Interview with Christian Friis Bach, Executive Secretary of the UNECE | September 2014
Christian Friis Bach, the newly appointed Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), welcomed us in his office at the Palais des Nations to discuss about his vision for the organization and share his thoughts on International Geneva.
What brings you at the head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe?
Since high school, I have been engaged in international issues, be it as professor, activist, journalist, businessman, politician and even farmer (which I still am!). It is therefore a logical step for me to come to Geneva, the international capital of Europe, and be part of the strong United Nations family. I developed a strong relationship with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon during my time as a Minister and I had a deep respect for the United Nations family. So when I was approached for the position of Head of the UNECE, I was thrilled to accept. I have a strong background in the areas that UNECE deals with, from trade to agriculture and trade to energy and environmental issues, and I believe that I can help the organization develop further.
What are your priorities?
One of my priorities will be to make UNECE better known in order to increase its impact even further. As my predecessor Michael Moller told me, UNECE is in many ways an undiscovered pearl within the UN system. I will do my best to be a strong representative for the UNECE.
But the most important part of my job will be to help countries to cooperate, which is what UNECE is best at. The vision of the UNECE, dating back to its creation in 1947, is that if countries cooperate, they will stop fighting, and this will create the conditions for peace and progress. In a world with a lot of turmoil and tensions, this role is more needed than ever.
The work of UNECE is technical and mostly unknown from the public. Can you tell us more about what is the UNECE doing?
UNECE is a convener that has very much focused on results and not so much on visibility. In a nutshell, UNECE helps countries to cooperate and to develop the norms, regulations and conventions that harmonize issues across borders. Thanks to history, the UNECE is a little bit special in the family of the United Nations Regional Commissions. After the Second World War, the urge to cooperate and to create common standards was very strong and so, until today, when it comes to developing norms and standards, UNECE has a unique role. Several UNECE norms and conventions are global. This is the case of the Aarhus Convention on environmental democracy, the TIR convention on the international transport of goods by road, or our Trade Facilitation norms, for example.
What about its impact on our day to day life? Can you give us concrete examples?
Not many people know UNECE but it is probably the organization that impacts the daily life of people in Europe the most. For example, all the standards for safety in cars are developed by UNECE. The harmonization of road and traffic signs across Europe is also done by UNECE. When you go to your supermarket and buy quality agricultural products, these quality standards are defined by work within UNECE (not only in Europe as 70% of fruits and vegetables in the world are traded according to UNECE agricultural standards). If you build an energy efficient house, if you trade products from Copenhagen to Moscow, if you want to have a say on the management of your local environment or avoid dangerous air pollution, you are also using UNECE norms and conventions. Our work impacts the life of citizens in Europe every single day.
Is the UNECE collaborating with other Geneva based international organizations?
We do and we will even more. Geneva is the Silicon Valley of international cooperation and we benefit a lot from having a strong international environment here. For example, we partner with the International Road Transport Union in the implementation of the TIR convention and we collaborate closely with UNCTAD, the ITC and the WTO on trade facilitation.
I am a trade economist and I am convinced that the economic geography, as defined by Paul Krugman, is very much alive in Geneva. We benefit from spillover effects, from the proximity of other organizations and from a pool of highly qualified people. Knowledge that is created in one organization is easily captured by another organization. It is true that there is also some competition between organizations but I believe that some degree of competition is good and makes sure that we keep delivering the best we can for the public good. Having said that, I am a strong supporter of the UN delivering as One and I will do my utmost so that UNECE collaborates with others.
What are your first impressions about living and working in Geneva?
I arrived early August but I have been coming to Geneva since the early 90's. For the anecdote, when I was quite young, I applied for a job at the WTO but did not get it. So I could have been here much earlier. But I am now really happy to be here and I have been met by hospitality. Unfortunately, my family will stay in Denmark as my wife is an elected politician and we have the farm. But I live very close to the airport and we will be together every weekend.
You have been Minister for Development Cooperation in your home country. What do you think is Geneva's role in global governance today?
The Europe-based United Nations organizations are more needed than ever and will have an important role to play in the future. But we must be better at positioning ourselves as UN in Europe and UN in Geneva. I was Minister in Denmark when the UN City was inaugurated and very much pushed for UN organizations to come to Copenhagen. In Europe, we have been used to competing with each others. This is healthy but if we want to have a say in the world, Europe must be more united and we must work better together. And it is also true for United Nations organizations in Europe: we need to have a vision of one UN European family. This is the only way Europe can stay relevant in the long run. Having said that, Geneva is in a unique position. Seating here in an office built for the League of Nations shows its historic importance. Still today, its easy access and neutrality allow Geneva to facilitate cooperation in ways that other cities would have difficulty doing.