#10 The G|O Briefing - September 8, 2020

Moving beyond Boslonaro's bashing | The 45th session of the Human Rights Council gets underway | WHO reviews the 2005 International Health Regulations

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

Today in The Geneva Observer: I talk to my colleague Brazilian journalist Jamil Chade on the Brazilian civil society movement Movimento Preserva Brazil, launched in Geneva last Sunday.

The new movement is trying to find ways to go beyond bashing Bolsonaro, who, incidentally, won Geneva—and all other European cities except Berlin—by a landslide. Chade’s interview is below.

The Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 45th session gets underway next week at the Palais des Nations (from September 14 to October 6, 2020).

In normal times that would make Geneva abuzz with mission delegates and NGOs pouring over agendas, programs of work, and lists of side events. But these are not normal times, and most are gearing up for another unusual session. As with all things in the new (ab)normal, COVID-19’s shadow will be omnipresent in the HRC’s methods of work, in every discussion on other topics, and as a topic of conversation in and of itself. The previous ‘hybrid’ session confirmed that the HRC could, in fact, be held in person, and similar rules will apply to this session: most interventions by video conference, only one member per delegation will be allowed in the hall, masks need to be worn at all times, etc.

Not ideal conditions for informal diplomatic negotiations… Some Human Rights observers are worried that the COVID-19 crisis might serve as a pretext not to address its business. And on top of COVID, there are other real challenges around the HRC, the first of which is money. The whole UN system is currently going through a liquidity crisis. It relies heavily on voluntary contributions from member states and other organizations, rather than member states’ assessed contributions (membership fees). However, as the UN system is increasingly questioned in more and more countries, these voluntary contributions have been drying up. It’s unlikely the financial crisis caused by the pandemic will help matters. Moreover, some countries (read: “the US”) have been paying their membership fees late and sometimes not at all. The result is a UN running out of reserves, and which structurally cannot borrow.  

At the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, cash flows are drying up too, and there is concern about covering the payroll for the end of the year. Temporary contracts (and the vast majority of employees in the UN system are employed on temporary contracts) have been terminated or not renewed.  The Geneva Observer has also been told that those working on the report on systemic racism and police brutality—adopted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in the US and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed around the world— are volunteers reassigned from jobs, which in their absence are not being filled. The expectation is that funding will come during the upcoming session however there are no guarantees, as the Working Group was set up without any resources. Most of the HRC’s mechanisms at large have essentially gone digital with no resources. And while that could save money, it causes its own problems. Its independent experts are unhappy, for example: they work on a voluntary, unpaid basis, and thus rely on country visits and per diems to cover their costs.

But now, such visits can rarely go ahead, and they aren’t being welcomed in Geneva for the Council Sessions.  Our understanding is that Michelle Bachelet—High Commissioner for Human Rights—is going to be addressing the liquidity issue in her opening statement to the HRC. But the whole system’s paradigm of work (costly country visits resulting in a plethora of reports brought in front of the HRC) is under strain and increasingly in question.  

We’ll have more on what (and what not) to expect from HRC in this Thursday’s briefing, but among them are: - China: 50 Special Procedures experts called for “decisive measures” to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in China. Despite this, The Geneva Observer understands the Chinese question is unlikely to be raised. - Belarus: It is expected that the EU delegation will suggest an urgent debate (which would require a vote in the Council at the beginning of the week. Belarus’ opposition leader has called for the UN to set up a monitoring mission.- Russia: Following the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, Michelle Bachelet has called for an independent investigation.  

WHO convened today the first meeting of the Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations (2005) during the COVID-19 Response. The Committee itself is an existing mechanism that presents reports following each time a health crisis calls for the use of the IHR mechanisms. Its specific mandate now is to review how the International Health Regulations (IHR) functioned during the COVID-19 response and make a statement as to the implementation of the recommendations of previous IHR Review Committees.  The IHR is one of WHO’s three legally binding documents, after it was entirely revised in 2005, it is generally understood to be a successful document. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has exposed a number of problems, in particular around whether its system for ringing the alarm bell (Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)) is too binary and broad and thus not taken seriously enough by Member States.

Finally, our occasional feature, ‘The Geneva Observer quote of the day™’

The Graduate Institute’s new director Marie-Laure Salles-Djelic told Stéphane Bussard in Le Temps today:  “Multilateralism, of course, must reinvent itself. This reinvention must involve, in a very fluid way, the various actors of the multilateral field, such as the private sector, States, international organizations, and NGOs, but also academic institutions strongly committed to these issues - as is of course, the institute. Now is a good time to make this transformation: the crisis is creating a window of opportunity.”