#16 The G|O Briefing, October 6, 2020

The risks of a virtual UN | A new meaning for diplomatic immunity | Dr.Tedros on several fronts

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, we’ve learned that several Western countries have been making discrete but insistent demarches to the UN’s Office at Geneva (UNOG) to encourage the faster reopening of the Palais des Nations.
Advocates of a swift return to some kind of normality point to the limits of virtual diplomacy, including its lack of confidentiality and security vulnerabilities—to hacking, for example. But the main argument made in Geneva is essentially political: that countries opposed to strong multilateral organizations might use the lockdown to discredit further and cast doubt on their utility and necessity. For these diplomats, the Human Rights Council’s hybrid sessions are an example of what can be done despite the difficult circumstances. However, the deteriorating sanitary situation could complicate matters. “It is a delicate balance, and of course, we are aware of it,” a senior Western diplomat told The G|O.

Diplomatic Immunity takes on a new meaning under COVID-19

Keeping the UN’s bodies running during COVID-19 is a delicate balancing act indeed and one that involves multiple trade-offs.

For example, the ambassador of a major Latin American country, on returning from the ‘at-risk’ country, was granted a waiver from the mandatory quarantine period and immediately attended a meeting at the HRC at the Palais des Nations.

Yet, rules set out by the Swiss Government as part of its strategy in combatting COVID-19 establish that a person returning from a ‘country of risk’ is obliged to respect a quarantine period of ten days. Exceptions can be granted to various groups like ‘cultural actors,’ returning sports players, or diplomats. The specific exemptions for diplomats are contained in a recently updated Swiss Government advisory notice which has circulated among the diplomatic missions. “Under the terms of the rules on Measures to Combat COVID-19, exemptions from the quarantine measure are possible, in particular for persons whose activities are absolutely necessary to maintain the functioning of the diplomatic entity they represent,” a spokesperson from the Swiss Mission told us.

The Latin American country’s mission, for its part, said that its ambassador has been acting in compliance with all security protocols, including the use of individual protective equipment and social distancing. In a laudable effort at transparency on the impact of COVID-19 on the UN system, the Vienna UN Information Service regularly publishes the numbers of UN employees that have tested positive for Covid-19. We've asked the UN in Geneva why, unlike their Vienna colleagues, they don't publish equivalent figures. We have, as of now, received no answer to our query.  

A critical WHO Executive Board special session focusing on Covid-19 is in full swing

It is only the fifth such special session since WHO’s creation and comes at a critical moment for the agency. In anticipation of a robust debate among the 34 members, which will conclude tomorrow, on Monday, WHO’s boss Dr. Tedros vigorously defended his organization’s work during a press conference. The Director-General also submitted an interim report to the Board on the response to the pandemic (which had been mandated in the World Health Assembly’s COVID-19 resolution). The document provides a brief summary of WHO’s activities since January 2020, and sets out the steps taken to ensure that appropriate lessons are learned and best practices implemented as the pandemic evolves. The report also points out some of the shortcomings of the response, including:

  • that the politicization of pandemic responses has been “a material impediment to defeating the virus."
  • that WHO failed to always take into account the social and lived realities of many in devising response strategies (i.e., how do you socially distance in an overcrowded slum).
  • and that governments indeed failed to take WHO’s declaration of public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) seriously and implement measures to prepare for COVID-19. This last finding was expected but no less damning of WHO's lack of authority on the world stage and will be at the heart of future discussions on WHO reform. As the HRC session draws to a close, we’ll be back on Thursday with a proper look at the various votes.

And finally, International Geneva continues to grapple with the revelations exposed last week by The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters investigation into sexual exploitation and abuse in the response efforts to the 2018 Ebola outbreak in the DRC. They write that women were propositioned, abused, or lured into sex-for-work schemes by international workers from a range of organizations, including UNICEF, IOM, Oxfam, Médecin Sans Frontières, and IOM, but particularly from WHO.

As an op-ed in The New Humanitarian reminds us, “The international community has known for more than 20 years that sexual misconduct by aid workers is a serious issue that violates the foundational values on which humanitarian work is based.” It raises once more serious concerns about accountability at the UN.

Repeatedly questioned on the subject, Dr. Tedros said on Friday: “we’re outraged to read these reports. … We come to save lives and spread hope. The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible.” He then pledged that anyone identified as involved would face immediate dismissal and would be held to account. A flurry of investigations (internal and external) have been announced by several organizations allegedly concerned, and a wider internal investigation is currently being coordinated throughout the UN to gather as much information as possible.

Reporter Sam Mednick is quoted as saying, “everyone appeared to know what was going on – from local and international aid workers to high-ranking officials, doctors, nurses, and community members.” Once again, it should come back to who knew what and when particularly as both Dr. Tedros and Dr. Mike Ryan (head of WHO's health emergencies program—and a regular fixture at WHO’s COVID press conferences) spent significant time on the ground in WHO’s response in DRC.