#82, The G|O Briefing, January 20, 2022

A wide open race for the ILO's top job | Will diplomacy prevail? | Is the Human Rights Council losing its focus? |

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in the Geneva Observer: All eyes are again on Geneva! Will Russia invade Ukraine? Will there be war? Nobody knows. This is historian and Ukraine expert Timothy Snyder, writing in a must-read essay on Substack: “I am not sure what will happen next. I am not sure that the Kremlin knows what will happen next. Indeed, I am not sure that there is agreement among Russian elites as to what should happen next.” His essay deals at length with Russia’s national identity—or more precisely with Putin’s concept of Russian identity. “Why now, and why Ukraine?” he wonders.

Because, writes fellow historian Adam Tooze, Putin’s Russia has regained superpower status along the lines of the former Soviet Union, and the Russian president now has the means to provoke the current political and security order in Europe. If the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough are particularly bleak, it is because for Putin, at this point of the escalation between Russia, the US and its allies, the superpower status acquired over the last few years would instantly diminish should his troops return to their barracks.

Writes Tooze, quoted here at length:

“Though it is tempting to dismiss Putin’s regime as a hangover from another era, or the harbinger of a new wave of authoritarianism, it has the weight that it does and commands our attention because global growth and global integration have enabled the Kremlin to accumulate considerable power. The sophistication of Russian weaponry and its cyber capacity betoken the underlying technological potential of the broader Russian economy. But what generates the cash is global demand for Russian oil and gas. And Putin’s regime has made use of this.

It is reductive to think of Russia as a petrostate, but if you do indulge in that simplification, you must recognize that it is a strategic petrostate more like a UAE or Saudi Arabia than an Iraq or Algeria. Russia is a strategic petrostate in a double sense. It is too big a part of global energy markets to permit Iran-style sanctions against Russian energy sales. Russia accounts for about 40 percent of Europe’s gas imports. Comprehensive sanctions would be too destabilizing to global energy markets, and that would blow back on the United States in a significant way. China could not stand by and allow it to happen. Furthermore, Moscow, unlike some major oil and gas exporters, has proven capable of accumulating a substantial share of the fossil fuel proceeds.”

Is there a way out of the crisis? “What seem worth trying”, writes Snyder, “are negotiations on a broader basis, not limited to Russia’s specific claims or ambitions, but accepting the basic premise that something is wrong in the European security system,” adding, “One thing that America and Russia do have in common is that their diplomats have been downgraded in recent years. Perhaps they should be given something serious to work on, something that might make some real history.”

Will the beginning of that (hi)story be written here in Geneva, tomorrow? It would mark a welcome change for an American diplomacy which, despite being in the hands of some of “the best and the brightest,” hasn’t delivered much so far, argues Daniel Warner in an essay for The G|O.

Also in today’s Geneva Observer, the race for Guy Ryder’s succession at the ILO is now in full swing. Public auditions of the five candidates started today and will last until tomorrow. The election is set for March 25, and as we report, the race is not only wide open but might present some surprises.

Finally, human rights expert Nicolas Agostini takes a hard look at the Human Rights Council, and wonders if it is imploding under the weight of a mammoth agenda that shows no signs of shrinkage. The HRC’s credibility is at stake, he argues.

All the while, three ‘maps of the month’ produced by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation illustrate which countries voted with China during the Council’s last session. You can see them here.



By Jamil Chade, with Philippe Mottaz

The process of electing a new Director-General at the International Labour Organization (ILO), to replace Guy Ryder, whose term expires on September 30, is in full speed.

The ILO is a tripartite organization which brings together representatives of governments, employers, and workers in its executive bodies. The 56-member Governing Body (GB) elects the D-G, and is composed of 28 Governments, 14 Workers and 14 Employers. There are five candidates for the top job, three men and two women, listed here alphabetically. With the exception of the South African Mthunzi Mdwaba, all are supported by their respective governments:

  • Gilbert F. Houngbo, current President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), submitted by the Government of Togo
  • Kang Kyung-wha, former South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, submitted by the Government of the Republic of Korea
  • Mthunzi Mdwaba, Vice-Chairperson and Officer of the Governing Body of the ILO, submitted by members of the ILO Governing Body
  • Muriel Pénicaud, former French Minister of Labour, submitted by the French Government
  • Greg Vines, current Deputy Director-General of the ILO, submitted by the Australian Government

The race to succeed Ryder officially started today, with ‘public dialogues’ conducted by the Chairwoman of the organization’s Governing Body (GB), Swedish Ambassador Anna Jardfelt. Streamed live on the ILO’s website, the sessions will extend to tomorrow. The GB will conduct further discussions with the candidates in mid-March, before electing the new Director-General at its March 25 session.

The race is already shaping up to be a formidable contest. The candidates’ profile and vision will matter, of course, but in a tense global political landscape, with continuously rising inequalities and the devastating economic effects of the pandemic still impeding recovery around the world, several other factors will weigh in on the ILO’s nomination: expect geo- and bloc-politics to play a massive role.

To some extent, the pandemic is yet another addition to an already long list of far-ranging, lasting, transformative, and unprecedented disruptions that the world has been dealing with over the last decade, mainly driven by technology. The sum of these changes has been rising social and economic inequalities. Rebuilding social cohesion in such conditions is a daunting task, and the ILO will be playing a central role in that rebuild—which is why this election may matter more than previous ones held in quieter times.  

The situation is still fluid at this early stage of the election process. It appears, however, that without the support of his own Government, the candidacy of Mthunzi Mdwaba stands little chance, ILO watchers tell The G|O.

France’s Muriel Pénicaud has the unwavering support of her government. Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to introduce her—a former French labor minister—to his colleagues during the last G20 meeting in Rome in November. Paris is betting on a common European vote in her favor, but knowledgeable diplomatic sources here tell us that her candidacy, while strong, is vulnerable in light of the persistent tensions between the Macron government and the French unions. The Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), France’s largest union, has announced that it will not lend its support to her candidacy. In 2020, Pénicaud’s actions as labor minister actually led to a complaint being lodged at the ILO.

In turn, the situation has split the ILO’s Workers’ Group which was hoping to reach an early consensus around a single candidate. The G|O has been told that the Workers’ Group is now hoping to rally behind Gilbert Houngbo, a former prime minister of Togo. Diplomats also point out that he would have important support from practically all African governments, and that he could be a very strong competitor if backed by other emerging countries.

However, Houngbo, who previously served as Deputy-Director-General in charge of Field Operations at the ILO, left the organization for Rome in 2017, after being elected President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and was just reelected to that position in 2021—largely thanks to the support of France and other European governments. His decision to throw his hat in the ring for ILO D-G so soon after his reelection to a second term at IFAD is seen by some ILO watchers as a faux pas which might negatively impact his candidacy.

Beijing has so far provided no indication about its intentions. With allegations currently under review at the ILO of forced labor and discrimination in Xinjian province, it will be interesting to observe Beijing’s position. From a strictly traditional geopolitical point of view, given the tensions between China and Australia, and South Korea’s alignment with the West, diplomats familiar with the ongoing discussions tell The Geneva Observer that Beijing would not support either Greg Vines (Australia) or Kang Kyung-wha (South Korea). Both could, however, be supported by the West—and by the Employers’ group. Some speculate that in such a complicated race, despite her lack of background in labor, former South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyun-wha could well emerge as a compromise candidate.  

-JC, with PHM


By Nicolas Agostini

Some thought it was a mistake. Others took it as a joke. Many were flabbergasted. Last month, when the UN Human Rights Council’s program of work for 2022 was released, it listed an unprecedented 13 weeks of regular plenary sessions for the year—in other words, a staggering 65 days spent in session. Observers remarked that this total doesn’t include Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) meetings, forums, working groups, seminars, and possible special sessions.

The inflation since the Council’s early days in 2006 is substantial. The HRC’s founding resolution provides for “no less than ten weeks.” Until the advent of online meetings due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was exactly that figure: no less, but no more than ten weeks (with more lunchtime meetings than took place in 2021, admittedly).

However, the Council’s program of work has long been overloaded—diplomats, UN officials, experts, and NGO representatives have frequently complained about it. They point to unsustainable practices that revolve around an increasing number of reports presented, debates held, statements delivered, resolutions considered, and expert mechanisms created.


Over its 15 years of existence, the Council has started to resemble a kaleidoscope, and online meeting practices have only made it spin faster. Today, its sessions look like an endless succession of statements, briefings, reports, debates, resolutions, amendments, points of procedure, and explanations of vote.

In 2021 alone, the Council adopted 88 resolutions (including five during special sessions), held 145 plenary meetings, considered over 80 reports, convened 17 panel discussions, and listened to thousands of state, expert, and NGO statements. It also held numerous inter-sessional activities.

New resolutions addressed topics as diverse as “harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft,” “menstrual hygiene management,” or “the legacies of colonialism.” The Council also created new investigative and expert mechanisms tasked with reporting on specific countries or themes (for instance, racial justice and climate change). These added to the close-to-60 existing special procedure mandates. If the Council’s past practice serves as a guide, new resolutions and mechanisms inevitably means additional resolutions and mechanisms: Not much ever gets removed from the agenda.

In 2021, innovations such as an open-ended, permanent commission of inquiry and the setting of new standards (including the recognition of a “human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”) were also introduced.

There is a growing and uneasy consensus among HRC watchers that efficiency measures adopted to rationalize its working methods and streamline its work have failed to deliver tangible results. Their only ‘achievement’ seems to have been disproportionate restrictions on civil society participation. Any positive effects (a reduction in meeting time) have been offset by resolutions requesting new reports, convening new debates, and creating new mechanisms.
The kaleidoscope spins ever faster. Its constantly-changing views, countless images, and endless variety of patterns have resulted in an inability to focus.


The HRC does undertake meaningful work. It responds to crises at an early stage (including when, in New York, the UN Security Council is paralyzed by its veto-holding members), launches independent investigations, stresses the need to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable, elaborates on the human rights obligations of states, provides technical support to them, and often places victims at the center of its resolutions.

States, NGOs, and national actors have invested in it—many of the former run for membership. When they’re elected, they present initiatives—if only to prove to domestic constituencies that they’ve done something. Myriad NGOs register for sessions in the hope that the causes they defend will be heard.

Yes, the Council does good things, but it does toomany things to make a real difference in the world.  Its overloaded work program has adverse effects:

-       Small delegations are unable to follow sessions thoroughly.
-       Everyone (including within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR]) is working on a shoestring and fighting for budget allocations.
-       Few people truly pay attention to the contents of reports and substance of debates. Achieving what Aristotle achieved during his lifetime (mastering the totality of human knowledge) is now impossible for the observer during just one Council session!
-        Those working around the Council are operating in silos, with everyone focused on their own niche. There’s not one Council, but many, coexisting Councils.
-       Ambassadors are an increasingly rare sight in plenary meetings. This undermines the political value, image, and ultimately the legitimacy of Council meetings.
-       Occasionally, there’s a rush that gives the impression of pandering to the media, when one country or issue cannibalizes the multilateral space. See, for example, how Afghanistan suddenly became a priority for so many in August 2021 (spoiler: the human rights situation there wasn’t exactly great before the Taliban took over).
-       The Council is unable to ensure implementation of its resolutions, follow up on Universal Periodic Review (UPR) recommendations, and engage with on-the-ground actors and local practitioners. It’s focused instead on performative politics. By and large, members and observers are unable to escape the ‘Geneva bubble’—disconnection from the ground appears to be an inverse function of the number of Council initiatives.
-       The never-ending expansion of debates, reports, and expert mechanisms that make the Council overworked may not even serve the cause of human rights. Work is often duplicated, reports repeat themselves, and mandates overlap; too much gets lost in a constant brouhaha.
-       Finally, the million-franc question: Aren’t we diluting binding human rights norms when we overreach and frame anything desirable (from ethical principles to broad social goals) as ‘rights’? As leading human rights scholar Horst Hannum stressed, if the bar is too high and the ambition too broad, then human rights will inevitably be seen as failing.


The UN human rights pillar remains chronically under-funded (receiving only 3.7% of the UN regular budget), but increased budgets would only fix some of the issues discussed here. Issues such as lack of focus, lack of prioritization, and lack of implementation would remain unaddressed—or be exacerbated, with consequences for the Council’s relevance and effectiveness.
A few priority measures could go a long way in addressing these issues:
-       Rationalizing resolutions (bi-annualizing/tri-annualizing them). This effort has been launched, but it’s insufficient, and undercut by states working hard to flood the Council’s agenda with new initiatives. It needs to be optimized.  
-       Addressing the duplication of mandates. To take an example: Leprosy carries human rights implications for persons affected by it, but do we need a stand-alone special procedure mandate to address them? And another: Do we need a stand-alone mandate on ‘toxic waste’? This is unpopular, but a hard look at existing mechanisms is long overdue, and mergers should be considered.
-       Discontinuing mechanisms. A human rights-based approach to everything is probably not possible, and the Council doesn’t necessarily have something useful to say on every single issue.

Adopting the “radically moderate approach” that Hannum suggests would mean re-focusing on core, binding legal obligations. He and others urge restraint in formulating new rights, which often blur the distinction between binding norms and soft law or politics. In this regard, an oft-forgotten resolution, UNGA resolution 41/120, and its guidelines for developing new rights, can help.

For the Human Rights Council, its members, and its observers, the risks of not addressing these issues—and of failing to pause, reflect, prioritize, and implement—are significant. To avoid losing track of the big picture, the Council should be more focused. Otherwise, it runs the risk of ineffectiveness—and consequently, of more and more states and institutions rejecting it.

Welcome, Madam Ambassador—but please not ‘The Best and the Brightest 2.0’

By Daniel Warner

One of the most unreported events of the Biden/Putin summit of June 16, 2021, was the lack of an American Geneva ambassador on the tarmac to greet President Biden when he stepped off Air Force One. Since January 2021, there has been no United States ambassador to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva. But that has now changed, with the Senate confirmation of Bathsheba Crocker on December 18, 2021. Welcome, Mme. Ambassador.

While the Biden administration immediately proclaimed it was back on the multilateral circuit after the Trump years, the lack of a U.N. ambassador—because certain Republican senators held up confirmations—has weakened the American position in International Geneva. The previous ambassador, Andrew Bremberg, was certainly no fan of international cooperation. Nominated by President Trump, Bremberg was best known as a buddy of the firebrand, coatless MAGA representative from Ohio, Jim Jordan. Bremberg had no previous international experience. He was sent to Geneva to push a conservative social agenda, having previously been a special assistant to Trump and director of the Domestic Policy Council. Bremberg’s current position is President and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Ambassador Crocker’s credentials are markedly different from Bremberg’s. She has considerable experience in foreign affairs and the State Department, including serving as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs from 2014 to 2017. She also has experience with philanthropy—at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—and the United Nations—in the UN Peacebuilding Support Office.

Unlike Bremberg, who has a B.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and a law degree from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Crocker boasts an outstanding academic background at the top American universities—Stanford, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard Law School—as well as having taught at major universities in the Washington area—Johns Hopkins, George Washington, American University, and Georgetown. And one might say the job is in her blood: Her father, Chester Crocker, was a highly respected Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
In sum, the differences between Andrew Bremberg and Bathsheba Crocker could not be more radical. But before celebrating these differences and her confirmation, a caveat is needed.

We have seen how even the most qualified can err. One of the most damning books on the Vietnam War was David Halberstam’s 1972 title, The Best and the Brightest. In it, Halberstam traces the decision-making in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leading up to the start of the Vietnam conflict and beyond, to show how top policymakers and academics made the wrong choices. His point, which has become an oft-cited mantra, is that people like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and McGeorge Bundy might have had all the best qualifications, but their judgments were flawed when it came to Vietnam—because they lacked common sense.

Similar to Halberstam’s ‘best and the brightest’, we see people around President Biden’s foreign policy team with, like Crocker, outstanding qualifications. Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Robert Malley have similar backgrounds. Secretary of State Blinken: Father was U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, fluent French speaker after studying in Paris, Harvard undergraduate having co-edited the Harvard Crimson, Columbia Law School. Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor: Yale undergraduate, Rhodes Scholar Oxford University, Yale Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Judge Stephen Breyer. Robert Malley, U.S. Special Representative and lead negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action): same elite Parisian school as Blinken, Yale undergraduate, Rhodes Scholar Oxford University, Harvard Law School, clerked for Supreme Court Judge Byron White.  

So far, the Biden foreign policy team has made no major errors—certainly none on the scale of Vietnam. However, tensions with Russia continue to rise, with over 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, and the relationship with China has had no major breakthroughs, as fighter planes are seen flying over Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Middle East, including the Iran nuclear deal, is bogged down, and the Taliban are patrolling the streets of Kabul. For all the qualifications of the current team and Biden’s years of Senate experience, the new administration has not yet had a major foreign policy success.
Granted, the pandemic, infrastructure bill, and Build Back Better have been time- and energy-consuming. Nevertheless, given their experience, one might have expected better results on the international scene from Biden and his team.  

But beyond the lack of marquee successes, the Biden team has also made elementary diplomatic errors. The uncoordinated, chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the tone-deaf, undiplomatic trilateral security pact (AUKUS) between Australia, the UK and the U.S. that caught the French unaware are serious diplomatic faux pas. Blinken and Malley may speak perfect French, but their surprise submarine deal showed little common sense and caused the French to recall their ambassador to Washington for the first time in modern history.

How does one measure common sense? It’s not simple to define. And the lack of it among educated elites is not limited to Democrats, of course. Updating Halberstam’s ‘best and brightest’ with those who championed the disastrous Iraq War would see inclusions for Republican neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz (Ph.D. University of Chicago), Richard Perle (M.A. in political science from Princeton), and Eliot Abrams (Harvard, Harvard Law School). Current overeducated, common-sense-challenged Republicans are led by Senators Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law School) and Josh Hawley (Stanford, Yale Law School).  

The Vietnam and Iraq tragedies under the best and the brightest must never be repeated. Here's hoping Ms. Crocker and the Biden foreign policy team have common sense, and that The Best and the Brightest 2.0 remains unwritten.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Daniel Warner

Editorial assistant: CIARA O'DONOGHUE

Contributors: Nicolas Agostini

Edited by: Dan Wheeler