#106 The G|O Briefing, August 25, 2022
Still no OHCHR China report — Pro-West campaign removed by Facebook & Twitter — UNAIDS chief’s angry tweet about GVA — What if Ukraine wins the war?
This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
We hope you are well. It is good to be back after our summer hiatus. Today in The Geneva Observer, two reports, an op-ed, and a few interesting links, one of them revealing how a pro-Western campaign was taken down by Facebook and Twitter.
With Michelle Bachelet’s tenure as UN human rights chief coming to an end in a few days, today’s G|O Briefing is news driven. Jamil Chade looks at the dilemma Antonio Guterres is facing in finding her a successor: either one who will forcefully speak truth to (super)power(s), possibly increasing geopolitical tensions in a fraught moment; or one who will accommodate—and for the UN, potentially abandon the defense of values at the heart of the liberal order.
Firmness, to be sure, demands more than forceful denunciations. It will require a hard look at the West’s actions and policies. It would also, beyond the moral stand, necessitate that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) be properly managed, and streamlined—notwithstanding its tight budget. OHCHR ought to be made immune to the widespread criticism repeatedly heard in Geneva, including from within the institution, that it is not appropriately run. Beyond the strictly political aspects surrounding the controversy over OHCHR’s yet-unreleased report on China’s human rights violations, knowledgeable sources here tell the tale, from a management perspective, of a profoundly dysfunctional organization. A true “shitshow” is how a long-time OHCHR watcher put it to The G|O. But, as often here, few are really willing to talk publicly and openly.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its seventh month, human rights violations are also foremost on the mind of Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva. “Issues related to human rights violations in Russia are important to us because we have always said that the countries which repress their voting populations are more likely to perpetrate persecution and violations of human rights across the borders in other countries,” Yevhennia Filipenko told the Geneva UN Press corps during a meeting organized by the UN Correspondents association (ACANU). “That’s what happened in Russia. It was the undemocratic nature of Russian politics that led to Putin’s external aggression.”
Filipenko also said that her country would continue supporting the appointment of a special rapporteur mandate for Russia, a proposal supported by several NGOs and governments.
What really happened at Geneva’s Cointrin airport on July 27 when Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS chief, attempted to board a flight to Montreal? Impossible to say with certainty, as she is not telling. But her tweet, which didn’t escape the keen eyes of The G|O’s Sarah Zeines, leaves little room for interpretation: along with bureaucracy, for its author, racism played a part in her almost missing her plane to the 2022 UNAIDS annual conference.
While the outcome of the war in Ukraine remains uncertain, the West’s strategic aims, particularly how it intends to treat Russia in the event that Ukraine prevails, will have long-lasting consequences. At stake is whether victory leads to a more inclusive and equitable multilateralism or strengthens autocracies and deepens global divisions, argues Kemal Derviş in this week’s G|O op-ed. Derviş is a former Turkish Minister of Economic Affairs and administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
It's all below, plus some interesting links. As always, thank you for reading us.
A SUCCESSOR FOR MICHELLE BACHELET: ANTONIO GUTERRES' DILEMMA
By Jamil Chade
Michelle Bachelet’s decision to step down as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presents the UN Secretary-General with a difficult choice; that much is clear from the loud and sustained debate around her replacement. At issue? What should be the process to fill one of the most exposed but indispensable positions in the UN system, and what role should human rights play in the power structure of the UN?
Bachelet leaves office while widely criticized by civil society and governments alike for her refusal, so far, to publish her office’s report on violations of human rights in China. Many Geneva-based ambassadors tell The G|O that this episode actually reflects a broader crisis in the UN’s attempts to deal with gross human rights violations. The report’s handling illustrates how the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) can end up as a hostage of a confrontation between two powerful members of the Security Council—in this case China and the US—and that human rights have become another theater in the struggle for hegemony.
Bachelet has been under pressure from both sides. As soon as the Biden administration entered the White House, her office was questioned on the report, with a request for transparency about crimes committed in China. Most recently, however, it has been Beijing applying pressure, insisting she should not release the document.
For activists and human rights defenders, the High Commissioner’s role should be to call out human rights abuses while being able to insulate the Office from the great superpower rivalry—a position summarized in a recent statement issued by Amnesty International, which attacked Bachelet’s “refusal to call out the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, and their dismal human rights record throughout the country,” claiming that by doing so, she “betrayed countless victims and survivors.”
“Without immediate action, Michelle Bachelet’s failure to stand up to political pressure from China will be a major part of her legacy,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard, a former UN Special Rapporteur.
The crisis around the China report is widely seen here as New York–made, inasmuch as it is the result of UN chief Antonio Guterres having chosen a “political animal” in Bachelet, rather than a strict human rights defender. By doing so, diplomats argue, he had been hoping to protect himself from pressure.
Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, Bachelet’s predecessor, missed no opportunity to blast violators of human rights at every occasion, naming names and making the job of UN S-G even more difficult than it already is. Guterres’ choice of Bachelet was based on a decision to choose someone who could act behind the scenes, negotiate with governments, and reduce tensions. For Guterres, appointing someone as vocal as Zeid would only deepen the sense of mistrust and contribute to the possible collapse of multilateralism.
Hence the dilemma posed today by the search for Bachelet’s successor. If the OHCHR does not stand for a strong defense of human-rights , if the UN High Commissioner does not choose forceful action over privileged access, who will? But at the same time, in such a volatile geo-political context, should the risk be taken to appoint someone willing to speak truth to the superpowers and run the risk of increasing tensions?
On its wish list of the essential qualities required for the position, civil society has called for Guterres to nominate someone who is of “high moral standing and personal integrity, and who is independent and impartial and possesses competency and expertise in the field of human rights.” The document making these demands was signed by institutions including Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Conectas Direitos Humanos, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Open Society Foundations and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).
They also ask that the procedure be “open, transparent and merit-based,” a recommendation which seems not have been heeded by Antonio Guterres. Nothing, so far, has filtered out. Civil society has not been consulted. Informed sources say that Guterres’ choice has already been made; Michelle Bachelet will be leaving by August 31, so an announcement is likely to come soon.
And what about OHCHR’s report on China? Press reports say it might finally be released next week. During her final press conference this morning, Michelle Bachelet, however, refused to commit to releasing it before the end of her term. “We are still working on it,” she said. In all likelihood, her successor has received an advance copy of the draft. Dealing with it will be one of their first tests on the job.
"UNJUST, RACIST": UNAIDS CHIEF WINNIE BYANYIMA'S TWEET EMBARASSES SWISS AND CANADIAN AUTHORITIES
By Sarah Zeines
Was UNAIDS’s Director Byanyima racially profiled at Geneva airport in July? That’s what was explicitly suggested by an angry tweet she sent while trying to board a plane to Montreal. Swiss authorities are playing the whole incident down, but from Geneva to Canada, Byanyima’s words have prompted others to share their stories of similar treatment.
“I’m @ Geneva airport, at the gate, boarding pass in hand on my way to #unaids2022, I’m almost refused to board, all docs scrutinized over &over again, calls made…. I board last. Hundreds of people in the South have been denied visas & won’t attend #UNAIDS2022. Unjust, racist!” wrote Winnie Byanyima in an emotional Twitter post on July 27th.
Shared outrage on Twitter
Byanyima’s tweet set off a chain reaction—the complaint was retweeted nearly 2,000 times and liked by more than 5,000: “Always feel a little uneasy overegging this pudding for obvious reasons, but if *Winnie Byanyima*—the executive director of UNAIDS who holds under-secretary-general rank within the U.N.—can’t get through to Geneva airport with ease, then no African has a shot,” commented Chris O. Ògúnmọ́dẹdé, associate editor at the World Politics Review, a writer with more than 10K followers.
Pascal Sim, a Geneva-based UN public information officer, expressed bewilderment: “A senior @UN official, with the rank of Under-Secretary-General, traveling to an international conference is not immune to discrimination,” he noted.
Another woman claimed that her husband had had a similar experience: “Same thing happened to my partner in May at Geneva airport. He also works for the UN and was leaving to visit family. The staff was aggressive, rough, and refused to give their ID. My kids heard how the officer talked to their dad and are still shocked and now fear to travel,” she explained.
Wealthy countries and UNAIDS conference privileges
Other users of the platform used Byanyima’s tweets to deplore the fact that the UNAIDS annual gatherings were held in privileged locations and that visas had in some instances been prohibitively expensive or impossible to obtain for participants from the Global South—as in the case of Tian Johnson. The South-African activist was prevented from attending the same Montreal meeting Byanyima was flying to. “After nearly 20 thousand dollars in VISA fees, biometric costs, travel back & forth, public fights for visas & today’s refusal by @UnitedAirlines_ for us to board, we are cancelling our @AIDS_conference participation to avoid further loss. Canada and @iasociety must account,” he demanded.
Matthew Hodson, executive director of Aidsmap, echoed the UNAIDS director’s criticism of Canadian authorities: “I am looking forward to learning with comrades from all over the world at #AIDS2022—but it is infuriating that many will be absent, voices silenced, from many of the countries with the greatest knowledge of #HIV, as a result of racist entry policies,” he complained.
This was a stance also paralleled by Oni Blackstock, a renowned HIV physician, researcher, and founder of Health Justice: “@aids_conference should host its conferences in locations where *everyone* can travel and not just folks from wealthy countries. Even the Executive Director of @UNAIDS was given a difficult time. Horrendous,” she said.
Geneva Airport deplores “misunderstanding”
Who was responsible for preventing Byanyima from boarding her plane until the last minute? To this day, the question remains unanswered, and Winnie Byanyima’s silence so far about the episode makes it difficult to investigate the incident further.
A spokesperson for the Geneva Airport tells The G|O that it had been trying unsuccessfully to identify the individuals who interacted with UNAIDS’ director, and to reconstruct the sequence of events. “Since we were made aware of the tweet last month, we have reached out to Mrs. Byanyima in hopes of gaining more insight on the incident and to what extent her tweet refers to Geneva Airport, as her comment was rather generic. For the moment, she has not responded. As long as we [have no additional] information, we can’t determine if there was fault and in that case who might be involved. We do not tolerate racism at Geneva Airport and deplore the misunderstanding,” Geneva’s Cointrin airport spokeswoman Sandy Bouchat told us, adding that “the incident might have been overplayed.”
“In the end, Mrs. Byanyima got on her plane. She might have been slightly delayed in her boarding process, but this is due to the fact that Canada imposes additional Covid verifications. Generally speaking, other passengers have had similar experiences these past few weeks.”
Canada’s strict entry criteria
Isabelle Dubois, Communications Advisor for the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRCC) Department of Canada, insists that the visa policy for the event was not racist: “While IRCC is able to expedite visa processing, the department cannot provide special treatment and waive the visa requirement for event participants and officials. IRCC deals with thousands of applications from people from around the world every day. We are committed to a fair and non-discriminatory application of immigration procedures. As part of our commitment to anti-racism, equity and inclusion, we are looking closely at those criteria through the lens of how they impact racialized applicants, to ensure our programs and policies are fair, equitable and culturally sensitive. We take this responsibility seriously.”
Winnie Byanyima has not responded to The G|O’s calls, emails, and social media requests for comment.
WHAT ARE THE WEST'S STRATEGIC GOALS IN THE UKRAINE WAR?
By Kemal Derviş*
The Ukraine war and the world’s reaction to it will be a decisive factor in shaping the global political and economic order in the decade ahead. In particular, the Western allies’ actions, narratives, and planning regarding both Russia and the role of the Global South in Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction will indicate what their long-term strategic goals are. Does the West simply want to see Russia defeated and NATO enlarged and strengthened, or can it envisage a “victory” in Ukraine that lays the foundations for a world in which democracy is more secure and global governance more inclusive and effective?
While the outcome of the fighting remains uncertain, the West’s strategic aims, particularly how it intends to treat Russia in the event that Ukraine prevails, will have huge consequences. The big question is whether the allies will seek to punish Russia as a whole by imposing severe reparations or instead target President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime in a way that limits the burdens imposed on the Russian people.
At the beginning of the war, the Western allies emphasized that defending the United Nations Charter and democracy were their primary objectives. In late spring, some US strategists and officials advocated permanently weakening Russia as a strategic goal, although it is not clear whether this would still be an objective in the event of regime change in Russia.
While any overall settlement of the Ukraine conflict must require Russia to bear some part of the reconstruction burden resulting from a war that it started, the severity of the terms imposed on the Russian people will have political ramifications. The harsher the terms, the more likely it will be that Russia embraces China even more closely, so that a tight Sino-Russian bloc becomes part of the postwar geopolitical order.
The effect of such an alliance should not be underestimated. While China would be the bloc’s center of gravity, Russia’s relatively small GDP (which is less than that of Italy) should not lead one to dismiss the country’s scientific capabilities, the size of its nuclear arsenal, its natural-resource wealth, and the strategic importance of its vast territory.
By pursuing measures that treat the Russian people differently than Putin and his autocracy, the world’s democracies might hope to prevent a long-term outcome in which Russia would be “lost” to them. Banning all Russians from entering the European Union, as some policymakers now propose, is the type of measure that will push the country toward China. And misleadingly dividing the world into democracies and autocracies comes from the same ineffective, polarizing playbook. When dealing with dictatorships like Putin’s, a key element of any successful diplomatic strategy is to distinguish between political leaders and ordinary citizens.
True, Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council made it impossible for the UN to play a coordinating role in countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But the Western allies that assumed that task made little effort to consult the Global South in their decision-making, or to involve it in the postwar planning process.
It is of course, also true that much of the Global South abstained from voting on the two major UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia in March. But the West should have recognized that developing countries’ response to the war reflected old and deep-seated reflexes – namely, the bitter collective memory of European colonialism and recollections of the Soviet Union’s support for many of these countries during the struggle for independence.
Moreover, the Lugano conference organized by the Western allies in early July to launch a platform for Ukraine’s reconstruction did not include any countries from the Global South. One could argue that this was primarily a donors’ meeting, but it excluded rich Gulf states and included countries such as Albania and North Macedonia, neither of which is likely to be able to contribute.
Rebuilding Ukraine will require hundreds of billions of dollars. This effort thus risks diverting substantial aid from the Global South, which is still trying to get rich countries to fulfill their longstanding pledge to provide $100 billion per year to support climate-change mitigation and adaptation in poorer countries. It will also be interesting to see the extent to which the procurement rules for reconstruction projects in Ukraine will allow non-donor developing countries to bid effectively.
But it may not be too late for the West to involve the Global South – particularly countries like India and South Africa, which have good technical capacities in certain sectors – in Ukraine’s reconstruction. The West should also include developing countries in setting the rules regarding possible remaining sanctions against Russia after the first phase of a settlement, as well as the regulations governing frozen Russian assets.
In the event that Ukraine prevails, the West’s treatment of Russia and its stance toward the Global South during Ukraine’s reconstruction will determine whether the war’s outcome serves as the launchpad for global progress toward a more inclusive and equitable multilateralism. In the worst case, the West will have a achieved a pyrrhic victory that ends up strengthening autocracy and further deepening global divisions.
*Kemal Derviş, a former minister of economic affairs of Turkey and administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
PRO-WESTERN PROPAGANDA, DEFEATED
In a rather surprising piece of news—or not—Meta, Facebook’s parent company and Twitter announced that they have taken down a network of fake accounts promoting pro-Western messages in the Middle East and Asia. Quoted by the Washington Post, a Meta spokesperson said it was the first time Facebook had “removed a foreign-focused influence network promoting the United States’ position.” The revelations are contained in a joint report by Stanford University and research company Graphika, which were asked by the platforms to analyze the data sets.
“These campaigns consistently advanced narratives promoting the interests of the United States and its allies while opposing countries including Russia, China, and Iran. The accounts heavily criticized Russia in particular for the deaths of innocent civilians and other atrocities its soldiers committed in pursuit of the Kremlin’s “imperial ambitions” following its invasion of Ukraine in February this year. […] We believe this activity represents the most extensive case of covert pro-Western influence operations on social media to be reviewed and analyzed by open-source researchers to date,” the authors of the report write.
They do not directly link the US government to the operation, while hinting at it. They also point out that the campaigns were largely unsuccessful, noting “the data also shows the limitations of using inauthentic tactics to generate engagement and build influence online. The vast majority of posts and tweets we reviewed received no more than a handful of likes or retweets, and only 19% of the covert assets we identified had more than 1,000 followers.”
In Le Grand Continent, the excellent website and review published by le Groupe d’études géopolitiques, Italian (and Swiss) essayist Giulio d’Empoli praises Switzerland’s “boring” political system, which explains why, in his eyes, the country is “an anti-Russia.” Fellow Italian Carlo d’Ossola argues, meanwhile, that Swiss mountains serve as a unifying element for a country that, he says, has a lot to teach Europe. Both essays are in French.
QUANTUM COMPUTING MORE DANGEROUS THAN AI?
That’s what two experts claim in a Foreign Policy essay—another wake-up call. It fits nicely into the narrative and agenda of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator, (GESDA)
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines
Guest Contributor: Kemal Derviş
Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue
Edited by: Dan Wheeler