By Antonia Marie de Meo, Director of UNICRI, and Marian de Bruijn, Programme Coordinator at UNICRI, Turin
In the area of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) risk mitigation, no country and no region can advance and play safe in isolation. Consequently, from 2010, the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) has supported the European Commission to create and implement the CBRN Centres of Excellence. This initiative is shaping new comprehensive international cooperation models and standards based on a universal perception of risks and a global commitment to jointly share responsibilities.
During its 10th anniversary, the initiative faced one of the biggest CBRN crises in the history of mankind, the Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak. All 61 partner countries of the initiative as well as the Member States of the European Union were affected by Covid-19. In this context, the initiative has proved to be very useful during the global pandemic. There are three foundational pillars that helped the initiative be an effective network for international cooperation.
Covid-19 response through effective cooperation The first pillar is the design of the structure for international cooperation. To facilitate dialogue and cooperation between different UN Member States, the CBRN Centres of Excellence were not created as a physical structure, but as a decentralized network. This network was designed to be agile and easily adaptable to different challenges. The initiative is based on 8 regional hubs or Regional Secretariats, each led by a Head of Secretariat, appointed by the host country, and an international UNICRI staff member who performs the role of Regional Coordinator. Together with the Head and the rest of the Secretariat Team, the Regional Coordinator is in daily contact with all National Focal Points, each of them representing a UN Partner Member State in the region.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the decentralised network has proved to be resilient. While the emergency changed daily and differed from country to country, the UNICRI Regional Coordinators were able to keep a finger on the pulse. Hence, the initiative could easily tailor its strategies and respond to both the national and regional conditions. Most of the National Focal Points, who are still now preventing and combating the impact of the Covid-19 crisis, could rely on a functional international network to access knowledge and resources and respond rapidly to their domestic priorities. Notwithstanding the difficult circumstances, this regional and international cooperation network remained connected and operational. The second foundational pillar that has been important during the pandemic is the ownership of the partner countries. Ten years ago, it was decided that the participation of UN Member States should be on a voluntary basis. Although this approach generated skepticism, especially from those who believed that there cannot be commitment without a politically or legally binding agreement, volunteerism has been essential to ensure that the partner countries are not simply beneficiaries, but owners of the initiative.
The third pillar is directly linked to the second: UNICRI and the European Commission (EC), throughout the years, have embraced and promoted a country driven approach. This means that resources were allocated based on the needs identified by the partner countries. To do so, partner countries have established national CBRN teams who are responsible for identifying national priorities, conducting need assessments and producing National Action Plans. In this regard, the partner countries are in the driver’s seat, not only in their cooperation with the EC, but also vis-a-vis other regional and international partners that are addressing CBRN related issues. This mechanism has proved to be highly effective during the Covid-19 crisis, when partner countries could identify main needs and communicate them to their Regional Secretariats. In turn, the Regional Secretariats worked together with the EC and other partners to ensure that available expertise was mobilised to answer specific needs. Today it is possible to affirm that key decisions that were taken ten years ago at the outset of the Centres of Excellence Initiative are extremely valid and enable partner countries to mitigate the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic more effectively.