Carlotta Zenere, JPO, “My six years journey within the UN”

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ROME, FEBRUARY 1 – Carlotta Zenere (32) concluded her ‘laurea magistrale’ in law at the Università degli Studi di Padova. She later got an International Masters in Global Economics and Social Affairs from the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. Her areas of expertise include: counter-terrorism (and, notably, countering the financing of terrorism); preventing and countering violent extremism; sanctions; organized crime; and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (including counter proliferation financing). She currently works as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI). In our interview, she talks of her almost six years journey within the UN, her past positions and experiences in New York, and how they compare to her current job at UNICRI. 

What educational and professional experience brought you to where you are today?

I began my university experience in Italy, with a Master degree in Law. Upon finishing my studies, the only thing I knew for sure was that I did not want to become a lawyer. For the first time in my life I didn’t really know what I wished to do next. In a leap of faith, I started a post graduate course in International and European Law. It turned out to be the right decision, because through this programme I found my big passion: counter-terrorism. 

I wrote my Master thesis on the misuse of new technology for cyber laundering and terrorism financing, and eventually started working as a researcher on anti-money laundering. At this point of my professional path, I was studying my career possibilities and applying to a multitude of positions. I found some internship opportunities at the United Nations, and decided to apply.

In August of 2015 I woke up to an e-mail from the Counter Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), based in New York, which confirmed that I had been selected for an internship. At first, I didnt feel ready to move. I was 26 at the time, and my hope was to find a full-time position. The job opportunity I had lined up, however, didn’t work out. Soon after I found myself on a flight to New York.

I was supposed to be in the Big Apple for three months, but everything played out quite differently from what I expected. In fact, I had started as an intern on broad, legal matters and then ended up being a consultant dealing with issues related to Countering the Financing of Terrorism (CFT): my area of expertise. 

Before the end of my consultancy, and through the extensive network I had built during my time there, I managed to get a one-year job as advisor on counter terrorism and sanctions at the Permanent Mission of Italy to the UN.

I was lucky. Back then, in 2017, Italy was part of the Security Council as a non-permanent member, chaired the Sanctions Committee on North Korea, and was facilitator for the 2231 mechanism on Iran. Furthermore, just one year before, the Security Council had adopted resolution 2331 (2016), the first dealing with the use of human trafficking as a tactic of terrorism and potential source of terrorism financing. A follow-up resolution on the topic, resolution 2388 (2017), was later adopted. There was therefore a lot of interest and momentum from Member States in getting to know more about this topic. I was able to work on a research project launched by CTED at the beginning of 2018, which culminated with the drafting of a report on this topic. 

Upon finishing my second adventure at CTED, I started working as a consultant  on CFT at the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), where I assisted in the delivery of technical assistance activities on several topics pertaining to countering the financing of terrorism and contributed to the development of a global programme on this very topic. In the meantime, I submitted an application to the Italian Junior Professional Officer (JPO) Programme, which finally brought me to UNICRI.

What is the JPO programme? 

I am a JPO or Associate Expert in Counter-Terrorism at UNICRI. What does it mean to be a JPO? It means that you are employed at, and work for, the UN, but are deployed in a specific agency by your government. You still work in a completely independent matter, and do not depend in any way on your country in terms of political and professional decisions. Many member states have a JPO program in place. The program usually runs for two, or three years, depending on the country.

What are your main tasks and responsibilities at UNICRI? How is your position at UNICRI different from your previous ones? 

At CTED and UNOCT, my roles and expertise were more specific: they concerned countering the financing of terrorism. At UNICRI, I deal with everything related to the broader topic of counter-terrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism.

A big part of my work consists in developing projects on specific topics related to counter-terrorism, preventing and countering violent extremism, depending on where there is demand and need for. I also conduct research activities, deliver technical presentations on those topics, and network with various other UN offices dealing with similar subject matters.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work at UNICRI?

I began my work at UNICRI in February 2020, and in March I already started smart-working. My experience so far has therefore been mostly from home. However, I am really impressed by how quickly and smoothly UNICRI shifted all the activities, such as trainings and assessments, usually delivered in person, in the online format, by ensuring perfect business continuity.

Networking and team-building have been impacted. Building and growing a relationship with colleagues online is really challenging, but of course we have no choice, and eventually we will be able to return to the office.

In your opinion, is enough being done to empower young people within the UN? What advice would you give to a young person hoping to work within the UN?

The professional world of the UN is very competitive, because you are up-against top people from all over the world. Being skilled, determined and passionate does not always guarantee success. It requires a lot of unconditional passion, patience, resilience, stubbornness -and perhaps even a little bit of luck- because there are no guarantees, and bureaucratic procedures can be very long and meticulous.

My advice to young people interested in working for the UN is to make use of instruments like the JPO, the fellowship and internship programmes. It’s very difficult to get hired after an internship.  Even if you do a wonderful job, there are usually no funds available. However, internships can always be a great opportunity to network, and to meet amazing professionals who can mentor you by transmitting their immense knowledge, experience and passion about a specific topic. But most importantly, you really need to want it; you really need to believe in your dreams and mission; and, most definitely, you never have to give up!