#17 The G|O Briefing, October 8, 2020


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

Today in The Geneva Observer, the next leader of WTO will be a woman – Could she also be the first from Africa as well?

The World Trade Organization’s leadership campaign is down to its final two: Nigeria’s (joint Nigerian and US national) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee. Ambassador David Walker—WTO’s General Council Chair who has been leading the leadership process—announced the two nominees this morning, although the news was already out last night (October 8). The final run of the selection process will kick off later this month and will run until November 6.

The next leader will certainly be breaking barriers: she will be the first woman to lead the organization, and she could be the first African to do so as well. The word in Geneva's trade diplomatic community is that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is picking up momentum to secure the top global trade post and is expected to edge out Korea's Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.

It's not a matter of qualifications. With the exit of Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, the African continent is expected to rally behind the front runner, with backing also coming from other major WTO developing and developed country regions and capitals of large trading powers. "It's Africa's turn, we hope," an ambassador from an African nation told The G|O, echoing the sentiment held by many trade envoys from the region. Another envoy, this time from a major Western global trading power, told The G|O, “She has a very good chance." Other East Asian powers, such as Japan and China could also be instrumental in opposing a candidate from South Korea.

Okonjo-Iweala—with her time as managing director of the World Bank, as chairman of GAVI, and as a current African Union special envoy tasked with dealing with the international economic fallout of COVID-19—is running as a WTO outsider who knows international trade. She is credited with having the political acumen to engage with global leaders and change the course of the organization. A diplomat who has worked closely with her in the past told The G|O: "she's smart, has a good political antenna, and is very demanding.”

Crucial Executive Board meeting sets the stage for WHO’s profound transformation

With the pandemic still raging, costing the global economy trillions, with 27 days until one of the most crucial elections in US history, with an assertive China, and with Dr. Tedros insistent on defending the performance of his organization, it was one the most anticipated executive board meetings since WHO’s creation. Three proposals were circulated to members: one from the US administration (with the support of Brazil), one from France and Germany, and another from Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The US’ active and positive engagement in WHO’s reform process came as a surprise to some. Indeed, it was almost as if the Trump administration hadn’t officially notified WHO of its withdrawal from the organization. The US proposal insisted on the need for more transparency from countries when outbreaks happen and are identified. Assumed as a thinly veiled criticism of China, the idea essentially consists of giving WHO better and faster access to places of outbreaks so that it can investigate effectively.

China asserted throughout the meeting that it had “always been transparent.” However, an international mission to Wuhan—mandated by a World Health Assembly (WHA) resolution—has not happened, despite intense negotiations.

The European and Latin American proposals both agreed that WHO needs more resources, an evaluation that appears in WHO’s own internal audits too. Paris and Berlin—and Bern as well, incidentally—insist that for WHO to be able to fully perform its role, reform will have to come with a substantial increase in WHO’s assessed contributions (membership fees), changing the ratio between what is assessed and what is voluntarily given.

Also on the agenda was WHO and other countries' emergency responses. COVID-19 has shown once again just how fast an outbreak in one country can lead to problems in others. Many now believe the time has come for the establishment of mechanisms allowing WHO to force, or at least constrain, other governments to act and improve their health security systems.

The Human Rights Council wraps up its hybrid 45th Session

The Human Rights Council concluded its hybrid 45th session yesterday following several days of voting. In adopting various resolutions on contentious issues such as Yemen, Venezuela, Burundi, and Syria and following an urgent debate on Belarus, the hybrid session proved that the UN’s multilateral bodies can continue to function in spite of COVID-19.

However, the rest of the session is harder to assess and depends completely on your expectations. The HRC was initially set up to break a taboo: to talk about and re-assert the idea of a shared minimum standard of human rights. In setting up the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) system, as well as numerous mandates and special procedures, it has unquestionably done that by treating every member on the same footing.

The HRC is a forum that hosts high-level debates on the world's major human rights violations and hears from victims and actors on all sides. Yet, sometimes, it undeniably gives off a frustrating impression of insufficient impact. What to do about that remains to be seen.

And finally, the World Economic Forum’s Davos 'Great reset' will be going ahead, but this time in Lucerne. WEF has confirmed that their 2021 annual meeting will be taking place in Lucerne-Bürgenstock's palace hotel between May 18 and 21. So if you book early, you might get a room below CHF 1200 a night. WEF says it convenes global leaders to “design a common recovery path … in the post-COVID-19 era and rebuild a more cohesive and sustainable society.” Between now and then, it will be engaging in a massive effort at multistakeholder engagement. Whether its plan is so transformative is another question.

PS. We told you in our last briefing that we would get back to you about the number of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 within the UN system in Geneva. After a few email exchanges with the UNOG, we were told « the missions, the agencies, and the programs» receive the information.

But for the UN in Geneva, offering a comprehensive public breakdown is obviously proving challenging.