#85, The G|O Briefing, February 10, 2022
ILO experts issue strong criticism of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang province - WTO Secretariat shaken by reform plan
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in the Geneva Observer, International Geneva seems to be getting tougher on China and the issue of forced labor and discrimination. Yesterday, the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) published what amounts to rather blistering criticism of Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang province. As we report, the CEACR’s conclusions constitute a first step, but with enormous potential implications—including the creation, down the road, of a Commission of Inquiry. By requesting that its report be taken up by the ILO’s Committee on the Application of Standards during the upcoming International Labour Conference in June, the ILO has left the door open for governments, employers, and workers to provide additional evidence or lodge further complaints against China.
This comes as another report on human rights violations in Xinjiang is expected soon from the UN High-Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. We understand that its release has been pushed back until the end of the Winter Olympics. In this context, it is worth noting that the CREAR has reached out to the UN OHCHR, a clear indication of what appears to be a new resolve by International Geneva to act on the issue.
Jamil Chade, for his part, reports on the reform of the WTO’s Secretariat—a Secretariat he found in a current state of high agitation, as Dr. Ngozi finally unveiled her plan for the body, after almost a year of work. His story is a cautionary tale about the difficulties and complexities of reforming international organizations to make them fit for the many challenges of the current era.
We also have a short follow-up on our piece last week about a possible cost overrun in the renovation of the UN in Geneva. And in Elsewhere in the Ecosystem, a few short news stories. It’s all below.
ILO'S EXPERTS STRONGLY CRITICIZE CHINA ON FORCED LABOUR
By Philippe Mottaz
Yesterday, the ILO’s independent Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) issued its annual report of cases brought by the ILO’s membership of governments and workers’ and employers’ organizations. The 870-page document includes keenly awaited comments on serious allegations brought by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in late 2020 of the systematic use of forced labour in agriculture and industry targeting Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of China.
China has not ratified the ILO forced labour Conventions. The ITUC therefore brought allegations relating to Conventions that China has ratified that also deal with aspects of forced labour, including: the Employment Policy Convention (No. 122) and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No.111).
After careful review of the evidence provided by the ITUC and the responses of the Chinese government, the Committee concluded that there existed multiple areas of concern regarding Beijing’s policies and adherence to these Conventions. China firmly denies that it uses forced labour or discriminates against minorities, describing the allegations as “untrue and politically motivated.” As it has in other fora, in its response to the CEACR, the Chinese government maintains that the relocation of the poor for work and training is a legitimate part of its successful national poverty alleviation programme.
"NUMEROUS INDICATIONS OF COERCIVE MEASURES"
Benefits of poverty alleviation efforts notwithstanding, the report sharply criticizes the use of “labour transfer” policies as restricting the free choice of employment in violation of Convention 122. The Committee stresses that the employment situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China indeed “provides numerous indications of coercive measures, many of which arise from regulatory and policy documents.” This includes “government-led mobilisation of rural households with local townships organising transfers in accordance with labour export quotas; the relocation of transfer of workers under security escort; on-site management and retention of workers under strict surveillance; the threat of internment in vocational education and training centres if workers do not accept ‘government administration’, and the inability of placed workers to freely change employers.” The Committee has demanded further information from the Chinese government on measures taken to address the findings, while concretely asking it to take immediate action to end the use of vocational training centres and education programmes in de-radicalization efforts. The Committee also wants to ensure that vocational training in the Uyghur Autonomous Region is mainstreamed and delivered in publicly accessible institutions.
The comments on Convention 111 on non-discrimination are even more forthright. The Committee expressed “deep concern” in respect to the government’s policy directions and regulations, citing serious problems with numerous laws, regulations and practices that effectively discriminate against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, including profiling them as a group for de-radicalization using labour market institutions like vocational training. Among others, it requests the government to “review and revise its labour legislation to align with the Convention and take steps to repeal provisions imposing de-radicalization duties on enterprises and trade unions; amend national and regional regulations to reorient the mandate of vocational training and education centres from political re-education based on administrative detention and provide information on measures taken to ensure observance of the policy to promote equality of opportunity and treatment of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups when seeking to access employment outside the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.”
Contacted by The Geneva Observer, Sharan Burrow, ITUC Secretary General offered the following reaction to the Committee’s conclusions: “This report clearly underlines the seriousness of the discrimination against Uyghur people and calls for China to change its discriminatory policies and practices. We welcome the fact that the Committee of Experts has decided that this issue must be on the agenda of the ILO Conference (ILC) this June.”
The CEACR report will be reviewed by the International Labour Conference’s Committee on the Application of Standards comprised of ILC delegates. This provides an opportunity to hear from the government and propose further engagement with the ILO to help resolve the compliance issues. While dialogue is the modus operandi of the ILO in situations such as this, it does not exclude the possibility that ILC delegates will present new evidence or lodge additional complaints against China. In the meantime, the ILO Governing Body will continue to review and monitor the government’s responses to the allegations, deciding at a future session whether or not to call for a Commission of Inquiry, a last resort procedure for dealing with serious and continued violations of Conventions. There have only been 13 of these established in the ILO’s 103-year history, most recently for Venezuela. ILO watchers tell us that calling for such a Commission for a major industrial country and permanent member of the Governing Body like China is rather unlikely, although not unprecedented.
A SHAKEN WTO SECRETARIAT
By Jamil Chade
Change is coming to the WTO’s Secretariat, but not without creating some waves within the organization. It was to be expected, WTO watchers tell The Geneva Observer, since the Secretariat has not been the subject of much organizational attention under the two previous D-Gs, Pascal Lamy and Roberto Azevedo. Dr. Ngozi has made the project one of her top priorities, and soon after her nomination, following a public tender, she entrusted consulting company McKinsey with the task of assisting her with her plan.
Ngozi ran for D-G on the promise that she would extensively reform and reshape the WTO, and harbors lofty ambitions for the organization, whose role she sees as larger than simply being the maker and enforcer of the rules governing global trade. Ngozi has often publicly expressed the view that the WTO has the potential to restore faith in international cooperation, contribute to fighting climate change, and of course help the world defeat the pandemic.
“Should it not exist, the WTO should be invented” she told an interviewer; a bold statement about an organization that is facing what some WTO experts call a make-or-break moment. Some suspect that, given the chance, she would reinvent it from scratch—an impression reinforced by the way she has approached the reform of the Secretariat.
‘Transformation’ might be a better word, for she sees it as the cornerstone of the modernization of the WTO, which will require the development of a new conceptual framework and set of rules to deal with digital trade, e-commerce and environmental goods.
The role of the 625-person-strong Secretariat is “to provide top-quality, independent support to WTO member governments on all of the activities that are carried out by the Organization,” according to the organization’s website. It has no decision-making powers, its main duties being to supply impartial technical and professional support to the WTO members. The WTO’s D-G—the first ever woman and African to lead the organization—has wasted no time or energy in her efforts, proving right the prediction of European Bank Director Christine Lagarde that Dr. Ngozi would “rock the place.”
As far as the Secretariat is concerned, she’s rocking it with the support of a large numbers of members who have been closely involved in the review process. Looking for wide and early buy-in from staff, the audit involved the review of more than a hundred documents, with McKinsey’s team conducting more than seventy one-on-one interviews, five focus groups, and two surveys, in addition to getting input from around sixty member states. The consultant’s audit revealed that the WTO Secretariat has a highly capable staff with deep knowledge and expertise, driven by the purpose of the WTO and by the desire to serve its members. It also established that staff felt comfortable in the ecosystem in which they were working, sources close to the audit’s conclusion tell The Geneva Observer.
According to participants of the recent “town-hall-style meetings” spoken to by The Geneva Observer, Dr Ngozi called the Secretariat a “treasure” when she went before the staff a few days ago to share her vision for the organization, the rationale for her reforms, and the results of the audit. But, although the audit concluded in essence that the Secretariat’s fundamentals are sound, it nevertheless flagged several issues of importance when confronted with the most pressing need: how to address the challenges of a completely transformed trade environment.
According to the same sources, familiar with the audit and its participants, a large majority of Members agree that there is a potential to amplify the organization’s overall impact by having the Secretariat develop a clearer vision, better aligned with the WTO’s strategic priorities. The body also suffers from siloed ways of thinking and an ineffective structure, which often leads to uncoordinated answers on horizontal issues. Rigid resource allocation, a weak approach to talent management, recruitment and promotion, and ineffective processes were also mentioned, as well as difficulties in leveraging data and technology to its full potential.
"A HARD HAND IN A SOFT GLOVE"
However, the presentation of the plan appears not to have gone as smoothly as expected. Documents, minutes of meetings, letters, and recordings of various meetings confidentially obtained by the The G|O reveal deep tensions within the organization. More broadly, they shed a light on the difficulties and complexities involved in reforming international organizations. In this instance, a particularly contentious point centers around what some critics of the WTO’s management and of McKinsey consider to be an unbalanced process, skewed towards the demands of the members.
Staff were consulted and, according to figures quoted by McKinsey, responded with a high level of engagement, with a 50% response rate to the surveys. Critics of the process (including people in senior positions who talked to The G|O) do not dispute the figure, but claim that their input was not fully taken into consideration—a perception exacerbated by the fact that the audit was not shared in its entirety, and that no official document has yet been officially produced.
In addition, the decision to take early retirement made by two senior members highly critical of Dr. Ngozi’s management style has amplified some of the tensions. For some, including among her supporters, Dr Ngozi can appear abrasive. “She is this wonderful, soft, very gentle woman with an authentic approach to problems but, boy, under that soft glove there is a hard hand and a strong will behind it,” Christine Lagarde told Bloomberg a year ago.
Time plays in Dr. Ngozi’s favor. Altogether, seven senior positions will have to be filled this year—more if other voluntary departures occur. This is an opportunity for the D-G to bring what she calls “fresh blood” into the Secretariat.
How does she assess the situation? Dated February 3rd, her latest status report to the Members reads: “Change process can be unsettling. As in any change process, there will always be residual noise in the system by those who feel more comfortable with the status quo. […] This may manifest in counterproductive behavior that targets the change process itself or those implementing it.” She also took pains to reassure them that the noise was not loud enough to “distract her.”
For her critics, her letter only deepened a feeling of distrust towards her, as they felt insulted by the fact she seemed to be stifling criticism. A “transformation unit” has been set-up as part of the change process at the Secretariat. No doubt it will be busy over the next few months.
The UN internal audit on a possible cost overrun at the Strategic Heritage Plan to renovate the UN in Geneva (disclosed here last week) mentioned a possible “rescoping” of the project, as a remedial measure to stay within the planned budget of CHF 836 million.
Two years before the scheduled completion of the project, we thought it might be interesting to find more about what such a “rescoping” would entail, and went back to the UN…
At this point, “no rescoping plan is under consideration” the UN told us through a spokesperson. They confirmed, however, that project management was hard at work, “evaluating all avenues to contain the costs of the future work” involved in completing the renovation project.
Erratum: We also reported that the ratio between the management expenses of the project and the construction costs of 40/60% was above average. David McCuaig, SHP’s project director, informs us that: “This assessment is based on inaccurate data, as the ratio of management costs to construction costs is far less than the 40% alleged. The OIOS report itself provides the correct information. […] Project Management Team costs are at 6% of construction costs. The project team also benefits from support from external experts in technical disciplines and program management, which, if we consider part of Project Management costs, would still amount to a total of less than 13% for total management costs for the project.”
We stand corrected.
ELSEWHERE IN THE ECOSYSTEM
The Horn of Africa is facing its driest conditions since 1981. UNICEF has projected that “up to 20 million people in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, many of them children, would need water and food assistance in the next six months.” The drought conditions are destroying subsistence farming communities—and the brunt of the damage falls on the children. WFP is working to urgently reach 4.5 million people in the next six months, to build up climate resilient protocols.
According to WHO, the situation in Ethiopia is “tense and unpredictable”. 9.4 million people in the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions are in need of humanitarian aid, and the path to reach them is blocked by insecurity and bureaucracy. The Ethiopian Government recently announced the opening of flights for crucial supplies—good news, given that “Humanitarian partners were concerned that if the situation did not improve, operations might not be sustainable beyond February.”
Last Sunday, the President of Tunisia moved to dissolve the High Judicial Council, an independent judicial body created in 2016. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged President Saied to restore the Council, stating that, “The dissolution of the High Judicial Council is in clear violation of Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law.” Bachelet also emphasised that proper safety measures must be taken to protect the Council staff against Internal Security Forces and mounting online hate threats.
On 1 February, the armed group Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) led a night-time attack at the Plaine Savo Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp. OHCHR believes the deadly incidents are ethnically motivated against Hema IDPs. At least 62 people were killed and 38 others injured. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has increased its presence in the aftermath of the attack, to support local authorities within their mandate.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Edited by: Dan Wheeler