This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today, in an unusual Wednesday edition of The Geneva Observer Briefing, we report on UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s ongoing visit to China and the controversy surrounding it. It has human rights groups here questioning her commitment to stand firm against Beijing.
As the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, meets this week, it is useful to restate the obvious: the preparedness and response to future pandemics will depend on the relationship between the public and private sector. US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer pledged today (May 25) to sell some of its drugs and vaccines to forty-five poorer nations at cost, part of an initiative announced at the Davos Economic Forum. A welcome departure from its usual business practices—as Jamil Chade shows in his piece.
And lastly, a piece of very distressing news: after being assaulted last year in Rome by Jair Bolsonaro’s bodyguards, our friend and colleague Jamil is now the subject of death threats. It must stop.
It’s all below. Thank you for reading us.
“MICHELLE BACHELET BETRAYED US,” WORLD UYGHUR’S CONGRESS PRESIDENT TELLS THE G|O AS THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS CHIEF VISITS CHINA
By Philippe Mottaz
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is in China. She left on Sunday (May 22) and is expected back on Saturday, May 28. It is a high-risk trip, highly controversial from the start. The publication on Tuesday (May 24) of the ’Xinjiang Police Files’, adding to the existing body of evidence documenting the extent of Beijing’s immense surveillance and repression in the Xinjiang province, will make it even more difficult for her to counter criticism that she is playing with the OHCHR’s credibility by having agreed to travel to China in the first place, by refusing, so far, to release her office's own report in human rights violations in China, and by remaining mostly silent on the Uyghurs’ issue since the beginning of her tenure in 2019.
Geneva is the smallest of the global cities. It is, in fact, claustrophobically microscopic. Meet anyone from the OHCHR today on the formal or social circuit in Geneva and they tense up when you broach the subject of China. Members of Bachelet’s inner circle become immediately defensive; others confide that the group operates in quasi-isolation. Sources inside the OHCHR tell of the frustration of the report’s authors at Bachelet’s lack of engagement, until very recently, with their work. “OHCHR is not a happy place today. Anybody who tells you the contrary is lying,” a long-time human rights defender with a vast network of contacts within the organization tells The G|O.
Outside the organization, Bachelet’s silence about the vastly documented atrocities against the Uyghurs has many puzzled and angered; she has been swift in denouncing other serious violations elsewhere. But it is her persistent refusal to release her office’s long-awaited report on Xinjiang that has profoundly angered her critics, who claim she is “soft” on China. In June of last year, pushing his country’s line on the question, Lui Yuyin, spokesman for China's mission to the UN in Geneva, insisted that her visit, at the invitation of Beijing, should be “friendly,” and “aimed at promoting cooperation rather than conducting “a so-called investigation under the presumption of guilt.” The terms of her current visit—hammered out between the Chinese government and the OHCHR—are secret. The High Commissioner’s critics say it is difficult to believe that she would have been granted “unfettered” access to what the West considers detention camps—where, according to the US, “genocide” is being committed—and which the Chinese keep insisting are vocational training centers.
Last Friday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published yet another blistering communiqué signed by Sophie Richardson, China Director at the organization. “The Chinese government is committing human rights violations on a scope and scale unimaginable since the last time a high commissioner visited in 2005, partly because there is no fear of accountability. The high commissioner needs to work to end, not enable, that perception,” she wrote.
So naturally the question here is: with so much pressure put on her by civil society and governments—more than 200 NGOs and several Western governments have demanded the report be published—why has Michelle Bachelet so far refused to release it, widely understood to have been completed last August after two years of work?
Explanations range from sheer stubbornness to reasons linked in part to her personal biography. “She simply hates to be pushed around,” one keen OHCHR watcher tells The G|O, “but I also believe that, coming from Chile, her political sensitivities are harbored in the South.” Her father, a general in the Chilean air force, was tortured under the Pinochet regime, installed by the US after the overthrow of the Allende regime.
“A large part of the evidence gathered to document the Chinese government’s human rights violations in Xinjiang have been gathered by German researcher Adrian Senz,” a human rights expert ventured to me a few days ago. “No one questions the quality of his research and documentary evidence, but his research is financed by the US. That might be part of the explanation.” A scholar at the US-based Victim of Communism Memorial Foundation, Adrian Zenz has been sanctioned by Beijing. He did not answer a recent request for comment by The G|O.
As an avowed defender of the South, the increased inequalities created by the pandemic have also made a mark on Bachelet, and may have favored what appears to be her emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, to the detriment of the defense of political and civil rights. She denies it, recently telling an audience during a private luncheon that these rights are closely related and interdependent, and that “no category of rights exists or has any real meaning without respect for the others,” stressing that this vision is embedded in the UN Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs).
But beyond Bachelet’s personal sensibilities and management type, two other factors with a larger significance for OHCHR might, beyond the Chinese issue, shed light on how she operates as High Commissioner and why it has been difficult for her to convince her critics. These factors were raised and have coalesced during many conversations The G|O has had with several human rights actors over the last few weeks in researching this story. The first might well be the most defining one, for it has less to do with Bachelet’s personality than with her background: she stands in contrast to all of her recent predecessors, who were active in human rights and international justice before being appointed high-commissioner: Louise Arbour was a Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Navi Pillay was judge and President at the ICTR. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was very active at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. Michelle Bachelet shares none of these credentials. At heart, she remains a politician—and a most savvy one—but she is not truly a human rights defender. She was deliberately chosen by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as a practitioner of quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, to replace Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein who never shied away for talking truth to power.
The other reason may be explained by a growing shift in the human rights and accountability ecosystem, now largely driven by civil society and with a push for accountability coming from outside the traditional UN human-rights system. From the Xinjiang Papers to the Xinxiang Police Files, from Ukraine to the New York Times visual investigations of Russia’s alleged war crimes, new actors are now increasingly leading the fight against impunity. A new ecosystem that has greater and more pressing demands, loud and confrontational, one that she doesn’t readily and easily engage with. According to several sources, her relationship with non-governmental human rights organizations is severely fraught.
Michelle Bachelet is acutely aware of what is at stake with her visit to China. The anxiety of her staff is palpable. “It is the visit of her life,” a Beijing-based Western ambassador is quoted by Le Monde as saying. Telling also is the fact that after many unsuccessful requests over the years to grant an interview to Geneva’s paper of record, Le Temps, she finally agreed to answer some of her critics—through a spokesperson—shortly before leaving Geneva:
“Wherever we think our voice can make a difference, we say it loud and clear. We have done so with the five permanent members of the Security Council and with other states,” she told the paper, adding, “during my visit I look forward to raising these issues in a frank and open manner with the authorities and other actors.”
She also told Le Temps: “I ask for patience and your support and to evaluate the visit once it has taken place rather than discrediting it out of hand.” But for the victims of the atrocities committed in Xinjiang and elsewhere, patience ran out a long time ago. “We have been waiting long enough for this report. Michelle Bachelet has betrayed us,” Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress, told me recently over Zoom.
WHEN SIGNING CONTRACTS WITH BIG PHARMA, READ THE FINE PRINT FIRST
By Jamil Chade, with Philippe Mottaz
As the World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO’s governing body, is gathered this week for its Seventy-fifth annual session—for the best coverage in town, follow our colleagues at Health Policy Watch—it may come as no surprise that when discussing health, conversations about its politics are more transparent and open than conversations about its business. And healthcare is big business: over the past twenty years, it is estimated that the global pharmaceutical market has experienced significant growth, jumping from $390 billion in 2001 to $1.27 trillion in 2021.
And so, in the end, talks about the future of the world’s health architecture will also be defined in large part by fiendishly complex and confidential agreements signed between governments, pharmaceutical companies, and an extended network of global actors, including health activists and civil society.
From the very first stage of the pandemic, even before they knew whether their vaccines would be effective or gain eventual approval, some manufacturers set draconian conditions and criteria in their contracts to sell doses to governments. When AstraZeneca signed a huge contract with Brazil, for instance, it contained the condition that should its vaccine fail to be effective against COVID-19, no reimbursement could be claimed. First revealed by the FT, an MoU also contained a clause that AstraZeneca, who had pledged “not to profit during the pandemic,” would be able to declare the end point of the pandemic, thus becoming free to raise its prices. AstraZeneca had set July 2021 as the date—a wildly off-target prediction.
A 2020 report by the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that Latin American countries accused Pfizer of “high-level bullying” during COVID-19 vaccine negotiations.
According to the report, the company demanded additional indemnity against any civil lawsuits citizens might file in relation to Pfizer’s vaccine. This would include cases brought due to Pfizer’s own negligence, fraud, or malice. Pfizer also reportedly asked governments to put up sovereign assets, including military bases and federal bank reserves, as collateral for potential future legal costs.
It is thus no surprise that negotiations in Geneva and beyond about the role of WHO and the future of the global health architecture will see some serious confrontations.
Many governments who feel they have been subjected to unacceptable commercial pressure from manufacturers will push for transparency when treaties and agreements are negotiated—whether deciding to set up a new outbreak alert system, a new cooperation mechanism for the exchange of medical samples, or regarding IP-related issues.
Governments of emerging countries also insist greater access to vaccines, treatments, and technology must be made mandatory whenever an emergency is declared by WHO under the provisions contained in the International Health Regulations. The proposal is supported by India, South Africa, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, and other developing nations.
The US and the EU are adamant in insisting that triggering such a mechanism should only occur when a pandemic is declared, not in cases of more limited outbreaks. For the supporters of the proposal, however, activating flexibilities every fifty years or so would effectively render such an agreement useless, and would lead to the same dramatic inequalities in vaccine access and treatment that marked the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The discussion will extend long after the conclusion of the WHA. Some diplomats predict that tensions will arise later this year when the negotiations start in earnest. They will include an attempt to define the legal status of a pandemic.
But despite these profound divergences, real progress has been made to address the inequity in access to COVID-19 vaccines. The most important and successful initiative to remedy this structural inequity is undoubtedly the mRNA Technology Transfer Hub Program launched by WHO with the aim of establishing sustainable, locally-owned mRNA manufacturing capabilities in and for low-and middle-income countries (LMICs). South Africa’s Afrigen was selected in June 2021 as the main hub for the program. In August of 2022, after barely two months, Afrigen developed a copy of the Moderna vaccine using a recipe formulated from publicly available information about existing shots. As the program hub, Afrigen provides technology and training to a network of so-called “spokes” around the world, which, after passing the pilot phase, will produce the mRNA vaccines locally.
The initiative constitutes a major step towards empowering LMICs to not only make their own mRNA vaccines, but ultimately to have the choice of which vaccines they want to make. It could take as long as two years, however, for WHO’s partners to fully develop and get approval for their own mRNA COVID-19 jabs.
"The technology transfer center goes beyond the fight against inequalities of access: today, it is a fight … against COVID, and tomorrow it will ensure the full health sovereignty of countries and equitable access to vaccines,” French Global Health Ambassador Stéphanie Seydoux said last Monday (May 23) during an event at the French Mission.
The consensus among the panelists was that for the program to be impactful, it will need first to deliver on all the milestones for the development of this first COVID-19 vaccine, including its approval. The mRNA platform should be suitable for learning, and for technology development and innovation in LMICs, and the initiative must be able to create the capacity not only to design vaccines but also to ensure their end-to-end production and delivery over the so-called “last mile”, so people can be vaccinated.
But there are potentially severe hurdles that could impede the effort, and one of them is of an economic and commercial nature. In essence, the mRNA vaccine hub program bypasses major pharmaceutical producers. COVID-19 vaccines were developed with public funds. Yet, the manufacturers may hold the key to the success of the venture, and it is far from clear if they are willing to compromise and cease operating on a strictly profit-led logic. Moderna’s patents in South Africa, for instance, give the company the right to stop anyone from producing or selling an mRNA vaccine in the country—such as the one developed by the Hub.
THE G|O’S JAMIL CHADE HAS RECEIVED DEATH THREATS
When he’s not working for The Geneva Observer, Jamil Chade reports for UOL, Brazil’s largest internet portal. One of Brazil’s most respected and seasoned journalists, with a career spanning over twenty years, the quality of his work, together with his unwavering dedication to hold the powerful to account and to fearlessly defend press freedom, has earned him an enormous following in his country, counted in millions on his social media accounts. Jamil has won several prestigious journalism awards in Brazil. In 2021 and again in 2022, he was honored for his defense of democracy.
But under an authoritarian regime such as Jair Bolsonaro’s, being a journalist can be dangerous. “The relationship between the press and the government has greatly deteriorated since the inauguration of President Jair Bolsonaro. He regularly attacks journalists and the media in his speeches,” notes Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) in its 2022 press freedom index. (Full disclosure, I sit on the board of RSF’s Swiss chapter.) The attacks, however, are not only verbal. Last year, in Rome during the G20 summit, Jamil was violently assaulted in the street by the Brazilian president’s security forces.
Last Friday, Jamil was unexpectedly absent from The G|O weekly editorial briefing. He had gone to the authorities, he told me afterwards, after having received death threats. These unjustifiable attempts at intimidation of our friend and colleague must stop. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms.