Michal Broža

“Some problems do not respect national borders”

Michal Broža, Head of the United Nations Information Centre Prague

Text: Martina Hošková and M.Zisso; Photo: Archive

As one of the first branches of the organization, UNIC Prague was founded in 1947, only two years after the United Nations was established. “Growing up in the unfree, undemocratic regime I had always dreamt of an open international arena,” says Michal Broža, Head of UNIC Prague. “The UN is the only universal global multilateral mechanism the world has to solve the problems that are too big for one country, and for any coalition of countries. I am proud to serve the international community. I consider it a privilege and am grateful that I can do such a job.”

Who is Michal Broža? Tell us about yourself.

I am a father of two. For me, it is perhaps the most important thing to start with. I am a Czech national in the international service. A proud European, and an Earthling. What makes me feel happy is my family, the beauty of the natural world, rich culture, and provoking art. My concerns include the state and the prospects of the Earth’s climate, injustice, and undemocratic rules. What I believe humanity must struggle for is freedom, the rule of law, a healthy environment, good education for all, decent jobs and incomes, rights of every single individual, and, indeed, peace.

What made you become a diplomat, and work for the UN?

My job includes public diplomacy, but my role could be better described as international civil service. Joining the UN was not necessarily a dream job. Growing up in the unfree, undemocratic regime, I had always dreamt of an open international arena, about different and often distant cultures. I was keen to explore the world’s diversity. Not to be told what was right and what was wrong, but to find out myself. When my first UN job vacancy appeared, the war in the former Yugoslavia was in full swing. The UN was high on the agenda, many believed the UN was here to solve the war. The UN was receiving some praise, and lots of criticism. Becoming part of the global body seemed to me a great challenge, and a pretty cool thing. It was big, global, and based on the best of human values, but also quite controversial for the complexity and the number of different interests projected into world affairs. My role was to communicate, explain, and advocate for the United Nations. Quite a challenge, and quite an important thing for the world, I thought.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, 78 years ago. Is it still relevant today?

“The United Nations was not created to bring humanity to heaven but to save it from hell.”This famous quote from the second UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, is as valid today as it was then. President JFK called Dag Hammarskjöld the greatest statesman of the 20th century.

The older the UN gets, the more obvious it seems to have it. But also, the less we tend to care about it, and the more we tend to criticize it. However, regardless of its age, the UN is the only universal global multilateral mechanism the world has to solve the problems that are too big for one country, and for any coalition of countries. The problems that do not respect national borders.

The question should rather be: is it still needed? Goodness yes! Look at the length of human history. The UN is actually 78 years young. Sure, it is imperfect. Sure, it could and should be reformed, improved, modernized, and made better and more responsive. Yes. But let’s be honest. The world is maybe quite restless now, full of multiple crises. But it used to be a far more hostile place before the UN was created. The progress humanity has made through the system of UN cooperation is enormous.

You are speaking about the imperfections of the system. What exactly do you have in mind?

Major crises like the Russian war against Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, and others highlight a paradox of global (non)governance. Look at the meetings at the UN. Many world leaders know what the major global problems are. They name them, speak about them, and about the need to solve them. But in reality, too many of these problems remain untouched, or are inadequately addressed.

Climate change. And not only climate change. UN Chief António Guterres says there are two major reasons for that. 1. Foreign policy of states remains an extended arm of domestic politics. 2. The world has outdated and weak global institutions, including the United Nations, the Security Council, the WHO, and the international financial system. Did you know that, when borrowing at international financial markets, interest rates are up to 8 times (!) higher for the poorest countries than they are for developed countries? It is unfair, and it is bad for everyone – including the rich part of the world.

We simply need a more collaborative and fairer international system, based on the rule of international law. This is because “more than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations.”I borrowed this quote from the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I was lucky to have had a chance to work with him, and to personally meet him.

Michal Broža, Head of the United Nations Information Centre Prague

The United Nations is very well known globally. Is there anything people would not know about its activities?

Yes, I think the UN is quite well known, and the majority of people know the fundamental facts about the UN, with many believing it is a good and useful institution. But that’s it. The knowledge and support for the UN is quite shallow. Many people usually associate the UN with only one major thing, based on their knowledge, or rather on their opinion. But the UN does so many things! – from peacekeeping operations and protecting the vulnerable, to organizing elections and protecting the environment.

Most people probably do not know about the risky and complex operation the UN was recently undertaking in Yemen to prevent major environmental and social disaster, which would be caused by the largest oil spill in human history. Over one million barrels of oil were pumped from an old and decaying FSO Safer tanker stranded by war at Yemen’s shore. If left unattended, the tanker could explode or break. It would be a disaster of global dimensions. For years, no one was willing to take action in the country, which was devastated by a long conflict. It took two years of UN diplomatic and political work, technical preparations, and fundraising before the emergency operation could begin. Today, all of the oil has already been pumped into a replacement vessel. It is a story of cooperation, prevention, political mediation, ingenuity, and environmental management – demonstrating once again the indispensable role of the United Nations, as UN Chief António Guterres points out.

The United Nations office in Prague – which you are heading – has a long history. What are some interesting facts about its development throughout the years?

The UN has been in Prague since 1947. Only two years after its establishment, it opened its branch in Prague. It was thanks to, in particular, the engagement of then Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, Jan Masaryk, who had been very active when the UN foundations were being laid, and remained engaged when the UN actually started to operate. The founding fathers (yes, women’s role in society at that time was still pretty undervalued) of the UN were smart enough not to let the UN be headquartered somewhere far, risking the rest of the world remaining disengaged and uninformed about the global body, its goals, and activities. Therefore, a network of UN Information Centres (UNICs) was designed to serve as a bridge between the headquarters and its member states. Prague was one of the first on the list because Jan Masaryk pushed on all diplomatic fronts, including with the first UN Chief Trygve Lie. Norwegian diplomat, Slavist, translator, and journalist Olav Rytter was appointed the first Director of UNIC Prague. With the support of the Norwegian Embassy, we recently collected materials about Mr. Rytter, producing an information panel and leaflet about his professional achievements (including in the UN), and naming our multipurpose room in the UN premises in Prague after him. This was done in order to remember the legacy of the UN official who laid the foundation of the UN presence in Prague.

The core mandate of the UN Information Office in Prague has remained unchanged until today. We are the voice of the UN in Czechia, communicating UN themes and priorities on social media, on the web, and through the traditional media, as well as through working with Czech institutions – the government, NGOs, schools, universities, and the private sector.

What themes and priorities do you communicate?

We have a broad range of issues to highlight. For many years, UNIC has been actively raising the issue of climate emergency. With our Czech science and NGO colleagues, we have presented all IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports of the 5th, and most recently the 6th, Assessments Reports to the Czech public. In 2019, we started advocating for more climate communication in Czechia, and established the Climate Change Communication Prize. Since 2020, this project has been organised together with the Learned Society of the Czech Republic. Six climate science communicators have already been awarded, including two for their lifelong contribution. UNIC is also actively engaged in communication and awareness raising of issues related to human rights, including gender equality, the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community, issues of sustainable development (including biodiversity loss), education, health, circular economy, and, overall, the Sustainable Development Goals, UN’s top agenda for 2015-2030.

February 2022 saw a re-emergence of major conflict in Europe. Since day one, the United Nations has been using all of its means to prevent the escalation of the conflict. However, it has not been able to stop the war after the full- scale invasion of Russia in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has been a major issue in Czechia since the very beginning. Can you further explain the UN’s position and activities regarding the Russian invasion?

As I said before, the UN has been using all of its means to prevent the escalation of the conflict. However, the invasion, by one of the permanent members of the Security Council, prevents the United Nations from resolving the conflict through legal means, and according to the UN Charter. The Secretary-General and the entire UN system remain engaged, and are utilizing all its powers to recreate conditions that would open the space for peace negotiations. In the meantime, the UN’s main task is to mitigate the consequences of war on the people in Ukraine, and in the countries in the region where many seek safety. This includes Czechia, which belongs to the major providers of safe space and protection for refugees, as well as providing a wide range of assistance to Ukraine.

In the last decade of the last century, two UN agencies established a presence in Czechia: UNHCR and WHO. Also, the National Committee of UNICEF was established to fundraise and advocate for the UN Children’s Fund. In the same decade, the office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) started to operate in Czechia (in 2016 IOM became part of the UN system).

Since 2022, the four Agencies’ presence in Czechia increased dramatically to support the Government’s response to the Ukraine refugee crisis. With the support of major donors, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO, and IOM assist through implementing the Regional Refugee Response Plan. This plan aims to ensure refugees’ access to protection and assistance on a non-discriminatory basis, including the rights associated with temporary protection or similar legal statuses in host countries. Special attention is given to those refugees who are already, or are at risk of becoming, vulnerable. The work of these UN Agencies has been praised by the government, as well as the international donors.

What do you consider the most difficult part of being a UN representative?

Sometimes, and quite often in times of war, you have to think twice before saying things in public. As an international civil servant, I am responsible to the Secretary-General, and through him to the entire international community. In what I say, I represent the perspective of the United Nations, not my own. I do not comment on developments, I do not officially present my own attitudes and views. Therefore, for everything I officially say I need to know the position of the UN. And sometimes it is hard to find all the information needed from the UN system. What is also quite difficult for us, being posted in this part of the world, is the time difference from the UN Headquarters. While here in Europe we are already discussing emerging issues, New York is only just waking up, and it sometimes is too late for me to gather all relevant information from the UN colleagues and entities. I work in an environment which is quite unique, truly international, and based on the values of the United Nations. Working for the UN requires skills, but also (specific) attitudes – including respect and understanding for diversity and equality. I am proud to serve the international community. I consider it a privilege, and am grateful that I can do such a job.

What is the best adventure you have had while working for the United Nations?

The best personal adventure has been raising my two daughters with my partner Pavla. As to the work, I had the privilege to serve in the UN Peacekeeping. In Liberia, I was able to witness the rise of the nation after a 15-year- long civil war. Every day, I was able to see the uneasy life of ordinary Liberians and returning refugees, I met many former combatants, and worked with re-emerging media. On the other hand, I was in regular contact with senior UN colleagues, military personnel from all over the world, high officials of the country, visiting senior journalists from the world media, as well as world leaders coming to visit the country that just embarked for a difficult journey from conflict to peace.

I was recently visiting one of my Liberia UN colleagues in Stockholm. While I was the communications officer of the civilian mission, he was the spokesman of the military contingent. We recalled one of the big military inspections, in the rubber plantation not far from the capital of Monrovia. That was an area with a high concentration of former combatants, and rumours spread that there were still armed groups hiding. The operation indeed was quite interesting – or adventurous, if you wish. None of the rumours ever proved true.

Another adventure was the inauguration of the first post- war democratically elected President. Many world leaders arrived in Monrovia, including the First Lady of the United States. I was in the UN team covering the inauguration for the UN Radio, and with the means we had available at that time it was a great experience and adventure. It felt like being part of the history of that nation, and even today I still feel attached to Liberia.

Michal Broža, Head of the United Nations Information Centre Prague

Is there anything you don’t feel so well about?

There are many issues in this world that give me hard time. I have already mentioned climate change and the inability of the world to prevent it growing. The inability of the world to switch from talking to acting. Second, I think we – the people, governments, the media, education system and others should do far more and better against disinformation that nurture hate, racism and question very basic human values including justice, truth, solidarity and cooperation. And I am terribly disappointed that despite loving nature we – the people – love fossil fuels and the way of life based on consumption more. We need to better get along with our natural world including ocean. And there is one concrete thing that makes me feel bad. The ever-growing number of cases of online fraud against women, most of whom live alone, by men pretending to be serving in UN missions – as a doctor, engineer, military etc. These are online “friendships” that always start with confidence building by the men, and then switch at a certain point to ‘confidence tricking’ in order to squeeze money from the women: 1. for being able to early retire from the UN, 2. to get UN permission for annual leave, 3. any other “credible” reason to “help” that person (and his/her associates) financially. My office receives several calls from these women nearly every week, trying to figure out whether the person actually exists, or why the UN has not yet let her friend go on annual leave after sending the required fees so many times. Sometimes, it is hard to make them believe that they were a victim of fraud. Or family members call us to find a way to help their mother, sister, etc. realize they were tricked.

It is so unfair. The UN is misused as a credible and known institution, as most people know that the UN operates in uneasy situations. The “UN story” helps criminals build trust, only to later implement their criminal plan. We do our best to let people know that the UN never asks people for money to let their staff take annual leave, retire, or leave a mission etc. We also plead that people do not share their personal data online.

What does the free time of an international civil servant look like?

I already indicated I like to be with my family. I also read a lot about global affairs, as it is part of the job. I am very interested and engaged in micro-mobility issues, as transport in cities has been one of the major things that touch our daily lives. I am a firm supporter of cycling as a mode of urban transport, and advocate for cycling infrastructure. After spending a long time in Amsterdam as a student, it is something I find quite natural.

I play concert guitar, but I do not play concerts. I am still too shy to perform, but I love playing old classical guitar pieces. I have the best teacher in the world, a Dutch guitar master living in Czechia.

I love skiing, hiking, and playing tennis. And I do what I can to help people in need. Lately, the people from Ukraine in particular. Not because they are from Ukraine, but because they are suffering. I feel the same for people from Syria, Sudan, Bangladesh… We need to continue showing solidarity. It doesn’t always need to be a big thing. Sometimes it is enough to smile at these people, tell them that we care, and shake hands. It damn helps.

To conclude, can you give a piece of advice to the young generation?

I would hesitate to call it advice, but please remain engaged in pushing for climate action. Please care for biodiversity, nature, and the environment. Use bikes instead of cars. Travel not for fun but for education, solidarity, understanding each other, and for helping other people, nature, and culture. Don’t give up on making the world a better place. And I will close with a favourite African saying: If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.