A tense moment for International Geneva—but also a faint hope, as informal spaces still allow dialogue with Russia

The West’s resolve has, for now, been reinforced. But so has that of China, Russia, and their allies, bent on seizing the moment to their advantage.

Seven months into the war, talk and listen to diplomats here, and you immediately grasp the profound and lasting impact on Geneva from Russia’s naked acts of aggression against Ukraine. If during the early weeks and months of the conflict, the focus across town was on crafting an appropriate response to Russia’s violence, with the first shock now gone, the conversation has broadened and deepened. For what we intuited on the blistery dawn of Thursday, 24 February, that the world would be changed by the invasion, has now become obvious.


The West’s resolve has, for now, been reinforced. But so has that of China, Russia, and their allies, bent on seizing the moment to their advantage. Russia, with its war, and China, with its strident denunciation of the UN human rights system, are violently shaking the foundations of the multilateral regime. The war means going “from the rule of law to the law of the strongest,” according to Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, the new Director of the Munich Security Conference. “So now the question is, do we accept a return to a period where the strongest have the right to win or do we defend the rules-based order [where conflicts are resolved through the rule of the law]?” he asked rhetorically at a Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) event organized last week in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS)*.


China’s denunciation of the report on Xinjiang from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) contains an implicit rejection of the concept of the universality of human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). “Multilateralism rests on the pillar of universality, which is not limited to human rights, so to fail to defend it would strike a blow to the legitimacy of the system,” a non-European Western ambassador with a long experience of multilateral diplomacy told The G|O.

“The battle over human rights and Western values is a battle we cannot lose” says a senior European diplomat. But it will, doubtless, be long and will have to be fought hard. The main theater of confrontation here remains the Human Rights Council, as we reported last week, where informed diplomatic sources tell us there is still no agreement within the EU and amongst its allies on how to move forward. We understand that at this point the European bloc remains divided, with a small minority of its Eastern members opposing a possible resolution about investigating the alleged human rights abuses in Russia and Ukraine.

Discussions are still ongoing about China, after Beijing rallied the support of twenty countries (see the map here ) compiled by the KAS here) to issue a statement last Tuesday  (September 13) denouncing the OHCHR report on Xinjiang, which it considers “unlawful.”


“I have been active in multilateral diplomacy for more than thirty years. When tensions arise, there is often a tendency to say this is an unprecedented moment. But this is certainly the tensest moment I have experienced,” one diplomat told The G|O. Another told us: “There have been plenty of moments of high tensions, notably during the Cold War. What makes the situation different today is that we are talking about China and Russia, and it changes the scale.” “The global security order has never been without tensions, but today’s problem is that it no longer relies on treaties and agreements but is driven by interests […] and by the available power,” summarized Norbert Lammert, former president of the German Parliament, at the GCSP’s recent event.


Both Russia’s war and China’s responses to the war have also exposed the Global South’s ambivalence towards the rules-based system. As Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group, writes in a note on the upcoming UN General Assembly due to open next week, “since the late spring, non-Western diplomats, while not condoning Russia’s assault, have appeared increasingly uncomfortable taking strong positions on the conflict.

For the UN’s many critics, the escalated war has demonstrated both the institution’s powerlessness and its members’ pusillanimity. Some of Russia’s opponents—and Ukraine itself—have called for fundamental reforms to the organization.” Africa in particular, sees the conflict as an extension of the East-West confrontation. “We need to fight this narrative. We need to explain that this is not an East-West conflict but an attack on the rules-based system, and this message should be carried to the Global South,” stressed Christoph Heusgen during the GCSP panel.


With Russia diplomatically isolated in Geneva since the beginning of the war and Moscow boycotting the city—it pulled out of the Syrian peace talks —after Switzerland’s decision to align itself with the EU sanctions, can we still talk about International Geneva as the center of multilateral cooperation? How severe a blow has the war inflicted on the system? “I think it’s too early to say,” analyzes one of our diplomatic sources. “We are still processing the extent of what happened. We won’t ever go back to what it was before; February 24 will not be forgotten.

But there are a lot of discussions, formal and informal, still happening in which Russia is involved. Russia is not leaving Geneva simply because it needs to be here to address a number of issues of interest.” For some security experts and diplomats here, the hope is that at some point in the future, these contacts will not only have averted a further weakening of the multilateral system but will open the way to finding a diplomatic solution to end the war. For others, this is a faint hope, as the Russia we were used to dealing with before the war may simply no longer be, and a reform of the UN Security Council appears unlikely.


*Full disclosure: KAS supports The Geneva Observer. The decision to cover the event was ours only.