#12 The G|O Briefing - September 11, 2020

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

Today in The Geneva Observer: Jeûne Genevois notwithstanding we decided to follow up on our Tuesday Briefing on the Human Rights Council, where two UN Special Rapporteurs are being accused by Saudi Arabia, China and Russia of having breached the Rapporteurs’ code of conduct.  The Geneva Observer has seen two letters sent to HRC President Elisabeth Tichy-Fillsberger accusing both Agnès Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Special Rapporteur on Privacy, Joseph Cannataci.  HRC’s Special Procedures’ system of independent human rights experts who report and advise on either thematic or country specific mandates, serve an important function in drawing attention to pressing human rights situations around the world. They also contribute extensively to the development of international human rights standards. It’s a mission that can sometimes bring them problems, and some human rights observers worry that these letters might signal a move to try and rein in the independence of the whole system. Read more here.

HRC build up continues in the shadow of the UN’s liquidity crisis. In the run up to the 45th session of the HRC, two preparatory meetings were held in the last week with delegates regarding the double disruption of COVID and the UN’s ongoing liquidity crisis. At those meetings, many heads of divisions at OHCHR and the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights were present, gave statements on the situation and fielded questions from delegates. HRC President, Austrian Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, called them “the concentrated knowledge of OHCHR.”
As we reported in Tuesday’s briefing, the liquidity crisis hitting the whole of the UN system is having serious implications at OHCHR, which was already underfunded (the whole Human Rights pillar accounts for approximately 3.7% of the UN’s budget).

Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif told the meeting this Tuesday (September 8, 2020) that “the allocation of funds against our approved regular budget for this year has been, and continues to be, seriously constrained. The incremental provision of cash, bit by bit, and the corresponding freeze on recruitment have compounded an already difficult situation in respect of the pandemic, impacting on the office’s ability to fully implement all of our mandates.”

Over the past month in fact, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet sent two letters, the first on August 10 and the second on August 28, explaining how the COVID-19 pandemic and the UN’s financial crisis were affecting OHCHR’s work. The second letter contained a seven page annex listing activities that Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) was unable to carry out 100% as planned. A shorter list of activities which require a formal decision by the Council was then circulated on September 8, 2020.
Any discussion around “prioritisation” of mandates becomes extremely political, extremely fast. And in response to member states’ concern, OHCHR was at pains to emphasise that the lists were established on the basis of objective criteria—the first of which was staffing (i.e. where the hiring freeze cut off the ability of OHCHR to hire staff to deliver reports). The Syrian delegate nevertheless, jumped on the opportunity to note their surprised that none of the mandates on the situation in individual countries were on the list and suggest the rationalisation of mandates “characterised by excessive politicisation.” (Coincidentally, one of the country specific mandates not on the list include the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.)

We expect the situation to be dealt with at this hybrid session of the HRC in an “omnibus” decision or resolution that will deal with the extension or postponement of mandated activities in one package. However, these short-term fixes are not sustainable in the long term. As it's very unlikely the financial situation of the organization will improve in the coming year, deeper conversations are also ongoing on how best to structurally change the situation.
Deputy High Commissioner Al-Nashif has encouraged member states to lead a strategic reflection on what may or may not be possible next year, and asked to avoid proposals that may duplicate mandates, to limit the proliferation of new mandates that risk remaining unfulfilled, to be strategic and ensure maximum impact.

WTO’s leadership race has entered its final phase.

The third and final phases of the WTO Director-General (D-G) selection process got underway this week (September 8, 2020). The phase where candidates “make themselves known to members” ended on Monday (September 7, 2020). Over the next couple of weeks, WTO General Council Chair, New Zealand’s Ambassador David Walker will be leading discussions (called “confessional meetings”) bilaterally with states to find out their preferences and establish which candidate is best placed to attract consensus support.  The field will be reduced from eight to five and then to two over the course of two more rounds of discussions. The deadline for confirming the new D-G is November 7. Out of the eight candidates, two women from Africa are generally held to be the frontrunners: Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Kenya’s Amina Mohamed—so no changes there.  

And finally, our friend Priti Patnaik, an independent journalist based in Geneva, has just started a newsletter on all things Global health. Her latest focuses on WHO reform proposals led by Germany and France and whether they could skew the balance of power further in favor of donor countries.