#38 The G|O Briefing, February 11, 2021


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

Today in The Geneva Observer,we celebrate the inspiring courage of human rights defenders (HRDs) with the Martin Ennals Foundation 2021 Award going to jailed Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and a new report about the state of HRDs by the Front Line Defenders organization. And International Labor Organization's D-G Guy Ryder issues a strong statement about Myanmar.

Wensheng(54), one of Beijing's staunchest critics, has been detained since 2018. While in jail, he has been harassed, disbarred, and convicted without trial for inciting subversion against state power. Reports also say that while in custody, Wensheng has been tortured and denied medical care. In December 2020, a regional Court of Jiangsu province upheld an appeal against his four-year prison sentence. He has now been sent to Nanjing prison, 1045 km away from his family, who recently spoke with him briefly via videoconference.

When his nomination for the Martin Ennals Award was announced, his wife Xu Yan told Agence France Presse that her husband was in poor health, missing teeth, and unable to write because of tremors in his right hand. Asked at the time about Wensheng’s condition, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson denied knowing Wensheng or the Martin Ennals Foundation. However, he added: “There are indeed some people abroad who are always using human rights as a pretext to create a disturbance. I think this behavior has no meaning whatsoever.”

"The Martin Ennals Foundation is proud to honor three Awardees united by their fight for justice and the fact that they are deprived of the right to express themselves. On the eve of the Chinese New Year, we hope this recognition of Yu Wensheng's work will shine a light on his achievements and help him regain the freedom he has lost.”  

Philippe Currat, President of the Board of the Martin Ennals Foundation.
The Jury of the Martin Ennals Award is comprised of ten of the world's leading human rights organizations: Amnesty International, FIDH, Human Rights First, HURIDOCS, International Service for Human Rights, Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World), Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and the World Organization Against Torture. The City of Geneva has hosted the award ceremony since 2008.

This year's other two nominees included Loujain al-Hathloul and Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova.

Al-Hathloul, a Saudi women's rights activist, was released yesterday after more than 1000 days in jail in what observers see as a gesture towards the new US administration. “Releasing her was the right thing to do,” commented Joe Biden shortly after al-Hathloul was freed. In a complete reversal with the previous administration, Washington has made it clear that it would put human rights back at the center of its relationship with Riyadh. President Biden announced last week that he was ending the US's support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The democrats in Congress have also formally requested that the US report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi be declassified.


In 2020, more than 300 human rights defenders (HRDs) in 25 countries were targeted and killed, according to data collected by Front Line Defenders as part of the HRD Memorial project. Despite making up only 6% of the world's population, indigenous people comprised over 30% of HRDs killed. Overall, over 70% of the killings were of HRDs working on land, indigenous peoples, or environmental rights.

“While 2020 was a difficult year for everyone, it was especially challenging for human rights defenders, who rose to meet unprecedented challenges. They faced increased attacks, economic insecurity, and the impact of illness and death on their community, yet worked to fill voids left by insufficient government responses to the pandemic—we must appreciate the heroic nature of their work. HRDs and civil society definitively proved that their work is invaluable. That they are under attack is unconscionable,” Front Line Defenders Deputy Director Oliver Moore noted today.


Symbolism and timing matter in global diplomacy, and the warning on February 10 by the chief of the ILO on the military in Myanmar to respect the core rights of workers, employers, and civil servants to exercise their right to peaceful protest is significant given the agency's track record in dealing with Myanmar.

The strong statement by Guy Ryder, ILO director-general, was prompted after reports of intimidation and threats against workers and trade unionists peacefully protesting for the restoration of civilian rule. Civil servants who participated in the protests, the ILO said, have also been threatened with dismissal and penalties.

“I urge military leaders to uphold commitments under the Convention to ensure that workers and employers are able to exercise their freedom of association rights in a climate of complete freedom and security, free from violence and threats,” Ryder declared.

The warning coming from the normally cautious tripartite ILO matters and is not likely to be ignored privately by Myanmar's military leaders given the history of ILO's relations with Myanmar.

Back on June 13, 2012, The ILO Labor Conference lifted restrictions on Myanmar's full participation in its activities and also decided to review progress in the country's efforts to eliminate forced labor. The next day, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Member of Parliament in Myanmar, addressed the Conference's plenary session in Geneva.

This was a major turning point, given that since 1999, following a decision by the Conference, Myanmar had not received technical cooperation from the ILO except for efforts related to combating forced labor. The Asian nation had also not been invited to ILO meetings or activities on numerous issues. The tough measures had been ushered in after a probe by a Commission of Inquiry had concluded that forced labor was widespread in the country.



A calendar for the formal nomination of the new WTO director-general.

The WTO's ruling General Council is to resume its stalled meeting early next week (diplomatic sources say February 15) to formally approve Nigeria's Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next WTO director-general. The move comes after the Biden administration backed her candidature on February 5, removing the US impediment that had stalled the selection since October 28 when the Trump administration blocked her selection even though she had secured by a “wide margin” the most support, over the South Korean finalist (Yoo Myung-hee) favored by Washington.  

WTO delegations are still discussing, however, how long her tenure will be. Normally, the appointment is for four years beginning from September 1 onwards. However, as the previous WTO chief resigned from his post last May, WTO envoys are trying to come up with a solution that would avoid a similar snag with the selection of the WTO chief being conducted too close to a US presidential election. As a result, delegates are looking at a four-and-a-half-year appointment as the preferred option or a four-year term as a fall-back option. But delegates say a three-and-a-half-year term would not be fair.

Also on the WTO front, China has appointed Li Chenggang, a top lawyer from the Ministry of Commerce, as its new ambassador to the WTO. Li, who held the post of assistant minister, earned a degree in law from the University of Beijing and a master's in economics and law from the University of Hamburg. He has particular expertise in trade remedies (anti-dumping), intellectual property, trade and & investment law, and multilateral and bilateral negotiations.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - John Zarocostas - Edited by: Paige Holt