#71 The G|O Briefing, September 23, 2021

Tit for Tat at the Human Rights Council | Gordon Brown on the Global North's great moral test

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

Today in the Geneva Observer, we follow the current 48th session of the Human Rights Council, with a particular focus on how China is exerting massive pressure on the UN body. Beijing continues to do so—and with a broadened scope—as the global centers of powers are being reshaped.

Make no mistake: the ripple effects of this massive and lasting reconfiguration of the geostrategic map are being felt here in International Geneva, and they will be for a long time, on a wide range of issues. For instance, there was speculation last week that the US might be finally willing to act on its stated support for a conditional and temporary waiver of the intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines (currently being discussed at the WTO). Proponents of such a waiver, including governments and civil society, had been urging Joe Biden to put pressure on Germany—a staunch opponent of the idea—to change its stance. After Afghanistan and the furore over the new AUKUS security alliance, it now appears even more unlikely that Washington will decide to open another front with a Western ally—even though, as AUKUS has shown again, American presidents have never been too concerned about offending allies and friends.. We know now that Joe Biden is no exception.

Coming back to China, Jamil Chade’s dispatch from the heart of the Human Rights Council perfectly illustrates another form of diplomacy, one that is the staple of International Geneva: a form of unspectacular one-on-one engagement, practiced daily. This city is where tomorrow’s multilateralism is being shaped by member states, sometimes with blunt force under the polished language, as they each advance their interests (read ‘values’) on the world scene.

For two researchers at the Institute for Strategic Research at the Military School (IRSEM) an arm of the French Ministry of Defense), in pursuing its interests China has decided it would rather—in the words of Machiavelli—be “feared than loved”. Paul Cheron and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Wilmer make this the central argument of their newly published report “Chinese influence operations – a Machiavellian moment.”

For a long time, China tried to be admired and loved. Not any more: “China’s influence operations have hardened considerably in recent years, and its methods increasingly resemble those employed by Moscow,” the authors write. Their 650-page document, one of the most comprehensive recent studies on how Beijing extends its global presence, maps out the Chinese Communist Party’s means of exerting influence, from its benign public diplomacy to its global clandestine operations.

Writing about the Human Rights Council, Cheron and Vilner write:

“China’s strategy in this UN body is to change the accepted interpretation of the concept of human rights, to make it a notion subordinated to national sovereignty.” (Translation ours.) The report highlights the increased skepticism with which China is viewed, and the failure of its so-called "wolf-warrior" diplomacy”.

Tit for Tat at the Human Rights Council

China is increasing its pressure on the Human Rights Council while trying to fend off the growing criticism it faces from the Western group about its human rights record in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Beijing’s main target is the U.S., following Washington’s increasingly assertive stance towards China after it entered in a new security alliance with Australia and the UK (AUKUS).

The Chinese offensive is mostly conducted by pushing resolutions before the Council, the latest of which denounces colonialism. In a draft proposal seen by The G|O, the Chinese want the Council to take action on “the negative impact of legacies of colonialism on the enjoyment of human rights.”

The sweeping move is interpreted by Western delegations as an effort by China to convince African nations that Beijing is on their side on the issue. It also takes an indirect swipe at U.S. behaviour in Afganistan. (China just called for a lifting of sanctions on Afghanisan, to allow the Taliban access to billions of dollars in frozen assets which the West meant to use as leverage on the new regime.)

However, the initiative was also seen as part of a response to a growing understanding amongst Western allies that China’s human rights record—including the situation with Muslim minorities—needs to be dealt with by the Council.

U.S. human rights record on trial

China, on its side, has stepped up its response, with statements questioning the U.S. and Europe. During the special session on Afghanistan, in August, Chinese Ambassador Chen Xu supported the idea that “the US, UK, Australia, and other countries must be held accountable for the violation of human rights committed by their military in Afghanistan, and the evolution of this current session should cover this issue. […] Under the banner of democracy and human rights, the U.S. and other countries carry out military interventions in other sovereign states and impose their own model on countries with vastly different histories and culture,” Chen said.

On September 14th, at the Human Rights Council, China once again made the US the center of its opening intervention: “We are deeply concerned about chronic human rights issues in the United States,” it claimed, citing “disregarding the right to life, systemic racism, racial discrimination, genocide against native Indians, human trafficking and forced labor.”

Three days later, again at the Council in Geneva, Beijing made it clear it had placed the U.S. as a target of its criticism—first, by delivering a statement accusing the U.S. of having “practiced history abhorrent slavery and slave trade (sic),” and saying it “remains plagued with human trafficking and forced labor to this date.” It also claims that “Under the dominance of White Supremacy, discrimination against migrants, women, children and racial minorities prevails in the U.S.”

China blasts US military interventions

On the 21st of September, in an interview with state agencies, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, Zhao Lijian, claimed the U.S. has committed “grave human rights crimes overseas.”

“During its over 240 years of history, there were only 16 years when the U.S. was not at war. From the end of WWII to 2001, the U.S. has initiated 201 of the 248 armed conflicts in 153 places, accounting for over 80%,” he claims. “It is preposterous that the U.S. claims to be ‘protecting human rights’ at every turn. Is it protecting human rights when staging wars of invasion?”

The next day, in Geneva, the Chinese mission took the floor to “urge the countries concerned to immediately stop illegal military intervention,” and for the UN and individual countries to “carry out comprehensive and impartial investigation into cases of unlawful killing and torture of civilians and other gross human rights violations committed by their military personnel, and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Changing the focus of the debate

Another way to counterpressure the West is to table resolutions that change the focus of the debate, and put the focus on Western powers—hence its recent proposal.

In the draft document, Beijing reaffirms that, “the existence of colonialism in any form or manifestation is incompatible with the Charter of the United Nations, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” It also “regrets” that measures to eliminate colonialism by 2010—as called for in the General Assembly resolution 55/146 of 8 December 2000—have not been successful.

In fact, the UN has established that the period 2021-2030 is the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. However, Western sources tell The G|O that the move by China goes beyond that single issue. China, they say, wishes that “legacies of colonialism, in all their manifestations, inter alia, economic exploitation, inequality within and among states, systemic racism, violations of indigenous peoples’ rights, contemporary forms of slavery, damage to cultural heritage” be recognized as having a “negative impact on the effective enjoyment of all human rights.”

The proposed resolution also invites United Nations human rights mechanisms and procedures “to pay attention to the negative impact of legacies of colonialism on the enjoyment of human rights,” and calls on the “United Nations bodies, agencies, and other relevant stakeholders to take concrete steps to address [those negative impacts].”

China also requests the UN convene a panel discussion on the question, with the aim to “identify challenges in addressing the negative impact of legacies of colonialism on human rights, and discuss ways forward.”

According to diplomatic sources, Beijing also wants the issue kept on the agenda of the Council in order to maintain political constraint on those governments that may be challenging China on human rights issues. Beijing is using procedure as a mechanism to press its case: it has requested that Office of High Commissioner prepare and submit a summary report on the panel discussion to the Council at its 54th session and to provide “all necessary resources for the services and facilities.”

The resolution will be voted on in the second week of October.

-JC, with additional reporting from PHM

The Global North's Great Test

By Gordon Brown*

With low-income countries in Africa and elsewhere still imploring rich countries to stop stockpiling millions of unused COVID-19 vaccines, there are still real doubts as to whether the United States and Europe will honor the promise made at this year’s G7 summit to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has said that the Global North can deliver enough doses for everyone by next September’s United Nations General Assembly. But the gulf between the vaccine-rich and vaccine-poor has grown so vast that under 2% of adults in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, compared to over 50% of adults in most high-income countries. Worse, millions of doses in high-income countries are now being wasted because they are not being used in time.

For many months earlier this year, Western governments could at least say that there was not enough vaccine supply to meet global demand. But, we are now producing 1.5 billion vaccines every month. As I write this, around 300 million doses of vaccines are lying unused, hoarded in warehouses or on their way to fulfill delivery contracts that have been monopolized by Western countries. As a result, the World Health Organization’s September 2021 goal of vaccinating at least 10% of the population in every low-income country – the basic level needed to cover health workers and the elderly – remains unrealized.

According to a major study by the research firm Airfinity, the number of unused doses will reach one billion by this December. To put that staggering figure into perspective, it is enough to meet our year-end goal of vaccinating 40% of the African population.

Making matters worse, Airfinity shows that if we do not act, 100 million unused vaccine doses will have passed their expiration dates by the end of this year. And if we cannot airlift surpluses to where they are needed on a schedule that preserves a two-month shelf life, this figure could rise to 241 million. Either way, that is near-criminal wastage.

Exaggeration comes easily to politicians. But it is no overstatement to say that unless more vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments are made available to the Global South, there could be at least one million more COVID-induced deaths over the next year.

We know that more than 100,000 lives have been saved in Britain, owing to the administration of fewer than 100 million vaccine doses. Allowing 200 million or more doses to be wasted is thus tantamount to condemning hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated people in low-income countries to unnecessary suffering or death.

The upshot is that at Biden’s vaccine summit this week, more lives hang in the balance than at any other peacetime gathering that I can recall. If the West does not deliver the necessary supply of vaccines to the rest of the world, low-income countries will have little reason ever to trust it again. Failing to transfer millions of surplus doses to those in desperate need would be a grotesque failure of the most basic test of human solidarity and decency.

And so for world leaders convening at the UN this month, the stakes could not be higher. We are at a make-or-break moment to mitigate the monstrous, unforgivable vaccine inequality that has prevailed so far.

The data compiled by Airfinity suggests that 200 million doses can be transferred immediately to the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust for distribution across Africa and other low-income countries. That would be enough to meet the WHO’s 10% target for every country. Moreover, Western countries can send the same amount of additional doses – around 200 million – to COVAX each month thereafter. That would be enough to address Africa’s deficit of nearly 500 million doses, ensuring that some 40% of the continent’s population is vaccinated by the end of the year, in line with the WHO’s goal.

We have seen how vaccine nationalism leads to inequality, wastage, and far too many avoidable deaths. Not only is this approach self-serving; it is self-defeating. The longer the disease is allowed to spread in low-income countries, the greater the likelihood that it will develop new variants that will come back to haunt even the fully vaccinated.

This basic truth lies at the heart of pleas that have been building this week from African leaders, former heads of state and government, the Pandemic Action Network, and groups like The Elders. NGOs and faith leaders in the Global South have issued statements calling for immediate action to prevent an epic moral catastrophe.

In a global health crisis born of a highly infectious and communicable disease, there is no alternative to collective global action. This week’s vaccine summit represents the rich world’s best chance to show that it means what it says.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Edited by: Dan Wheeler