#15 The G|O Briefing, October 4, 2020

Vaccines without Racism + Plus a Mixed Review on how the UN dealt with the pandemic

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, Can Vaccines Be Allocated on Antiracist Terms? A. Kayum  A. Kayum Ahmed argues that: “An antiracist allocation framework could be a step toward rethinking the race-neutral ideology that shapes the global health architecture.” As the Human Rights Council continues—albeit slowly—its work following its debate on systemic racism, Kayum Ahmed's words remind us once again how profoundly interconnected today’s greatest challenges are.

You may have been following WHO’s announcement of more countries signing up to the COVAX facility and their plan to distribute rapid diagnostic tests. The good news is that these efforts are truly unprecedented and are the result of some remarkable international cooperation.

The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s (KAS) office in Geneva has just published its ’Map of the Month, which shows the countries participating in the COVAX facility.  Although the US, China, and Russia are very conspicuous in their absence, it does show clearly WHO’s success in making the COVAX facility quasi-universal.

At what price? The negotiations between WHO and more reluctant member states do mean a more watered-down initiative than had originally been planned. But of more immediate concern is the current funding shortfall, with the scheme still needing around USD 35 billion to function (according to WHO Director-General Tedros, this is “roughly what the world spends on cigarettes every two weeks”). WHO and the UN Secretary-General have been making concerted efforts over the last couple of weeks to really push for more funds and are convening a series of high-level events until the end of the year to try and shift gears and fill the financing gap.

The first event was held on Wednesday and included several heads of State (UK, Norway, Canada, Germany) as well as the head of the World Bank and Bill Gates. After António Guterres told them that they required an “immediate infusion” of around USD 15 billion, World Bank President David Malpass said that he would be presenting a USD 12 billion proposal to his board as soon as possible, and other World leaders collectively pledged USD 1 billion—although half of this money had already been pledged. The movement is going in the right direction, but the massive shortfall remains.

Bachelet’s update on systemic racism: "we’ll update you next update"

At the Human Rights Council yesterday, High Commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet gave her oral update on the promotion and protection of the human rights of Africans and of people of African descent from law enforcement officers, required by the resolution adopted this June 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd killings and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

There had been some nerves around the UN in the lead-up to the update: it’s both a high-profile mandate, and there was the very real possibility that the US would be explicitly criticized. In the end, Bachelet’s short update only called out a general absence of accountability and redress of racially motivated crimes committed by members of security forces against persons of African descent and was not able to go into any detail.

This was mostly due to the fact that the mandate she received was only voted on about two months ago, and most of the work only began in mid-September. The lack of funding affecting the office and the perspectives of a possible change in government in the US were considered by delegations as part of the explanation on why a more substantive report will only be submitted in March. Bachelet said herself: “Mindful of the profound importance of this mandate, my office began implementing this resolution even before we received financial resources for it. Our intention, however, is to submit a statement of Programme Budget implications that will help us go forward. I count on the Council’s support in this respect.” She said the Council had to focus its efforts on delivering actions that would deliver results, saying "we cannot let the urgency felt last June subside."

Defining what focusing our efforts means in practice is a key question. As if to prove a point, on the same afternoon as Bachelet’s update, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent was reporting on COVID-19, systemic racism, and global protests. In reality, they are working closely with Bachelet, along with the special rapporteur on racism. The optimization of potentially overlapping mandates is seen by many as a possible solution to the OHCHR’s budgetary problems.

For some states as well, it's also clearly an opportunity to alleviate some of the pressure that is put on them. In its reaction to the statement, the EU said there was “a need to reflect on how we make sure we make a difference, how we make sure we make an impact.” It said, “the HRC has numerous mechanisms focusing on fighting racism, but not all of them deliver.” And that it stood ready to “discuss ways to revitalize the work and streamline these mechanisms in order to ensure our activity is relevant.” On top of the budgetary issues, COVID-19 is also proving a challenge for the working methods of the mandate holders. The inability to perform country visits has meant a lack of engagement with country partners and people on the ground, which could weaken the legitimacy of the reports.

Continuing with the UN and COVID-19

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has just released a report on how the UN system is functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Focusing on the activities related to disarmament, human rights, and the women, peace, and security agenda, their findings suggest that, unlike the disarmament forums and processes which have struggled, with many being postponed or canceled, the human rights forums have “for the most part, …. continued to function, albeit not fully, adapting reasonably quickly—compared some (sic.) other parts of the UN—to online formats and ensuring that civil society could continue to participate.”

The report explains that even though institutions like the HRC or the UN General Assembly have continued to function,  “the UN Security Council more or less imploded immediately.” On a more positive note, for the UN (maybe?), it stated that “the failings of the UN are not about multilateralism or even the institution as a whole. The failings come down to certain member states privileging their interests above all else.” Madeleine Rees, Secretary-General of WILPF, said in presenting the report:  “We need to not just ‘build back better,’ but to build back differently.”