#88 The G|O Briefing, March 3, 2022

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

Our thoughts are with the brave people of Ukraine.

Today in The Geneva Observer, a few reflections from Geneva on the changing dynamics in the global political and moral landscapes created by Russia’s naked aggression towards Ukraine.

We also have an op-ed by Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “After long debating how the European Union can be made more robust and security-conscious, Europeans have now made more progress toward that objective in the past week than they did in the previous decade. Russia’s war has awakened a slumbering giant—one that is fully committed to supporting a free Ukraine,” he writes in today’s G|O Briefing.

And in the margins of the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, G|O contributor Peter Splinter stresses the importance of the Council’s decision to nominate a Special Rapporteur on climate change. It’s all below. Thank you for reading us.


By Philippe Mottaz

On Tuesday, March 1, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was about to deliver his video message to the Human Rights Council (HRC), an entire contingent of more than one hundred diplomats representing forty countries, European and others, bolted out of their seats and left the room. They gathered in the hall outside and unfurled a Ukrainian flag, while Lavrov spun Moscow’s revisionist tale about Ukraine and ranted about the US and the West to an almost deserted room.

Among the dignitaries who stayed put was Damares Alves, the Brazilian minister for human rights, family, and health. Her boss, Jair Bolsonaro, had recently made a trip to Moscow and, pre-invasion, met with Vladimir Putin. He was given preferential treatment, sitting directly next to the Russian president, with whom he had a chummy talk. Why had he gone, and why had he not asked Putin to de-escalate? When The G|O’s Jamil Chade posed these questions to the Brazilian minister on the eve of the opening of the HRC’s meeting, she refused to answer, threatening instead to call UN security. These are telling scenes of the tense atmosphere at the UN in Geneva. They illustrate the speed and depth at which the invasion of Ukraine is fast reshaping the global political and moral landscape.


“There is no place for Russia’s narrative at the Human Rights Council,” a senior European diplomat stressed during the walk out. “Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on the UN,” stated Evgeniya Filipenko, Ukraine’s Ambassador. A few hours later, standing outside the room, Uzra Zeya, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, told our group of reporters that this was a “pivotal moment for the world and for the UN Human Rights Council.” “We cannot ignore reality,” she stressed, “our obligations under the UN Charter, our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or accept the false narrative put forth by Russia as it violently invades a fellow Human Rights Council member.” At the UN however, etiquette endures: Lavrov, now prevented from travelling but for so long a familiar presence here, was introduced as “his excellency.” Still, the revulsion his speech inspired was palpable.

Downtown, meanwhile, Geneva’s financial and trading center was scrambling to assess the impact of the various sanctions imposed by the Swiss government on Putin’s network of oligarchs. It is a fair assumption that the same law firms and financial advisors that have made Geneva and Switzerland so attractive for Russian billionaires over the years are also hard at work mitigating the sanctions’ potential fallout. An investigation by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation has revealed that some of the wealthiest Kremlin-linked Russians currently established in this country are in fact not targeted by the Swiss sanctions. A real-estate broker in the city who deals with high-net-worth individuals tells The Geneva Observer that the Swiss government’s eventual decision to follow EU sanctions will have little impact on his business: “Wealthy Russians here have to comply with the law and have been monitored for years. The bulk of my clientele comes from France, Belgium and the UK.”

One early casualty of the war, however, has been the activities of the Honorary Russian Consul in Lausanne. Swedish billionaire Frederik Paulsen, in the news lately after it was revealed that he used to entertain prominent journalists and politicians on long trips to Siberia, announced on his foundation website that he had begun the process of “the closure of activities undertaken by the Consulate, sine die.”

The effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are widespread here. For International Geneva, multilateralism’s engine room, they will be profound and long lasting. This aggression cannot be erased, no matter how the situation evolves on the ground. The current crisis is of a completely unprecedented order: From Syria to Yemen, Afghanistan, Soudan and Myanmar, the humanitarian and human rights communities have had to deal with wars and humanitarian catastrophes before, but none of these were caused by a permanent member of the Security Council invading a sovereign country in blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter. Fiona Hill, former member of the U.S National Security Council under Trump and a foremost Russian expert, is spot on when she tells Politico that “Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle, not just between democracies and autocracies but in a struggle for maintaining a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force.”

Can Russia still be a member of the Human Rights Council? The WTO? Two US Congressmen have asked for its expulsion. For that matter, what about any of the other Geneva-based international organizations? With the HRC debating a Ukrainian resolution calling for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry on Russia, while the UNHCR, the ICRC and the humanitarian community at large is mobilizing its resources to respond to the unfolding tragedy, one has to wonder. These questions are now openly debated in Geneva. According to The G|O’s diplomatic sources, an almost certain consequence on an institutional level will be the failure of Russia’s candidature for the top post of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), creating a clear path for the only other candidate, American Doreen Bogdan-Martin.

The UN General Assembly’s overwhelming condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine has certainly offered a clear sign of Moscow’s growing isolation. Calls for a complete overhaul of the Security Council structure have been heard before; they will grow louder. Russia’s recent use of its veto to defeat a resolution condemning its attack on Ukraine has once more demonstrated the profound flaw of a body that regularly prevents international action in response to crises. In Geneva, as at the UN General Assembly in New York, the entirely new dynamics created by the Ukrainian crisis won’t be constrained by the veto system.

Irony of ironies, it may well be that by choosing naked aggression, Vladimir Putin has given a new lease on life to the “liberal international order” he was so bent on destroying. No doubt, after having suffered one of its most devastating blows, the resilience of the multilateral system and its ability to transform itself will also be tested here. But caution should also prevail—other delusions may still await us in these dark times.



By Josep Borrell*

BRUSSELS – Some weeks can feel like decades, and this week has been one of them. With Russia’s naked act of aggression against Ukraine, the tragedy of war has erupted in Europe once again. Russian forces have shelled residential housing, schools, hospitals, and other civilian infrastructure. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been pushed into overdrive in its effort to justify the unjustifiable. More than one million people have already fled the violence with more to come.

Ukrainians, meanwhile, are mounting a heroic defense of their country, galvanized by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership. Faced with an escalating onslaught and the Kremlin’s absurd claims denying their national identity, Ukrainians have demonstrated unity and resilience. Stuck in the past, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have convinced himself that Ukraine belongs to him under his vision of a “greater Russia.” But Ukrainians have demonstrated that their country belongs to them, and that they intend for it to have a European future.

The European Union has sprung into action. While some expected us to dither, disagree, and delay, we have acted at record speed to support Ukraine, breaking taboos along the way. We have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Kremlin-linked oligarchs and those responsible for the war. Measures that were unthinkable just a few days ago – such as barring leading Russian banks from the SWIFT system and freezing the Russian central bank’s assets – are now in place. And for the first time ever, the EU is supporting member states as they supply military equipment to embattled Ukraine, mobilizing €500 million ($553 million) under the European Peace Facility.

We have done all this together with other countries to ensure maximum effect. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Singapore, and many other financial and economic nerve centers have joined us in adopting tough sanctions. The international outrage against Russia is cascading, even into sports and the arts. A stampede of companies is leaving the Russian market.

Still, the news from the ground in Ukraine is horrific and sobering, and no one knows how this war will end. Putin will try to excuse the bloodshed he has unleashed by depicting it as an unavoidable byproduct of some mythical clash between the West and the Rest; but he will convince almost no one. The vast majority of countries and people around the world refuse to accept a world where an autocratic leader can simply seize whatever he wants through military aggression.

On March 2, an overwhelming majority of the United Nations General Assembly – 141 countries – voted to support Ukraine’s sovereign rights, denouncing Russia’s actions as a clear violation of the UN Charter and international law. Only four countries voted with Russia (the remaining 35 abstained). This historic display of global consensus shows just how much Russia’s leaders have isolated their country. The EU worked hard to achieve this outcome at the UN, and we fully agree with UN Secretary-General António Guterres that the task now is to end the violence and open the door to diplomacy.

In the week since Russia’s invasion, we have also witnessed the belated birth of a geopolitical Europe. For years, Europeans have been debating how the EU can be made more robust and security-conscious, with unity of purpose and capabilities to pursue our political goals on the world stage. We have now arguably gone further down that path in the past week than we did in the previous decade.

This is a welcome development, but there is so much more to do. First, we must prepare to support Ukraine and its people for the long haul – for their sake as well as our own. There will be no security for anyone if we allow Putin to prevail. If there are no longer any rules, we will all be in danger. That is why we must ensure that a free Ukraine survives. And to that end, we must maintain an opening for Russia to return to reason, so that peace can be re-established.

Second, we need to recognize what this war means for European security and resilience more broadly. Consider the energy dimension. Clearly, reducing our dependence on energy imports from authoritarian and aggressive powers is an urgent strategic imperative. It is absurd that we have literally financed our opponent’s ability to wage war. The invasion of Ukraine should lend new momentum to our green-energy transition. Every euro that we invest in developing renewables at home will reduce our strategic vulnerabilities, as well as helping to avert catastrophic climate change.

Third, in a world of power politics, we need to build greater capacity to defend ourselves. Strengthening our defense means tackling Russia’s aggressive disinformation networks and going after the Kremlin’s ecosystem of finance and influence peddling.

Yes, this includes military means, and we need to develop them more. But the essence of what the EU did this week was to use all policies and levers – which remain mainly economic and regulatory in nature – as instruments of power. We should build on this approach in the weeks ahead, in Ukraine but elsewhere, too, as needed.

The core task for “geopolitical Europe” is straightforward. We must use our newfound sense of purpose first to ensure a free Ukraine, and then to re-establish peace and security across our continent.

Josep Borrell*, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is Vice President of the European Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World.

©️ Project Syndicate, 2022.


By Peter Splinter

The urgency of the existential threat of the climate crisis continues to mount. At its 49th regular session the Human Rights Council will take a crucial step forward in its contribution to addressing relationships between human rights and climate change by appointing a Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change.

The Special Rapporteur will face challenges arising from the breadth of the mandate, a wide range of different expectations of where priorities lie, and limited dedicated professional resources. To maximize the potential of this new mandate to enhance climate action, the chosen mandate-holder will need to establish clear carefully considered priorities, provide leadership and catalyze the efforts of human rights experts and activists, and adopt a pragmatic action-oriented approach.

The Council’s Consultative Group has nominated Ian Fry of Tuvalu, senior lecturer at the Australian National University of Canberra and previously Ambassador for Climate Change and Environment for the Government of Tuvalu, and Astrid Puentes Riaño of Mexico, independent consultant currently working at the American University Washington Law School. They were chosen from a strong field of 26 applicants.

On the basis of these nominations, the President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Federico Villegas, has proposed Ian Fry for appointment as Special Rapporteur. The Council will make its final decision at the end of March, and normally the new mandate-holder will take office on 1 May 2022 for an initial three-year term, renewable once.

With some exceptions, largely in the field of litigation, the global human rights community continues to struggle to apply the force of human rights to contributing to shaping climate action. Great expectations await the new Special Rapporteur whose work will be both urgent and important. The scope of the mandate is very large, as spelled out in 14 often-detailed sub-paragraphs of resolution 48/14, and it will be important for the new Special Rapporteur to select priorities carefully.

One can get a sense of the many competing expectations about priorities by examining the January 2021 report on consultations organised by leading NGOs with civil society, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities and climate and human rights experts across the world in late 2020. That report also reveals significant regional variations in what is expected of a Special Rapporteur on climate change. Those variations are not limited to civil society.

Resolution 48/14 stipulates that the Special Rapporteur on climate change is to report to the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, which is scheduled to start on 13 June 2022. The new mandate-holder should resist pressure and the temptation to act in haste by setting out a programme of work in the report to that session.

Rather, the Special Rapporteur’s could use the first report to take stock of the extensive body of work on climate change already done by other Special Procedures, treaty bodies, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other parts of the UN system. Such a stocktaking would help the Special Rapporteur to avoid doing what is already well in hand and could serve as the basis for further cross-regional consultations aimed at informing the Special Rapporteur’s priorities and plan of action for the report to the 77th session of the UN General Assembly for consideration in October 2022.

The Special Rapporteur should aspire to provide focus and catalyzing leadership for human rights thought and action on climate action. The mandate needs to complement and go beyond, but not displace, the work of other Special Procedures, other human rights mechanisms and activists on climate action. It must avoid the “blah, blah, blah” that has characterized far too much discussion and be directed to practical pragmatic measures to support climate action. It should encourage others to do likewise.

Much greater attention to human rights in climate action at the national level is essential. The Special Rapporteur has an important role to play there, for instance in drawing on state good practice to provide guidance for taking account of human rights in the elaboration and revision of nationally determined contributions and the preparation of submissions for the Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement. Considered proposals for action-oriented measures are required to protect the rights of the most vulnerable persons and populations, notably those whose very existence is threatened by the devastating impact of climate change in some situations.

The Special Rapporteur should stimulate the development and application of measures to support the just transitions required globally to address climate change. These would include guidance for rights-based democratic public consultations and for human rights impact assessment of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.

In the face of a challenging and important mandate, it is essential that the Special Rapporteur has the necessary professional and other support. Some of that will come from civil society and other interested third parties. However, the integrity and independence of the Special Rapporteur also requires substantial dedicated professional support attached to the mandate. At present the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights usually provides only limited junior staff support for each Special Procedure mandate.

The foreseeable dearth of resources must be remedied quickly if the Special Rapporteur is to begin to fulfill the mandate set out in resolution 48/14. In 2019 the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a coalition of 55 mostly low and lower middle income developing countries, pledged $50,000 to support a Special Rapporteur on climate change. Donors with far greater financial resources must make commensurate contributions to support the new mandate.

If governments and businesses begin to truly rise to the magnitude and urgency of action required to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels before it is too late, the scope and pace of economic and social change required will be unprecedented. The prevailing conditions will be a recipe to “move fast and break things” unless care is taken to protect fundamental values like those reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and aspired to in the Sustainable Development Goals. Human rights standards are safeguards to be used to minimise breaking things and to help build acceptance and preserve popular support for the many unprecedented measures required by climate action.

By making the right choices and with the necessary support, the Special Rapporteur on climate change can play an important guiding role in efforts to ensure that climate action is guided by human rights. The Special Rapporteur’s journey on that important mission starts this month.

This piece was originally published on [1 March 2022] on OpenGlobalRights

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Guest Contributors: Peter Splinter - Josep Borrell

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Editing: Dan Wheeler