some resolutions, getting a deal “came down to diplomats talking face to face for hours.”
With a Council that tends to empower the five veto-holders (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US), meeting remotely could leave the 10 elected members even more outside the loop.
Diplomats often emphasize the value of the personal relationships they build with their colleagues. One new example is the “sofa talks” — private, casual meetings among Council ambassadors aimed at forging bonds outside the chamber. One example is the Council’s trip to Kentucky in December, where the US ambassador, Kelly Craft, invited her colleagues for a weekend of bourbon tastings and a University of Kentucky basketball game. (Not all the members went on the trip.) But ambassadors also develop relationships from the chitchats they have before and after Council meetings and at parties — in UN-speak, “receptions.”
“There’s no replacement for the casual conversations brought up when people are in the same space,” said Loraine Sievers, a co-author with Sam Daws of the book “The Procedure of the Security Council.”
“But I think the Council is pretty used to, in terms of its work, working on multiple levels,” she added. Political coordinators can still be in touch through a whatsapp group, which they use anyway. The same goes for the ambassadors.
Sievers explained that earlier in this millennium, the fear of a flu pandemic and 9/11 forced the UN to be ready to operate outside the headquarters building. If a virus like Covid-19 forces diplomats to work from home or a terrorist attack destroyed the UN, it has developed emergency measures for people to continue to work. That includes remotely.
“In rule 48 of the rules of procedure, it says, unless it decides otherwise, the Security Council shall meet in public,” Sievers said.
But digitizing Council meetings would have huge effects on how meetings are conducted. One aspect that would change is the Council’s relationship with the media. Often, before or after meetings, diplomats speak outside the chamber, at a “stakeout,” to make a statement to reporters. Meeting online would mean more written releases and probably fewer interactions between journalists and diplomats. And, of course, fewer questions posed by journalists.
Furthermore, Gowan said, having online meetings could worsen Council meetings that some observers already call notoriously boring: “Even when they’re in the same room, there isn’t really an exchange, and this is a problem which some members of the Council, I think, such as Christoph Heusgen, the German ambassador, have already emphasized,” Gowan said. “If you get to a situation where you have ambassadors sitting in their offices simply reading into a camera, then it could become inordinately boring — even more dull than a lot of Council debates are at the moment, because there will be really no human exchange.”
Whenever anything goes digital, concerns over cybersecurity arise. One diplomat told PassBlue that the simulation run took place on the UN’s website, so cybersecurity measures are probably in place.
Meeting by video conference is not abnormal for Council members, either. Many UN envoys often brief the Council from their posts in the Middle East or in Africa, where most peacekeeping missions are based. But Council members are used to attending meetings inside the chamber, where the monthly rotating president states the ordre du jour and ambassadors can exchange angry looks while making hostile statements, providing drama to the room.
But many meetings of the Council are private, called consultations, and often contain extremely sensitive information. Needless to say, they would be extremely vulnerable to hackers.
Public meetings are not free of potential cyberattacks, as they could inspire hackers. “If I were a Ukrainian hacker, I would be thinking very hard of ways that I could get my voice into Nebenzia’s audiofeed,” Gowan said, referring to Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador. “Or if I were a Russian hacker, I could suddenly take over the sound control when Kelly Craft is speaking.”
Members are planning to meet in the Council chamber on March 11, perhaps even to pray. What they will discuss is peace and security in Africa.
This article has been updated.
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.