#69 The G|O Briefing, September 13, 2021

Financial woes at the Human Rights Council - Ai Weiwei blasts Credit Suisse - Big Tobacco and teens - Covax, visualized

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, we look at the effects of the liquidity crisis affecting the Human Rights Council and its Special Procedures, and assess the political implications. We take a detour through a cavernous but soon-to-be-closed repository of archives dedicated to Big Tobacco, which show how the industry essentially hasn’t changed its tune in half a century. We also have musings on the coverage of International Geneva, plus several links and quotes worth clicking on: It’s all below. But before you read on, make sure you’re up to speed on the new COVID-19 regulations announced yesterday by the Swiss Government, which can be found here.

Financial trouble at the Human Rights Council: Who stands to gain?

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is struggling with a severe liquidity crisis. The lack of funds is threatening the Council’s ability—and more broadly, that of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—to adequately fulfill its mandate, a situation that has political implications.

The Council’s financial woes are not new. But the underfunding of the Special Procedures (the Council’s special rapporteurs and independent experts charged with visiting countries, conducting fact-finding missions, and documenting human rights violations and abuses, among other tasks) might become critical in the future. Already, several reports that were slated to be submitted and examined by the Council during its 48th session, due to start on Monday (September 13), have not been completed, and their presentation will have to be postponed.

The historical and systemic underfunding has been compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: In trying to respond to the pandemic, several member states delayed or reconsidered their contributions to the UN, impacting the work of dozens of different departments. One of the most severely hit was the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As a result, even reports on pressing current issues have had to be shelved. One such report, requested by the Council during its 46th session, held in February of last year, was about access to medicines and vaccines, in relation to the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Intended to be created in cooperation with the World Health Organization, it has not been completed.

“In the light of the ongoing financial constraints faced by the Organization, the High Commissioner (Michelle Bachelet) has not been in a position to implement that mandate within the deadline,” a note to member states from the Secretariat explains. “She (Michelle Bachelet) aims to convene the interdepartmental seminar before the end of 2021 and to submit the report to the Human Rights Council at its forty-ninth session, as the financial situation permits,” it concludes.

Identical notes have been sent to explain the postponement of a report on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs and another on the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession, and use of firearms—an issue of great significance for many countries faced with gun-related violence.

Debate on press situation also delayed

Two other reports making reference to the plight of journalists were also impacted. A group of member states had requested the High Commissioner present to the Council a report on the repercussions, on the safety and work of journalists and media workers, from measures taken by some governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same reason was used to delay a report on good practices for establishing national normative frameworks for access to information held by public entities.

Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan (Fiji), President of the Human Rights Council, admitted that the debate on the financial constraints faced by the Council will be a recurring one: “It is a work in progress,” she told The Geneva Observer during a press conference about the upcoming session. The diplomat believes the Council has managed to organize itself in an efficient way in 2021, despite the obstacles. She predicted that “every year, we will have to sit and see what can be delivered.”

Another knowledgeable diplomatic source tells the G|O that the Council is undeniably “under pressure” given the current global political environment. The 48th session—which will last four weeks instead of the usual three—will be “agitated,” the same source says, adding, “I think there is a growing recognition among those member states that share liberal values that the underfunding is a real issue,” as the Special Procedures are at the heart of the defense of human rights.

In the current political climate, with growing tensions between ‘autocracies’ and ‘technocracies,’ who stands to gain from a weakened Human Rights Council? “I don’t believe that China or Russia really care about the Council. It is emerging authoritarian countries, like Brazil, Hungary, India, or Turkey, that may benefit from a body which would not have the means to fulfill its mandate,” analyzes a seasoned HRC watcher.

Staying with human rights news, the Journal of Democracy has an in-depth piece by Rana Siu Inbodendenouncing China’s crackdown on NGOs and civil society—an issue we addressed when reporting about a recent ISHR study on the same subject. We found this quote particularly relevant to the work of the Council and our piece above:

“The future ability of NGOs to operate within the UN will depend largely on the response of democratic countries and their willingness to draw attention to the need to combat authoritarian powers that are abusing their UN presence. The introduction of membership standards for various bodies—particularly the UN Human Rights Council—to prevent autocratic nations from sitting on bodies that are meant to protect and safeguard human rights has been a divisive issue. A simple criterion for NGO Committee membership could be that any country will be banned if it has been included in the UN secretary-general’s report on intimidation and reprisals against civil society for cooperation with the United Nations in the field of human rights.”

Meanwhile, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei pulls no punches in Artnet News, when accusing Credit Suisse of cozying up to Beijing, after the bank decided to close the bank account of his free speech project, the ‘Fart Foundation’.


International Geneva, uncovered.

For the past 45 years, the Fondation pour Genève has worked to foster and strengthen links between ‘local’ and ‘international’ Geneva, and to promote the city, both in Switzerland and abroad, as the world center of global governance. Just last week, the Swiss Diplomatic Club—with the Centre d'accueil pour la Genève Internationale (CAGI), one of the Foundation’s many offshoots—held its annual meeting, largely dedicated to honoring the tireless efforts and contributions to International Geneva of Ivan Pictet, the Foundation’s outgoing President. In his farewell speech in front of a few hundred guests–including UNOG’s D-G Tatiana Valovaya– Pictet shared his thoughts on the “future of diplomacy,” clearly seeing a continuous role for Geneva on the international stage. International Geneva is more than just its impressive number of international organizations and NGOs.

“Geneva and the over 45 international organizations located here do not always receive the attention they deserve. Many current developments in international politics and multilateralism are reflected in International Geneva, with future global trends often being foreseen here at an early stage,” writes Olaf Wientzek, Director of Multilateral Dialogue Geneva—a sponsor of the Briefing– in the foreword to the Foundation’s recently published “Concise Atlas of International Geneva, 2019-2020.

That editors in London, New York and elsewhere might be oblivious to the role of Geneva  can be understandable, what is not is a local mainstream media  reducing coverage of its own journalistic backyard. The Tribune de Genève, however, has decided to do just that: it is closing its bureau at the Palais and making its International Geneva correspondent redundant. The closing of the UN bureau will deprive the paper of an insider’s access, handicapping future coverage.

Needless to say, newsroom-bound reporters have a harder time amassing knowledge and developing networks of sources—essential ingredients when covering what is a highly complex beat. Senior leadership at the Tribune—the group also owns 24 Heures and Le Matin—tells The G|O, however, that reporting on International Geneva remains of “importance.” It claims that while it won’t have a dedicated correspondent any longer, it aims for “extended coverage of International Geneva, which will be organized over the next few weeks.”

Big Tobacco: The more it changes, the more it remains the same.

The Minnesota Tobacco Document Depository has closed, the Washington Post recently told us. Stacks of boxes—28,455 of them to be exact, containing 93 million pages of paper—comprise an archive which revealed millions of secrets about the industry’s practices, forming the evidentiary backbone of more than 27 court cases brought against the industry in the US over more than two decades.

Most of the documents have fortunately been digitalized and are now available online. We didn’t need to enter more than a few keywords to (re)confirm a distinguishing pattern in Big Tobacco’s MO: Target the young in the hope of getting them hooked. On cigarettes yesterday, on Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) today.

Quoting from WHO’s newly released study on tobacco, these are our words from a few weeks ago:
“Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS),” the document tells us, “are addictive and not without harm,” and “children and adolescents who use ENDS can double their risk of smoking cigarettes”—which is exactly why they are being directly targeted by the industry. According to the Lancet, over the last two decades, one in five of the one billion smokers in the world became addicted by the age of 15.”

Finally, an enlightening document from the  Konrad Adenauer Stiftung- KAS:

A map on COVAX, visualizing donor countries' contributions to two different mechanisms through which the COVAX initiative obtains vaccines for the 92 eligible low- and middle-income economies.

The COVAX facility works across several parallel channels to increase rapid access to COVID-19 vaccines for those most in need. It is on track to secure two billion doses of safe, effective and approved vaccines by the end of 2021.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Edited by: Paige Holt