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

WTO Patents and COVID-19, Should the HRC be a "club of the virtuous"? And a China/Swiss follow-up

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, as the IMF calls on the governments of rich countries to step up their efforts in the fight against the pandemic’s continuous and lasting negative economic effects, from the heart of Geneva comes a warning about the unprecedented levels of debt in high-income countries which could lead to new tremors in the global financial system.

“The heightened debt distress from COVID-19 is not confined to public balance sheets. The debt splurge, in both developed and developing countries, since 2009, has been driven by private borrowing with growing concerns ... about high and rising corporate debt levels,” warns UNCTAD in its latest report.
For The Geneva Observer, John Zarocostas takes a deep dive into this disquieting story, talking to the report’s lead author and looking at the warning signs of a potential new global financial shock.

Will WTO TRIPS up?

We have been reporting on the ongoing issue of how to ensure COVID-19 medicines are actually accessible quickly, cheaply, and equitably across the world once they become available. We have been following negotiations around the WHO-spearheaded COVAX facility it hopes will allow the distribution of vaccines all over the world. The next episode in this massively important issue is currently underway behind closed doors at the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council meeting.

Earlier in October (October 2), South Africa and India proposed that the Council waive some Intellectual Property restrictions for the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19. The basic idea is that any new COVID drugs and vaccines should be affordable and accessible for lower- and middle-income countries. This would be done by lifting the barriers to local production and distribution of these products “until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity.”

The echoes of the HIV/AIDS crisis have been lost on no one. Around the turn of the millennium—at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—there were passionate and urgent debates about how WTO’s IP rules were blocking access to antiretrovirals, particularly in Africa. Those negotiations resulted in 2001 with the Doha Declaration on TRIPS “flexibilities”. The declaration reaffirmed the existing public health exceptions, which encouraged the production of generic medicines in emerging economies.

Not since then has such a meeting garnered as much civil society attention. Letters have been pouring into governments from various NGOs backing the proposal. International NGOs like MSF announced it was supporting the call, as are some international organizations like UNAIDS, who released a statement supporting the proposal earlier today. In Brazil, over one thousand scientists and academics wrote to the Foreign Ministry demanding the country support the proposal. Brasília, however, will not side with the other emerging countries. Neither will the EU. “Intellectual property is not a barrier, but a support for the intensification of research and innovation,” said the Dutch delegation.

According to Brussels, the current trade agreements—in particular, the TRIPS public health “flexibilities”—do not pose any insurmountable barriers leading to reduced availability of COVID-19-related medical products and drugs. A worldwide and far-reaching waiver is thus neither necessary nor, it argues, desirable. They claim that introducing one could even “slow down the strong willingness to invest in new vaccines, drugs, and medical products at a time when they are most needed,” as big pharma might be deterred to develop them given a smaller return on investment. (It's an old argument, and you can read more on it here and here.)

The proposal will be discussed tomorrow morning. At best, it will mark the beginning of a lengthy process of negotiations. As any decision requires unanimity, if the positions are as they were stated before the meeting, there is a possibility the proposal is dead on arrival. That said, renewed international pressure from NGOs, and International Organizations could still bring reluctant countries to the negotiating table.

We will have to wait and see.

Should the HRC be a “club of the virtuous”?

Following up on our Tuesday Briefing, China and Russia were elected to the Human Rights Council on Tuesday night. While Saudi Arabia—expected to be elected—failed in its bid. Pakistan and Cuba were also elected. As were France and the UK, meaning that all the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) except the US will be at the next Council session.

The membership of the Council is always a question in Human Rights circles: does the dismal human rights record of some of its members mean it loses all credibility? Or would an HRC made only of the most deserving result in its marginalization (and also a loss of credibility)?

For anyone interested in these questions, Chief of the Human Rights Council Branch of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and once described as the HRC’s institutional memory, Eric Tistounet’s new book on the Human Rights Council (launching in Geneva next week) will be a must-read. A key figure in the establishment of the HRC—Former High Commissioner of Human Rights, Louise Arbour—writes in her preface to the book: “Like others, I was weary of any move towards a human rights body composed of a club of the virtuous, particularly since virtue was in short supply in many quarters, and would be hard to recognize in others even by those who claim some in themselves.”

Instead, the key question she poses is “whether we are collectively well served, as rights-holders, by our international institutions.” Whether it serves us well collectively as rights-holders is a tricky question for any institution, let alone one still in its infancy. But “a club of the virtuous” it certainly is not.

And finally, G|O readers will remember that we raised some questions about a 2015 technical agreement between China and Switzerland that allows Chinese immigration agents to operate freely in Switzerland. The revelations made international headlines.

The Swiss Government wishes to extend the agreement due to lapse in early December. The Green and Socialists party voiced their opposition to the extension, an opposition now made formal by Geneva Green Party member Nicolas Walder who sits on the Lower House Foreign affairs committee.

In a motion sent today to his fellow committee members, Walder demands that the Swiss government suspend its discussions on the renewal of the agreement and review the current situation in light of Beijing’s violent clampdown on human rights. Walder is particularly concerned about the situation of the Chinese citizens who were sent back to China following a 2016 mission.

“To date, we have no guarantee as to the impact this collaboration has had on the lives of Chinese nationals interviewed and deported. What happened to them when they returned to China? Did they and their families suffer reprisals?” Walder told The Geneva Observer.

He also believes that “renewing such an agreement at this time would invite strong criticism by human rights defenders and have a lasting negative effect of Switzerland’s reputation.”

For Walder, “The increase in persecutions against minorities as well as the bellicose policies and repression both in Hong Kong and in Taiwan or on the border with India should push Switzerland not to sign an agreement it might later regret.”

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas

Edited by: Paige Holt