#43 The G|O Briefing, March 4, 2021

People first: How Ngozi Okwonjo-Iweala gets it right! - Famine in Yemen, "a stain on our conscience" - A virtual Human Rights Film Festival

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, Op-Ed contributor Daniel Warner was impressed and inspired by Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s first speech as she took over as WTO’s new Director General on Monday, March 1.

“Okonjo-Iweala understands that behind complex multilateral meetings are consequences for you and me. The word populism has gotten a bad name. Today, it refers to Donald Trump and his followers in the United States or people like Viktor Orban in Hungary and his Fidesz Party. I would prefer to think of Ms Okonjo-Iweala as a true populist,” he writes. His piece is below.

“Compassion fatigue” was evident during last Monday’s (March 1) pledging conference on Yemen reports G|O’s contributor John Zarocostas. Germany and the EU, and in some measure the US, saved the day, but all in all, a terribly disappointing response to the grimmest of situations. John also has a telling example on how nations are able to compartmentalize issues: in trade discussions, Saudi Arabia was not called out for its human rights violations. With the recent publication of the report on Mohamad bin-Salman's direct involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and Saudi Arabia’s massive responsibility in having ravaged Yemen, please forgive us for thinking we live in almost schizophrenic times.

And finally, press pause on your favorite streaming service from tomorrow on and switch to the Human Rights Film Festival (FIFDH) website. Its team has managed to concoct a wonderful program for its virtual 19th edition. Debates and films will be streamed.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya will be participating in a debate on Sunday night, March 7.

We asked Daphné Rozat, Head of Documentary Programming, for her three top picks, this is her selection:

Once Upon A Time In Venezuela, by Annabel Rodriguez-Rios: “An incredibly beautiful and poetic film that tells the collapse of Venezuela through the life of the village of Congo Mirador.”

Downstream to Kinshasa, by Dieudo Hamadi: “An extremely moving film and a lesson in courage by one of Africa’s best contemporary filmmakers. “The film tells the story of a group of people mutilated during Congo’s Six-Day War as they try to find reparation. Impressive.”

Shadow Game, by Eefje Blankevoort et Els van Driel. “A group of migrants film themselves as they attempt to cross over European borders in a kind of existential and dangerous game. Unsettling, disturbing, and necessary.”


Famine in Yemen: UN Humanitarian Community dismayed by close-fisted donors

Two quotes sum up the palpable dismay, in some cases bordering on shock, felt by the aid community about the disappointing results of the pledging conference to Stave off Famine in Yemen: “Millions of Yemeni children, women, and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence,” said UN boss António Guterres. Jan Egeland was equally blunt in his statement: “I told governments at the conference that I have just seen children who are already dying of starvation in Yemen. It is in their power to prevent full-scale famine or forever have this stain on their consciences. So far, they have failed to act.”

50,000 people in Yemen are facing famine-like conditions, a further 5 million are a step away from famine and will fall into famine if conditions worsen. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that a further 11 million are facing crisis levels of food insecurity.

After weeks of intense advocacy by top UN officials calling on donors-to-be generosity to help stave off a looming famine in Yemen, the amounts pledged ended up being less than the amount received for the humanitarian response plan in 2020, and a billion less than what was pledged in 2019. The pandemic is hitting hard: foreign aid budgets are slashed across the world.

Except for Germany, which pledged US$244.8 million, up from US$173 million allocated in aid for Yemen during 2020, and the European Commission which also increased its contribution to US$116 million, most of the major traditional donors pledged below expectations by a wide margin. The UK slashed its aid by 60%. Saudi Arabia, whose military-led campaign is ravaging Yemen, pledged US$430 million, up from the US$330 million it provided for the UN Yemen response last year, but far below the US$1 billion it provided in 2019, and US$551 million in 2018.

The Biden administration, which in one of its first significant foreign policy moves decided to stop its support for the war effort, announced US$191million in additional humanitarian assistance. UN officials said this also fell below expectations “given that last year the US provided US$691 million in funding.”  More US aid funds may, however, be coming with the new 2021 fiscal year in Washington.

Faced with that grim reality, it appears that private groups might now be stepping in to compensate for the lack of government spending. In an exclusive story, The New Humanitarian reports that a mysterious private foundation has set up The Famine Relief Fund to rapidly and massively inject funds in Yemen.

The THN report notes that the creation of this fund backed by American financiers is not without raising some questions. While the World Food Program and the ICRC are engaged in discussions with its backers “other international aid NGOs have opted not to work with the fund, including Mercy Corps, the Danish Refugee Council, and CARE. The International Rescue Committee said it would not be receiving anything from the fund,” reports TNH.

-JZ, with additional reporting from Philippe Mottaz

Elsewhere in the ecosystem

WTO forum on Saudi Arabia puts focus on trade, not human rights

During a World Trade Organization periodic review of Saudi Arabia's trade regime Wednesday (March 3), major partners, including the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, focused on core trade business and shied away from making any critical remarks on the kingdom's poor human rights record. This represented a marked reversal from the WTO review of Myanmar in mid-February, where the US, the EU, and the UK slammed the recent coup and the ongoing bloody clampdown in strong political interventions normally witnessed in fora such as the UN Security Council or the UN Human Rights Council.

Only a few days before the Saudi review, the Biden administration had released an intelligence assessment report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The report concluded that the Crown Prince, and de-facto ruler of the Kingdom, had approved an operation in Istanbul "to capture or kill" Khashoggi. The Saudi government completely rejected the US assessment as false.

During the proceedings, the US—as it has done with other WTO members that belong to the G20, like China—called on Saudi Arabia to effectively give up its developing country status, noting that it is designated as a “high-income” economy by the World Bank with a GNI per capita of nearly 50,000 PPP dollars in 2019.

Saudi Arabia should “no longer seek special and differential treatment in current and future WTO negotiations. By taking this step, Saudi Arabia would make a significant contribution to ensuring that the WTO remains a viable forum for meaningful trade negotiations,” David Bisbee, Chargé d'affaires ad interim, of the US mission to the WTO, told delegates.


If you think the whole COVID-19 vaccine rollout has not been as smooth as expected, you’re not alone!

Between “vaccine nationalism,” procurements and logistical problems–and more–a number of Geneva-based organisations have decided to convene a meeting at Chatham House to do some stock-tacking and, we would hope, come up with some urgent remedial actions.

“If we don't reduce these we could be heading for a disaster,” one senior source familiar with the coming summit told The G|O.

What is needed, says some vaccine experts is “a massive infusion of technology transfer” to developing countries that have the capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

“It's critical that we get vaccine production ramped worldwide and get supplies quickly out the door,” a senior international official told The G|O.

Scheduled for March 8-9, the virtual COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chain Manufacturing Summit
is to provide a platform to explore a range of solutions to address bottlenecks, shortages, and delays of materials and equipment that have held back a surge in production.

Besides COVAX, the other co-sponsors are BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organization), the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), and the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network (DVCMN).


Big Step for WTO, Bigger Step for Multilateralism?

The new head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has gotten off to a promising start.

In her initial public declarations, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African to lead the WTO, has said that the organization must “deal with people in their everyday lives.” For an organization that has been mired in a deadlock over members of the appellate body and who, after 14 years of negotiation, was unable to finish the Doha Development Round to facilitate global trade in 2015, her election and comments were a breath of fresh air.

The official multilateral system is stagnant. If it hopes to remain relevant, it needs such blunt talk, a completely new mindset, and a renewed push for transparency and accountability.

Admittedly, China’s rise, Russia’s nihilistic posture and the US’ loss of moral standing have brought a new level of complexity and uncertainty to the geopolitical landscape.

Yet the fact remains that the UN has done little to ensure peace and security in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, and was on the sidelines in stopping a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The UN has been unable to be the leading voice in the distribution of vaccines, cannot deal with a military coup d’état in Myanmar, and appears as a band-aid institution when faced with global poverty and inequality. While the UN may still be relevant on technical issues, it has lost its momentum on major issues of war and peace and its moral authority in speaking for and defending the planet’s most vulnerable.

It would be simple to blame the above on the lack of American leadership during the four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” policies. There may be more systemic problems behind the stagnation. For example, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is up for re-election in 2021. When he was elected in 2016, there was an open, transparent process that included public presentations and debates among all the candidates. Guterres, the former Portuguese Prime Minister and head of the UN’s refugee agency, was far and away the most impressive.

What has he done since? His timidity in denouncing gross violations of human rights and lack of moral leadership may be directly tied to his wish to be re-elected. One of the most promising reforms of the UN system was to guarantee one extended term for the Secretary-General, allowing him or her to be more independent. Many remember how Boutros-Ghali was punished for speaking out by his non-re-election in 1996. He had criticized the United States for not paying its dues on time, as well as criticizing Israel. Only one permanent member of the Security Council voted against him, the United States. "How can I fight Goliath?" he asked.

The return of the United States to the multilateral system through re-engagement in the Paris Agreement on the climate, the World Health Organization, and the Human Rights Council gives reason for optimism. As the leading force behind the creation of the UN and the multilateral system after World War II, the United States is central to the success of the UN.

But, and this is a big but, the United States cannot have its way now as it has done in the past. Other countries have moved forward during the US retreat, especially China. While confrontations between the United States and China within the multilateral system are not as spectacular as confrontations between battleships on the South China Sea, they are worth watching. Negotiations at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will never make front-page news. They are very technical and are dominated by lawyers and experts. Nonetheless, they have become an integral part of the remaking of global politics. And most importantly, they are being conducted in multilateral settings where other actors are involved.

Multilateralism is not bilateralism. Trying to win votes in an international organization is not the same as seeking allies to bolster troops on the battlefield. While the language of reporting on votes in these institutions may be similar to sports reporting, they are not the same as just who won or who lost. And we should be thankful for that.
To return to the World Trade Organization and Dr Okonjo-Iweala: This is important because, in many ways, she represents the hopes and future of multilateralism. When she speaks of dealing with people “in their everyday lives,” we must remember she has an undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard, a PhD from MIT, was twice finance minister of Nigeria under different governments, and had a managerial post for 25 years at the World Bank. All her academic and professional work has dealt with development, inequality and the so-called developing world.

Despite her impressive academic and professional background, Okonjo-Iweala understands that behind complex multilateral meetings are consequences for you and me. The word populism has gotten a bad name.

Today, it refers to Donald Trump and his followers in the United States or people like Viktor Orban in Hungary and his Fidesz Party. I would prefer to think of Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala as a true populist.

Will it work? Can she make the WTO relevant and inject a breath of fresh air in the multilateral system? The system has been more than stagnant, it has been moribund. It will take a lot of oxygen to get it restarted—something that has been in very short supply during the pandemic and the last decade.

“We have to be more accountable to the people we came here to serve –the ordinary women and men, our children who hope that our work here to support the multilateral trading system will result in meaningful change in their lives…” Okonjo-Iweala declared in her first official speech. That’s not just true for the WTO but also for the entire multilateral system.


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

Edited by: Paige Holt