#90 The G|O Briefing, March 17, 2022
Revealed: WHO Foundation weakens its guidelines on healthy food – Is Russia’s relationship with Geneva irreparably damaged? – A plea for all refugees
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, how Vladimir Putin has succeeded in polarizing and politicizing just about every organization in the city. We also reveal how the WHO Foundation has weakened its funding guidelines to accept money from an industry the WHO accuses of unethical practices. WHO itself now counts among its “senior experts” on vaccination the mastermind of Sweden’s no-lockdown, no-masks policy in the early stage of the pandemic. Plus, as record private and public funds are pouring in to help Ukrainian refugees, a plea not to forget other humanitarian crises.
It’s all below. Thank you for reading us.
Last Wednesday, March 9, the TRIPS Council at WTO met for an update on the ongoing high-level consultations on the contentious patent ban for COVID-19 vaccines. The discussion was delayed by a request from Ukraine to have the floor. According to the official notes of the proceedings obtained by The Geneva Observer, Ukraine’s delegate told his colleagues he could not see how members “can conduct economic relations with the Russian Federation within the WTO on a business-as-usual basis in the present circumstances."
He urged members “to consider whether Russia's continued participation in the WTO would be consistent with the objective and purpose of the WTO given that "the Russian Federation has clearly abandoned the basic principles and values that the GATT and the WTO have promoted for almost 80 years since the end World War II.”
The notes also record that “the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago and Georgia took the floor to condemn Russia's unprovoked unjustified military aggression against Ukraine, which grossly violates international law and the UN Charter and undermines international security and stability.”
“Work at the WTO focuses on trade, but the organization cannot be neutral toward the struggle at hand,” the members declared, adding, “the invasion of Ukraine is an attack towards what the United Nations, the WTO and Geneva as the capital of multilateralism stand for.”
The Russian delegate stressed that in WTO bodies, “Members shall refrain from discussing political issues. They are not the [within] scope of [the] World Trade Organization, and they're under the focus of dedicated international organizations and subject to a diplomatic process.”
A similar scenario is being repeated all over International Geneva. Before February 24, 2022, political attacks in Geneva were usually limited to the Human Rights Council. Ukraine’s invasion has changed that. At the current session of the ILO’s Governing Body, a group of 30+ countries have successfully placed the discussion of a resolution on the Ukraine crisis on next week's agenda, which could significantly impact the Russian Federation’s standing and participation in the Organization. The G|O also hears that, emboldened by the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution supported by 141 votes that overwhelmingly condemned Russia’s attack, the Council is considering asking the UNGA to expel Russia from the HRC.
Putin’s war has created irreparable damage to Russia’s relationship with the multilateral system. There will be no business as usual in Geneva for the foreseeable future.
HYPOCRISY AT WHO?
WHO claims that the baby formula industry practices unethical marketing. That doesn’t prevent its Foundation from accepting the industry’s money: It has weakened its own guidelines to accept it.
Are your gift policy guidelines too restrictive to accept funding from a controversial donor or industry? No problem; just weaken them. That, it appears, is exactly what the WHO Foundation (WHOF) has done, by dropping an exclusion criterion from its initial guidelines that could have forced the Foundation to reject funding from companies that do not contribute to “a healthy diet.”
Following its launch in April of last year, the Foundation received a CHF 2 million donation from Nestlé, immediately prompting a swift pushback from global health experts and food activists. That was even before it was revealed that about 60% of Nestlé's food portfolio failed to meet the generally accepted definition of “healthy.” The revelations by the Financial Times put Nestlé in clear contradiction with the WHOF’s draft Gift Policy Guidelines (dated May 2021), which listed “contribution to poor health or diet” as one of its exclusion criteria. The reference to “poor health or diet” has now been entirely dropped from the final version of the guidelines adopted by the Foundation board on December 21.
"ABOUT 60% OF NESTLÉ'S FOOD PORTFOLIO FAILED TO MEET THE GENERALLY ACCEPTED DEFINITION OF 'HEALTHY'."
On February 23, the organization published a new report accusing the baby milk industry of using “systematic and unethical marketing tactics” to entice mothers to substitute breast milk for formula milk, in breach of international standards on infant feeding practices.
Asked to comment on its new guidelines, the WHOF told The G|O that it was prevented from doing so by the emergency situation created by the war in Ukraine. Insisting previously that its guidelines had not been finalized when the “healthy diet” clause was present, the WHOF has never answered that specific point in repeated exchanges with The Geneva Observer, limiting itself to broad disclaimers. “[None of the] funds received by the WHO Foundation are…an endorsement of the activities, products or services of any company,” a spokesperson for the WHOF told The G|O last year.
WHO, for its part, conceded last year that “it was a huge question” that had to be addressed by the Foundation itself.
HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL SWEDISH EPIDEMIOLOGIST JOINS WHO
Anders Tegnell, the highly controversial Swedish epidemiologist who
in spring of 2020 claimed that “face masks are an easy solution, and I am deeply distrustful of easy solutions to complex problems,” or stated that lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 were akin to “using a hammer to kill a fly,” has joined the WHO as a vaccine coordinator.
“Sweden wants to further contribute to the global work on equal access to vaccines against COVID-19 and has appointed Anders Tegnell to the WHO,” the Swedish Health Authorities announced last week in a communiqué. Tegnell started his new job last Monday, March 14, as “a senior expert” in a unit tasked with coordinating the work between WHO, the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “I have worked with vaccines for 30 years, and at the same time, I have always been passionate about international issues,” said Tegnell, 65, when commenting on his new position. “It remains imperative that the vaccines reach those countries that have not had the financial means to buy their own vaccines.”
His resignation as the country’s chief epidemiologist follows the publication, by a commission of experts, of a 728-page long report on Sweden’s response to the pandemic. The commission, appointed by the government after pressure from the parliamentary opposition, concluded that “in February–March 2020, Sweden should have opted for more rigorous and intrusive disease prevention and control measures,” in what amounts to a repudiation of Tegnell’s policy, as well as the government’s over-reliance on its experts.
The commission said the government had delegated too much responsibility to the country’s health agency, and that it was not always clear who took decisions.
WEARING MASKS WAS NEVER RECOMMENDED
In winter and spring 2020, following Tegnell’s recommendations, Sweden opted for lax and voluntary measures, keeping its schools, restaurants, bars, and other businesses open. Wearing masks was never recommended. Tegnell argued that voluntary measures could achieve the same results as lockdown without damaging trust between authorities and the public.
Tegnell’s critics maintain that more intrusive measures might have saved lives during the first phase of the pandemic, and that the government should have acted much more decisively when death rates in Sweden far exceeded those of other Scandinavian countries—which, for a time, closed their borders to Swedes. “Sweden tries out new status: pariah state,” the New York Times wrote at the time.
But if the panel’s eight experts, including economists and political scientists, concluded that stronger measures should have been taken in the early stages of the pandemic, they also consider that Sweden’s policy was “fundamentally correct.” The approach meant “that citizens retained more of their personal freedom than in many other countries.”
It is an important take-away, according to leading infectious diseases expert Manuel Battegay. The chief physician at Basel University Hospital and former vice president of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force tells The Geneva Observer: “The policies that different countries took in their response to the pandemic were rightly very much in line with their values and culture. The Swedes widely accepted the lax approach because community responsibility and trust in healthcare is high in the country.” While recognizing that Sweden later had to correct its course and adopt stronger measures, he tells The G|O that “Switzerland’s response was not significantly different from Sweden’s.” Battegay points to a just published Lancet study that shows that Switzerland has virtually identical excess mortality figures to Sweden and Denmark, and lower figures than Germany, which adopted stronger measures.
The WHO was unavailable to comment on Anders Tegnell’s mission.
(Thank you to our colleagues at Svenska Dagbladet newspaper for their help with this report.)
ALL REFUGEES ARE EQUALS
By Jamil Chade
The war in Ukraine has raised uncomfortable questions about how to fund rescue operations for populations hit by war or natural disasters. However, it has also provided an opportunity to reflect. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), along with other humanitarian organizations, has welcomed the response from developed countries to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. But it has also felt the need to urge them to respond similarly towards refugees from other war zones, no matter their nationality, race, or religion.
In just two weeks, the crisis in Ukraine has generated a wave of public and private donations, securing resources in an unprecedented volume. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that more than $200 million had been donated to the agency’s emergency response in Ukraine, while the entire appeal involving aid to Ukrainians inside the country exceeds the $1 billion mark. The donations already represent half of what the United Nations has requested as emergency assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons throughout the region, not including contributions from national governments.
The crisis has also led many leading companies to support the agency's response, with IKEA, for example, donating 20 million euros to the humanitarian emergency. Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, issued a call for “governments, companies, and philanthropists of the world” to join the effort and “increase aid support to the UN and the people fleeing Ukraine.” Other companies to offer donations include Google.org (Google’s charitable arm), Volkswagen, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation, Mazda Motor Corporation, Deloitte, JYSK, AUDI, Marks & Spencer, Banco Santander, Vodafone Foundation, Armani, Prada Group, Gucci, and many others.
Preliminary analysis by the Center for Global Development (CGD) indicates that dealing with the largest wave of refugees since World War II could cost EU economies about 30 billion euros in the coming months, putting a heavy strain on budgets already strained by two years of pandemic.
“We welcome this tremendous reception and solidarity exhibited towards refugees in recent days, and hope this might inspire some reflection and a shift from some of the toxic narratives and policies we have seen in a number of contexts,” Kathryn Mahoney, a spokesperson for UNHCR told our colleagues at Reuters. She added that “UNHCR continues to advocate for access to protection for all of those who seek it, including those from Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and other countries and regions, based on the international obligations of asylum countries to protect refugees.”
Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, also made a similar request. “While we look with shock and horror at what is unfolding in Ukraine, we are reminded of the intense and worsening suffering that the Syrian population has endured for 11 long years,” he said, adding pointedly, “One of the greatest human tragedies of our time has gotten worse over the last year in the shadow of crises elsewhere.”
Egeland concluded, “In the past two weeks, Europe has shown that it is possible to mobilize tremendous resources for the vulnerable in their hour of greatest need. It is paramount that countries also open their doors and resources to Syrians who urgently need aid, protection and safety.”
"YEMEN MAY HAVE RECEDED FROM THE HEADLINES, BUT THE HUMAN SUFFERING HAS NOT RELENTED."
The UN predicts that it will need $41 billion in total in 2022, to provide relief to 183 million people in 63 countries. But at the end of the third month of the year, the organization had received only 3.5% of the amount needed to help the victims of wars, poverty, and environmental disasters. In 2021 it only raised $1.5 billion between January–June.
Some appeals have largely remained unheard. No money has been pledged for El Salvador, and only 8% of the requested aid for Lebanon—devastated by the Beyrouth explosion—has been received. For the 6 million Venezuelan refugees, the UN had requested a total of $1.4 billion in 2021. It ended the year with only 40% of the money needed.
In Syria, where more than 200,000 people have died in ten years of war and 13 million are living as refugees or internally displaced, the UN is 54% short of the $4.2 billion aid package it requested. 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living in extreme poverty.
On Wednesday, it was Antonio Guterres himself who sounded the alarm on another crisis: Yemen. “Yemen may have receded from the headlines, but the human suffering has not relented,” he said. “For seven years and counting, the Yemeni people have been confronting death, destruction, displacement, starvation, terror, division, and destitution on a massive scale.” His appeal was made before a High-Level Pledging Event co-hosted by Switzerland and Sweden. Thirty-six donors pledged nearly US$1.3 billion towards the humanitarian response in Yemen.
ELSEWHERE IN THE ECOSYSTEM
Even putting your ear firmly to the ground, you’d be hard pressed to get a clear indication of a frontrunner from the ILO Governing Body’s private auditions of the candidates for director-general last Monday. ILO watchers playing bookmakers tell the G|O that, while the race is still open, it will probably come down to a head-to-head between former Togolese prime minister, Gilbert Houngbo, and former French labour minister, Muriel Pénicaud. Some weeks ago, we reported that the ILO Workers’ group was split between the two candidates. No longer. The Workers’ group has thrown its lot behind Houngbo, going as far as publicly announcing its support—a move considered unusual even within the group’s own ranks. Pénicaud is said to have the support of the European bloc and could potentially rally a majority of the Employers’ group after the first round of voting. “The ILO will be in good hands; they are all excellent candidates," a former deputy director-general of the organization told us.
On March 15, a leaked WTO document revealed that a tentative agreement has been reached between the US, the European Union, India, and South Africa on a long-expected deal on a temporary waiver of IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines. Progress? Undoubtedly. But "tentative" remains the operative word here, as global health activists balk at the compromise text and a number of countries (including Switzerland) have denounced the fact the United States, the EU, India, and South Africa broke away from negotiations among the organization's 164 members to craft the agreement.
One Asian ambassador told The GIO's Jamil Chade that it is way too early to call this a "deal"—a feeling also expressed by a senior Latin American diplomat. Both expressed the sense that the organized leak was meant for WTO's boss Dr. Ngozi to show progress on the issue before the next ministerial conference scheduled in June, but that approval was far from certain at the WTO where decisions are taken by consensus.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Editing: Dan Wheeler