#89 The G|O Briefing, March 10, 2022

For the WEF & Russia, a long friendship is coming to an end – Momentum is gaining to exclude Russia from the HRC – UN HR chief under pressure

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

Today in The Geneva Observer, we look at the long relationship and deep ties between Russia and the World Economic Forum, now severed. It was, for more than two decades, what both would probably call a “win-win” situation. No longer. The freezing out of Russia is likely to have long-lasting and as yet unpredictable consequences on the Forum and its future.

With the atrocities committed by Putin’s army in Ukraine, the momentum to exclude Russia from the Human Rights Council is gaining in New York and Geneva. The legal basis for such an exclusion exists—and there has been a precedent with Libya. But clearly, excluding a permanent member of the UN security council would be a seismic move.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet once had a reputation for not shying away from taking on powerful countries. For instance, she pushed for an urgent debate and a special session on systemic racism in the US. However, China seems to be a different story. Her reluctance (so far) to publish a long-awaited report on alleged abuses in China’s Xinjiang region is provoking incomprehension and even anger among human rights defenders and western governments.

Finally, with the largest humanitarian crisis since WWII looming over Europe, we open our pages to an essay discussing how the influx of Ukrainian refugees into the European Union will require more than just a humanitarian response. European countries should start preparing to integrate the new arrivals into their societies for the long term, write the authors.

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By Philippe Mottaz

The list of participants for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos has suddenly shrunk. The WEF has frozen all relations with Russian entities and sanctioned individuals: “Our full solidarity is with Ukraine’s people and all those who are suffering innocently from this totally unacceptable war,” reads a statement put out by Klaus Schwab, WEF’s founder, and Børge Brende, its president. With a board including Canadian deputy PM Chrystia Freeland, one of the most vocal advocates of the strongest sanctions against Russia, and Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the organization’s leadership had no choice.

But for Klaus Schwab, cutting ties with Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs around him must feel like a painful separation from old friends. Both Putin himself and his regime benefited enormously from the Forum, which they lavishly funded in return over the last twenty years.

Vladimir Putin’s voice in international affairs was “essential,” Klaus Schwab told the virtual WEF audience in January of last year as he introduced the Russian president. “How do you see the situation developing in the third decade of the 21st century, and what should be done to ensure that people everywhere find peace and prosperity?” he asked. “Mr. President, the world is waiting to hear from you.”

Before answering, Vladimir Putin reminded the audience that his relationship with Schwab stretched back to the early 1990s. The two men met most recently last summer, with the WEF’s founder once again stressing the importance of having a large Russian presence at the WEF’s annual conference. According to Politico, the close links between Russia and the WEF date back, in fact, to the fall of the Soviet Union, predating Putin’s accession to the presidency.


Forced to comply with US, EU, and Swiss sanctions, these links have now been severed. As a consequence, a number of Russian-registered participants are sanctioned and will be no-shows at the next annual meeting, planned for May: the list includes Andrey Kostin, president and chair of VTB Bank, Kirill Dmitriev of the Russian Direct Investment, Putin’s former chief of staff Sergey Ivanov, VTB Capital’s CEO Alexei Yakovitsky, and Alisher Usmanov of USM Holding (a resident of Switzerland).

Several WEF initiatives with a Russian footprint have also been dropped, such as the WEF’s Moscow Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the WEF Global Future Council on Russia, co-chaired by a former minister of economic development who is now an adviser to Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s condemnation and isolation may not, on their own, explain the WEF’s decision, described by Politico as “part reputation management, part sanctions.” The information site describes an intense pressure on Klaus Schwab and his team from the “Young Global Leaders,” who are “furious at WEF’s Russia ties.”

It is reported that the organization is already $50 million in the red due to the cancelation of its events during the pandemic. Some WEF insiders speculate that other Asian and Western regulars may decide to skip the next annual meeting of the Forum, which is seen by many as having “lost the plot,” and more part of the problem than the solution.

“Pro-Soviet Russia and the World Economic Forum rose together; each desperately wanted to be seen as a great power,” Politico concludes. “The deal was relatively simple at first: Putin endorsed WEF, the oligarchs funded it, and in turn the Forum helped launder their reputations. You can call it multi-stakeholderism, a transaction, or the ugly truth of globalization. But, like Schwab and Putin, it’s no longer the future.”

Two emails for comments sent to the WEF earlier this week by The G|O have remained unanswered.


By Jamil Chade

As the war in Ukraine rages on with increased violence, the idea of excluding Russia from the Human Rights Council (HRC) is gaining momentum. But for some large member states, such a drastic move might weaken the body—and the UN itself.

The idea of expelling Russia was publicly floated on March 1 by Antony Blinken in his video address to the Council, and is now being discreetly discussed in New York and Geneva by the US, Europe, and their partners.

The legal basis exists in the UN General Assembly Resolution that established the creation of the HRC, which states that “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

In 2011, the provision allowed the General Assembly to expel Libya, a few days after the Human Rights Council itself had called for the country’s expulsion.

UN watchers both here and in New York tell The Geneva Observer that the recent vote in the UN General Assembly, which saw 141 countries condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, was the first sign of Russia’s growing isolation. Also noticeable was the decision by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to insist that the organization now refer to a “war” instead of “conflict” when talking about Ukraine, and drop “military operation” in favor of “invasion.”

Civil society is also mobilizing. In a letter to all the members of the UN, over 40 institutions call on governments to “suspend the Russian Federation as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.” The group includes ARTICLE 19, Conectas Direitos Humanos, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Open Society Foundations, and the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT).


“Which continues to apply throughout the territory of Ukraine during the armed conflict, both in Ukraine and in Russia,” they claim.

“This includes violations of the rights to life, self-determination, liberty and security of person, freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly, freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy and the home, protection of the family, and the rights to health, housing, education, sanitation, and water. All this in a context in which the Russian aggression constitutes a flagrant violation of the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” the letter says.

“The Russian Federation’s continued membership of the UN Human Rights Council is likely to bring the Council into disrepute,” they conclude.

However, countries sympathetic to Russia describe the move as potentially counterproductive, claiming it might weaken the UN, through what a Geneva-based diplomat told The G|O would amount to the “shrinking of the diplomatic space.”


Last Tuesday, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, informed the Human Rights Council that she had reached an agreement with the Chinese government to visit China. It is a visit that will take her to Xinjiang, where human rights defenders and western governments accuse Beijing of committing genocide on the Uyghurs.

However, if her announcement was generally hailed here as a positive step, her refusal to release a long-awaited report continues to provoke incomprehension and frustration bordering on anger in the human rights community. In an open letter, more than 192 organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged Bachelet to release the report—which, sources tell The G|O, has been completed.


“The release of the report without further delay is essential—to send a message to victims and perpetrators alike that no state, no matter how powerful, is above international law or the robust independent scrutiny of your office,” they wrote. Bachelet’s office started documenting alleged abuses against the Uyghurs more than three years ago, and informed sources have told The G|O that the report has been ready since last summer. A senior western diplomat, however, told us that there was still “some more work to be done.”

There is doubt, from some of the human rights defenders and activists we talked to, over whether the visit will allow Bachelet to gather any information that is not already contained in her report. They also point to the risk that China might instrumentalize her visit, a risk that she is no doubt aware of. “As a former president with a long diplomatic experience, she is fully aware of all the consequences of her actions,” another diplomat told The G|O.

In a statement, Sheba Crocker, the US Ambassador to Geneva, said that “for a credible visit, Bachelet must be able to hold private meetings with a range of Uyghurs and groups in Xinjiang, and have access to places where forced labor has been reported,” adding, “As preparations for her announced visit are underway, we continue to urge High Commissioner Bachelet to release the existing, long-anticipated OHCHR report on Xinjiang without further delay. The High Commissioner and her office are well aware of the human rights crisis in Xinjiang—a crisis confirmed by credible NGOs, civil society voices, and journalists over a period of years.”

Director of Human Rights Watch Geneva, John Fisher, told The Geneva Observer: “Michelle Bachelet must not fail the victims by further delaying the report she has long promised. The High Commissioner’s willingness to hold a powerful state like China to account for crimes against humanity being committed on her watch will be a defining issue of her legacy.”

China continues to vehemently deny the accusations of forced labor and discrimination in Xinjiang. Pressed on the issue, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters early last year that his country “would take steps towards ratifying International Labor Organization rules against forced labor”—a position often repeated since then by Chinese officials, but with no concrete action taken.



By Hrishabh Sandilya and Zhivka Deleva*

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already generated more than two million refugees, many of whom have been welcomed in Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries. The humanitarian response has been heartening – notwithstanding these countries’ past resistance to providing similar support to asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa. Ordinary citizens, civil-society organizations, and government agencies have come together to stock border towns with emergency rations, first-aid supplies, clothing, shelter, and transportation options.

The European Union has announced that all Ukrainian refugees will receive temporary (one- to two-year) protected status regardless of where they apply for it. The Dublin Convention – which requires the first country of entry to assess migrants’ asylum applications – has been tossed out. One hopes the EU will now follow the same process for all future asylum seekers, regardless of their skin color.

The hope is also that peace will soon prevail, making the latest influx of refugees into Europe temporary and reversible. But, given the vast scale of the destruction in Ukraine, and the lingering effects the war (and the pandemic) will have on its economy, EU member states should be prepared to host refugees for the medium to long term. And to avoid the backlash that has followed from previous refugee influxes, they should already be taking steps to integrate the new arrivals into their societies.

An influx of human capital could be immensely beneficial to many EU economies, provided that the resettlement process is managed properly. In this respect, the current situation raises two important considerations. First, unlike Western European countries, the EU’s newer member states still have very little experience with large-scale immigration. Having hitherto remained insular and unwelcoming, their institutions and populations are largely unprepared. Second, the influx of Ukrainians into these countries has mostly consisted of women and children, because fighting-age men have remained behind. Inclusion mechanisms therefore will need to be gender- and age-responsive.

As Ukrainian refugees are relocated within Europe, the first priority will be to help them find safe, affordable, and suitable housing. Emergency residences and shelters are not viable long-term arrangements, and national and municipal governments will have to work with private housing providers to find lasting solutions – a task made more complicated by the recent meteoric rises in property prices.

Repurposing properties intended for short-term stays could be a good place to start, given that tourism within the EU has yet to recover to its pre-pandemic level. And activist-minded municipalities could even demand the use of apartments from speculators and mega-landlords, as Berlin recently attempted to do. These initial moves could then be reinforced with innovative public-private partnerships like refugee housing labs, co-living arrangements, and transitional apartments and subletting schemes.

With children making up a large share of the displaced, programs to help them catch up on lost schooling will be crucial. Governments should reach out to volunteers, pedagogical institutions, and NGOs to help fill the gaps while they work to expand existing school facilities. A good example is Berlin’s Back on Track project, which has seen much success with a decentralized approach to educational catch-up for young Syrian refugees. In Prague, the Ukrainian One Class project has already mobilized a network of schools to provide Ukrainian-speaking teachers for incoming Ukrainian pupils. Efforts like this will need to be replicated across the EU.

Beyond providing housing, education, and financial support, governments will also need to facilitate Ukrainian women’s entry into EU labor markets. In addition to offering training for occupational skills and entrepreneurship activities, EU governments should focus on eliminating the red tape that keeps able and willing refugees from working.

Project Phoenix’s own work in Cyprus – along with numerous studies – confirms that female financial empowerment leads to better outcomes for migrants. But among the biggest hurdles to migrant women’s empowerment are inadequate language training and a lack of access to childcare. Here, the pandemic experience offers lessons for how to proceed. Through online learning, institutions should be able to start providing language classes as soon as refugees arrive. And while traditional daycare centers may be overwhelmed, digital tools to pool caring solutions and share responsibilities among migrant mothers could serve as a stopgap.

European labor ministries should work closely with companies, recruiters, and job-matching services to ensure that skilled workers are quickly placed. Artificial-intelligence-driven translation and screening can help, as would an easing of the process for recognizing diplomas and technical qualifications. Similarly, universities and technical training institutions will need to be flexible to accommodate late starts, missing paperwork, and coursework submitted in multiple languages. This will be worth it to ensure that female refugees acquire the knowledge and experience they need to enter the workforce.

Finally, refugees who want to be entrepreneurs will need sustained technical support, access to finance, and – perhaps most important – mentors to guide them through the process of starting a business. Here, governments could collaborate with refugee entrepreneurship incubators like SINGA and TERN, both of which have perfected their approach over multiple migration waves in Europe.

These are only a few suggestions for policymakers to consider as the focus shifts beyond humanitarian assistance. Other challenges, like helping victims of war address trauma and ensuring adequate mental-health support, are equally urgent and essential to help rebuild lives.

So far, Europe’s track record on migrant and refugee inclusion has been spotty. But, given the outpouring of support for Ukrainians, one hopes that this is the dawn of a new Europe – one that lives up to its claim of defending liberal democracy and valuing human life. Perhaps the unexpectedly solidary response of the EU’s Eastern bloc can show the rest how to respond to all refugees in the future.

Hrishabh Sandilya is Co-Founder and Head of Project Phoenix.
Zhivka Deleva is a director of a refugee center in Berlin.
©️ Project Syndicate, 2022.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Guest contributors: Hrishabh Sandilya and Zhivka Deleva

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Editing: Dan Wheeler