The Interview | Robin Geiss


Could you tell us briefly what your organization does? What is your role? What is your goal?

As one of the only research institutes worldwide focusing on disarmament and arms control, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) generates and promotes the kind of practical, innovative ideas needed to solve critical security issues and make the world more secure and more prosperous.

Over the past 18 months, for example, we have been helping the world to find ways to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use, as well as supporting the development of “rules of the road” for both cyberspace and outer space. We have helped policymakers apply a gender lens to biosecurity threats so that they will be better prepared and more resilient in the case of a biological incident. Along with various governments and private companies, we have explored the risks and benefits of new military technologies. We also came up with tools to support national governments in managing their weapons and ammunition.

Our informed, impartial analyses can advance progress in multilateral disarmament, and that has positive knock-on effects for social and economic development. The $2 trillion spent annually on defense around the world, for instance, could instead have gone towards fighting the global pandemic and climate change. All our efforts in tackling these challenges will not go far if we do not manage to disarm and reduce tensions around the globe. But we see these as issues for today rather than the future problems that require action right here and right now.

My own role at UNIDIR, meanwhile, is to serve as a kind of “chief innovator,” making sure we make the best of the unique nexus that we occupy between the United Nations system, the private sector, and policymakers.  My goal is to make the Institute even more agile and impactful, a place where our partners know they can always go for well-researched, innovative ideas and a platform for inclusive dialogue on everything from space security and AI to reducing the risk of nuclear war and engaging the next generation of thought leaders.



Among the concentration of actors in Geneva (OIs, NGOs, permanent missions, academia, and the private sector), who do you work with and how?

We work with all of the permanent missions, particularly the 65 members of the Conference on Disarmament. We also work regularly with colleagues at OCHA, UNMAS, UNODA, ITU, OHCHR, WHO, ICRC, the University of Geneva, the Graduate Institute Geneva, and GICHD, amongst many others. We have a new partnership with the World Economic Forum on strategic intelligence, and we’re exploring private-sector partnerships, particularly in the area of space and new tech. We host high-level conferences on emerging issues like deepfakes, peaceful uses of outer space, and gender inclusivity in international security. We also serve as a discreet venue for dialogue amongst policymakers grappling with complex and sensitive areas like digital technologies. Our doors are always open for new partnerships, and I’d very much encourage your readers to reach out to us with their ideas.



What are the strengths and weaknesses of Geneva with regards to the development of your activity?

Geneva is a city that truly lives by the phrase “multilateralism matters.” We do work in over 50 countries every year, but we thrive on engaging with the vast array of companies, foundations, think tanks, and civil society organizations that call Geneva home. The city’s drive to establish itself as a digital hub also resonates perfectly with what UNIDIR is trying to do via new foresight projects, digital portals on cybersecurity and space security, and an increasingly multilingual digital presence.

One tiny weakness of Geneva is that it provides so much sustenance for our work at the Institute that we can barely find enough time to explore the beautiful landscapes that we see around us every day! Personally, I do make a point of biking to the Palais as often as I can, and this bike- and pedestrian-friendly aspect is another great advantage that the city has to offer.  


What do you think global governance should look like 20 or 30 years from now?

This question is a timely one and something that the United Nations has been thinking a lot about lately. The time to act on it is now. I would echo the Secretary-General’s comments when he launched “Our Common Agenda” earlier this month and noted that: “it is an agenda driven by solidarity – the principle of working together, recognizing that we are bound to each other and that no community or country, however powerful, can solve its challenges alone.” He also stressed that to move towards a greener, better and safer future, we must include civil society, the private sector, and young people. This really encapsulates my own thinking, and I believe UNIDIR is well-placed to make important, practical contributions towards achieving this vision in the years ahead. 


Robin Geiss' biography

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