#104 The G|O Briefing, July 7, 2022
Crowdfunding drones to help Ukraine - Russian diplomat intimidates speaker at the HRC - Science and diplomacy at the heart of International Geneva
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, we meet Bill Daniels, a Gex man who is helping Ukraine fight the Russian army by sending non-lethal off-the-shelf drones to the country’s volunteer soldiers. The Geneva Center for Security Policy’s Jean-Marc Rickli, one of the foremost authorities on modern warfare, tells us Daniels might be on to something: “The use of drones by the Ukrainians has demonstrated that, in addition to their contribution to surveillance and intelligence, they play a role as flying artillery in situations where the enemy has failed to establish air supremacy. They thus have a force-multiplying function even for actors who are considered underdogs.”
We also report on the violent verbal and physical intimidation, at the Human Rights Council, of a representative of a Russian ethnic minority by a diplomat from the Russian mission—a troubling development. And we conclude with a few thoughts about the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA), a Swiss initiative that is starting to make its mark on International Geneva.
As usual, it’s all below. Thank you for reading us.
DRONES FOR UKRAINIAN SOLDIERS—FROM GEX, WITH LOVE
By Sarah Zeines
For a few hundred dollars, euros, or Swiss francs, thanks to Bill Daniels, a retired leadership consultant and trainer who has done some work for UNICEF, you can send a non-lethal surveillance drone to the Ukrainian troops fighting the Russian army. You can also have your name written on the package, and include a message of support, which will be translated into Ukrainian. The most popular mini drone is manufactured by DJI.
This was Uli’s message, from Switzerland: “To the courageous men and women in Ukraine: My thoughts are with you every day in the face of the pain and anguish you have to go through. I wish you all the very best, that you stay strong and in good health, and that you can be reunited with your loved ones soon. May we all find peace again very soon. In sincere gratitude and admiration. Uli.”
The Fight Back for Ukraine project, which buys and sends non-lethal surveillance to Ukrainian troops—besides drones, infra-red night goggles and metal detectors are also in high demand—is Daniels’ brainchild.
AN EPIPHANY BORN FROM INDIGNATION
The sixty-something young retiree, who lived in Colorado before moving to Europe, has the build of an active man. “Rock climbing has been key in shaping who I am as a person,” he tells us, with a heavy midwestern accent, nursing a Coke at a café in Ferney. He won’t lose his drawl, but he has relinquished his US passport. “When Trump was elected, I just lost it,” he says. “I switched to a Canadian passport. I feel better now.”
February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, was the trigger that prompted him to support the Ukrainians. “How dare Russia go after a small, peaceful, and democratic nation?” he questions, the indignation perceptible in his voice. “Everything that the Ukrainians are enduring is so profoundly unfair. Not to mention the effects of the invasion for the rest of us, were Russia to win. I simply don’t want to live in a world where a culture of fear, mistrust, and tyranny reign.”
Initially though, Daniels didn’t think about delivering help to the Ukrainian volunteer forces. His project took shape almost as an epiphany as he was driving back to Ferney from Slovakia, after making the journey in his own car over three days to deliver canned goods. “There were clothes of all sizes, first aid kits, and enough food to feed thousands. It was impressive to see, because that region is so dreadfully poor, but I also realized that my limited food contribution was by no means essential. And what I wanted in my heart was for the Ukrainian people to not end up in a losing situation; either conquered or emasculated with no possible positive future, living with the threat of more incursions at any point in time,” he explains.
That’s when the idea to support frontline troops with non-lethal surveillance equipment dawned on him. “In terms of Ukraine’s ability to fight successfully, the issue has been and is that they are outgunned by the Russians. If I can contribute to saving just one soldier, I would already feel like I’d made a difference. These guys are risking their lives to defeat Russia.”
Back in Gex, he reached out to a contact at the Permanent Mission of Ukraine in Geneva. “Little by little, I managed to establish a significant network with key actors, capable of making sure that the equipment I brought made it into the right hands.”
SIX MISSIONS ON HIS OWN DIME
Since the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bill Daniels has thus been making regular trips by car to the war-torn borders, where he unloads significant stocks of supplies. A colossal mission for a lone volunteer—and for sure, a bit of an adventure in terra incognita.
The first journey proved to be the toughest by far. On-site, delivering products proved almost impossible. The roads are bumpy and potholed; the GPS signal is spotty. “When I arrived, a man in charge of a local association helped me out. He lied to the border patrollers, telling them that the mayor of the nearby Ukrainian town was expecting me. They let us through.”
Part of him still ponders how he ended up helping volunteer soldiers. “I’m not a ‘thank you for your service’ kind of guy," he insists. He appreciates the social model of the US military which “offers education and health benefits.” “But I don’t agree with the politics behind it,” he tells us.
Daniels spent most of his professional life as a leadership consultant, for some large companies, Opel, Dupont De Nemours, Dow Chemicals, or UNICEF, to name a few. The avid mountaineer believes that his past professional experience is closely linked to his current initiative: “I am a ‘facilitator’ in the true sense of the word: I make things easier. I contribute to something that directly resonates with the Ukrainian people. I am result-oriented. Fight Back for Ukraine also offers an alternative to traditional philanthropy and humanitarian relief: you buy the material and I deliver it. Some people give money to the Red Cross, and that’s laudable, but one is never quite sure where the money is going,” he says.
Bill doesn’t hide the fact that after six expeditions through Slovakia or Hungary on his own dime, funds are beginning to dwindle. “Up until now, we’ve raised more than €80,000, including €20,000 out of my pocket,” he discloses. But crowdfunding has sometimes proved to be a challenge. “Algorithms arbitrarily and indiscriminately identify crowdfunding initiatives for Ukraine as scams.” Daniels informs me that Paypal has refused to release $1,300 wired to his organization through the platform. The amount remains frozen; Paypal’s service, however, is again operational.
As in the early days of any crowdfunding effort, most of the people who have donated money to the cause so far are close friends, relatives, or former work colleagues who share his values.
With help from his social media–savvy daughter Sarah and Denver-based former colleague Elfego Gomez, Bill hopes to make another trip to Ukraine in July. He’s realistic, but refuses to give up. “It doesn’t look like Ukraine can 'win’ this war, but it is still possible that they can bring it to a conclusion, and that the noose around their necks won’t be pulled ever tighter.”
RUSSIAN INDIGENOUS SPOKESWOMAN FACES INTIMIDATION AT THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
Exiled Siberian Shor indigenous representative Yana Tannagasheva had just finished reading a statement on Monday about human rights violations in her homeland when she was subjected to aggressive behavior by a representative of the Russian Mission to the UN in Geneva. The Russian diplomat’s open hostility, in the midst of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ signature event, prompted a strong reaction from the other participants, who circled a weeping Yana, acting as a human shield.
Multiple witnesses to the scene agree that the incident is without precedent at the UN. One told us: “This goes to show that Russia is no longer concerned by its public image. Even the most basic codes of communication in what is supposed to be a safe space for discussion are no longer respected.”
Kenneth Deer, the world-famous Mohawk Nation spokesman, was up next. Instead of reading his prepared statement, Deer improvised a heartfelt speech in support of Yana Tannagasheva: “We are truly upset by the behavior of a state representative to intimidate indigenous peoples who have every right to be here and speak truth to power. If that individual was an NGO, we would have had his badge pulled. […] We ask that the Bureau take action, so that this does not happen again.” A standing ovation ensued.
INCREASING PRESSURE ON INDIGENOUS GROUPS IN RUSSIA
The July 4 incident is an illustration of the increasing pressure that Russia is putting on its more than 160 ethnic minorities. Yana, currently a refugee in Sweden, fears for her life, as well as the wellbeing of her loved ones. She told The G|O that indigenous peoples in Russia have become a target since the beginning of the war: “Any form of criticism against the government is being crushed,” she told us. “Before I made the trip to Geneva, my husband was very worried about my participation in the Geneva meeting. I have been vocal in criticizing the coal mines that are destroying my region in many international forums. There is a lot of money at stake in these operations and I’ve made some powerful people angry.”
Christoph Wiedmer, co-director of the Society for Threatened Peoples, says that communication with indigenous minorities has become impossible. “I was extremely shocked by what happened here at the UN, on Monday. There has been increasing intimidation from the Russian government on indigenous peoples, but I would not have expected them to make them so public. Russia has just crossed an unprecedented line.”
He adds, “By such actions, the Russian government is trying to frighten civil society activists who contribute to human rights causes on [the] international level. Many of the indigenous people in Russia are extremely scared. An already tense climate has worsened significantly. We wonder if this is just an intimidation, or if this is the first step to an actual attack?”
The Russian Mission to the UN declined The Geneva Observer’s request for comment.
THE GENEVA SCIENCE AND DIPLOMACY ANTICIPATOR (GESDA) IS PUTTING SCIENCE ON THE GLOBAL DIPLOMATIC AGENDA
By Philippe Mottaz
Six months after its first public unveiling and a few months short of its second ‘summit’, GESDA is starting to put its mark on International Geneva and drawing increasing attention to its work. “GESDA has created a new domain of thinking that didn’t exist before, and joined science and diplomacy, two worlds that are not traditionally aligned,” Paul Bekkers, the Dutch ambassador to the UN, tells The G|O. “It is a very innovative initiative, and it is gathering momentum.”
Created as a foundation in 2018, GESDA truly appeared on the scene about a year ago, when it publicly unveiled its “Science Breakthrough Radar ®", an interactive platform to help the global community continuously monitor and assess the advancement of scientific inventions—or, in its own parlance, to show “what’s cooking in the labs,” on a 5-, 10- and 25-year horizon.
The maiden event was overly infused with a spirit of scientific and techno-optimism, making it hard to find someone who didn’t subscribe to the idea that science and technology advances should be equated with progress. This conviction had certainly been reinforced by the development at warp speed of several vaccines against COVID-19; a cause for celebration. However, it might have had more to do with the excitement of the launch than with the specific standpoint of the project’s initiators, who believe that it is high time that a new architecture be put in place to understand, debate, and ultimately agree on how to deal with some of today’s most disruptive technologies and scientific breakthroughs—and, further down the road, to potentially go as far as to limit their use.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, on June 28, 2012, Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier and their colleagues published their research on ‘CRISPR’. A groundbreaking development, the gene-editing technology was hailed as an “epoch-making experiment” by the Nobel committee when they were awarded the biology prize in 2020. Barely six years after publication, however, the world was stunned when a virtually unknown Chinese scientist announced that he had created the first CRISPR babies; twins born of IVF embryos whose genomes had been edited with the DNA editing technology, opening the door to a possibly nightmarish future. Dealing with such incredibly thorny ethical issues is ultimately what GESDA is about.
“IT IS ESSENTIAL TO EXPOSE DIPLOMATS TO WHAT HAPPENS IN THE WORLD OF SCIENCE”
The Radar itself, co-created by a global community of scientists, has zeroed-in on three major scientific areas which will predominantly affect our future: a) the quantum revolution and advanced artificial intelligence; b) human augmentation; c) eco-regeneration and geoengineering. The mere listing of what these breakthroughs might entail forces you to reflect on the kind of world we want to build.
In this context, as mankind’s future is now primarily defined by science and technology, and when some tech companies have so much power and influence that they can shape the global order, one of the Radar’s main virtues is to put out in the open information which is often limited to a few, mostly in governments. As one diplomat put it to me, the Radar is a “giant creator of transparency. Advanced research on emerging science and technologies are often kept under wraps.”
“It is essential to expose diplomats to what happens in the world of science," emphasizes Bekkers. “In science and technology, things move extremely fast, almost without us realizing it, so it’s important that people like me, but also the public at large, be made aware of what is happening. Most of my peers here in Geneva are doing diplomatic work, trying to make a difference by giving direction to various organizations like the WTO, the ITU, or WIPO [World Trade Organization; International Telecommunication Union; World Intellectual Property Organization]. But we don’t all have a scientific or technical background, and yet we need to integrate this new dimension into our work, as part of our expanded responsibilities. We must find answers to the fundamental questions raised by science, we must deal with them, we cannot ignore them,” he told me.
Anticipating and accelerating the discussion around science and technology may also help in ensuring that we learn from past mistakes. The history of the development of science and technology is riddled with missed opportunities for establishing strong regulatory and ethical frameworks early on, from the net itself to social media, and today with AI, where we’re already condemned to playing catch-up—mostly unsuccessfully. Widely considered the next most disruptive scientific development to come, quantum computing might just be the area where we can learn from past mistakes, avoid the pitfalls, and act on time.
“The web was invented in Geneva [by Tim Berners-Lee, who was working at CERN at the time]. In hindsight, was it a good thing that we let the internet be dominated by three or four companies? Do we want it to happen to other major scientific breakthroughs like quantum computing? Or do we want to try to define them from the start as [a type of] universal common good?” Peter Brabeck-Letmathe—Nestlé’s’ former boss and now Chair of GESDA’s Board of Directors—pondered recently, during an event organized by the Geneva Diplomatic Club. His question roundly encapsulated GESDA’s ultimate vocation: steer scientific innovation toward positive outcomes and the common good, and identify new forms of governance to deal with highly disruptive scientific and technological developments. In that sense, it might act as a bulwark against Silicon Valley, whose ideology is to develop technology regardless of its negative societal effects.
GESDA recently announced a partnership with XPrize, the global and undisputed leader in competitions to accelerate breakthroughs that benefit mankind. An ambitious initiative will be unveiled during GESDA’s next summit in October. The Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo (FCSP), a major Italian philanthropic organization dedicated to “promoting the common good,” will be supporting XPrize in designing the contest’s project to ensure it is holistic in its approach and doesn’t replicate the past experiences deplored by Brabeck-Lethmate. “The participation of so many first-class scientists [in] the Radar, the professionalism and vision of GESDA’s management, and its location in Switzerland and Geneva with its world-renowned scientific institutions were determining factors in our Foundation [becoming] involved in the initiative,” Alberto Anfossi, the FCSP’s Secretary General, told The G|O.
Interestingly, parts of the Big Tech/Big Science community seem to adhere to the idea that regulations might be needed. Alex Karp, CEO of software firm Palantir, wrote the following in his company’s filing ahead of its IPO: “Our society has effectively outsourced the building of software that makes our world possible to a small group of engineers in an isolated corner of the country. The question is whether we also want to outsource the adjudication of some of the most consequential moral and philosophical questions of our time. The engineering elite of Silicon Valley may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires. […] The fundamental issue is where the authority to resolve such questions—to decide how technology may be used and by whom—should reside.” His lambasting of Silicon Valley raised eyebrows in the science community, as Palantir’s main clients are the CIA and the Pentagon, but it also helped to better frame the debate.
GESDA’s leadership team claim that its location in Geneva, coupled with Switzerland’s long tradition of scientific diplomacy, represents an undeniable asset in its ambition to play a global role, and to add science to several already existing hubs, such as human rights, humanitarian affairs, trade, or global health. However, challenges abound on the road to achieving this international status and becoming a recognized, legitimate platform. Science and technology are now part of great power politics. International cooperation in is regression. Working within the existing multilateral institutions imposes constraints. “People immediately revert to their traditional negotiating modes, when what we need are spaces to brainstorm, to discuss without preconditions,” Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland's special representative for Science and Diplomacy, told the audience at the Diplomatic Club. “As a foundation, however, we have the advantage of being able to operate differently. GESDA is nimble.”
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Sarah Zeines
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Edited by: Dan Wheeler