Outgoing Swiss ambassador praises WHO role during pandemic

The Geneva-based World Health Organization has been at the centre of the global fight against the new coronavirus. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic could have been much worse without the World Health Organization (WHO), according to Swiss ambassador Valentin Zellweger.

This content was published on June 15, 2020 - 13:08

“The WHO did the work we expected of it,” declared the outgoing Swiss ambassador to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in an interview with Keystone-SDA news agency on Monday.

Zellweger is due to leave his Geneva post at the end of July after four years to take up a new diplomatic role in Nairobi. He will be replaced by the Swiss ambassador to the UN in New York Jürg Lauber.

The diplomat said the pandemic had underscored International Geneva’s central governance role. Geneva is home to the UN’s European headquarters, over 30 international organisations, including the WHO, the International Labour Organization (ILO), and hundreds of NGOs.

He insisted that no state should distance itself from the multilateral system and reiterated Alpine nation’s support, as “Switzerland depends on others. It’s in our interest”.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticised WHO over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak — notably on its alleged “China-centric” stance. The outbreak first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Late last month, Trump said he was “terminating” the US relationship with the WHO.

Two years ago, the US withdrew from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, which resumed work on June 15. The council is set to hold an urgent debate on Wednesday on allegations of “systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests” in the US.

When the coronavirus spread in Switzerland in March, the UN and many international agencies closed their doors, asked staff to work from home and cancelled or postponed conferences and meetings.

Zellweger insisted that International Geneva had not stopped functioning during the lockdown thanks to online technologies and virtual meetings.

“We could not have done without them,” he said. “In the future it will be much easier to associate delegates from far-off countries and regions.”

However, he added that negotiations will still require a physical presence, as “compromise solutions are often found in corridors thanks to informal contacts”.           

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