The United Nations in Vienna – a Sociologist´s Treasure

Rudolf Richter and Rosemary Barberet at the 20th Session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2011.

The United Nations Office in Vienna (UNOV), established in 1980, is one of the four major UN office sites where various UN agencies have a joint presence: International Atomic Energy Agency, International Money Laundering Information Network, International Narcotics Control Board, Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This year, Vienna has been in the news because of the IAEA and the negotiation of the nuclear arms treaty with Iran. After two years of negotiation, Iran and six world powers reached a nuclear deal on July 14 2015 in Vienna. Normally, the UN Office at Vienna does not make headlines. However, to me as an international criminologist, it is the global meeting place for decision making on crime and criminal justice issues.

I have been traveling to Vienna annually since 2002 to observe meetings at the United Nations in Vienna, and I started doing so as an ISA representative to the United Nations in 2007. As a criminologist, I am most interested in the work of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which meets for a week or longer every spring, usually in April. There are always cutting edge topics on the agenda, such as the trafficking of flora and fauna; the rights of victims of terrorism; maritime piracy; and this past year, the discussion of modernized standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, successfully adopted as the Mandela Rules. The sessions always culminate with the adoption of a dozen or more resolutions, designed to influence national and international criminal justice policy.

I must admit that I am a bit of a fanatic in terms of attending sessions, spending all day, every day at the United Nations and often, on the evening before the last day, I stay well into the evening – sometimes early morning – with the member state delegates as they iron out the final resolutions before the session´s end. To any trained sociological observer, the United Nations is a fascinating place, and to multilingual observers, it is also a place to bask in the wonderful work of the highly trained United Nations interpreters. Although as an NGO representative, I am not privy to informal negotiations that appear behind the scenes, I am still mesmerized by the more formal “wordsmithing” of resolutions, the ability of chairs of sessions to mediate conflict (or not, as the case may be) and the very restrained and polite environment of diplomacy. A very slight raising of the eyebrow, a hurried request for the floor, the routine deference shown in expressions such as “my distinguished colleague from [country X]… “: these are all part of the culture of the United Nations and it is the mystery behind these signs that keep me returning to the United Nations time after time. Perhaps the most satisfying moment of all is the end of the week, when all the work is completed, and all the member state delegates give each other a round of applause. It makes me think how many other organizations I belong to, rife with conflict (such as universities!), where we rarely come to a conclusion and applaud ourselves for our consensus.

In the early years, observing and feeding back to the ISA was enough for me. Later, it became important to me to contribute. Having observed the lack of research evidence present in this body’s decision making, we started producing literature syntheses on the annual topics discussed at the Crime Commission, in collaboration with another NGO I co-founded, Criminologists Without Borders. These syntheses summarize research literature from around the world. My role has thus expanded to distributing these reviews in hopes that member state delegations will find them useful, and learn to value social science research in their work.

Over the years, I have come to discover Vienna itself and its surroundings and with the passing of time, I feel like it is a bit of a home away from home for me. Its relaxing coffee shops and peaceful parks lead to good reflections and creative thoughts. I always look forward to my next visit, and the Third ISA Forum in 2016 is a great reason to return!  For those interested, UNOV can be toured: http://www.unis.unvienna.org/unis/en/visitors_service/index.html


Rosemary BarberetRosemary Barberet is a professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, ISA Executive Committee Member and ISA Forum Program Committee Member. You can contact her via e-mail: rbarberet@jjay.cuny.edu.

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