This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, an explanatory piece on the battle over the future of the internet raging right here in the heart of International Geneva, as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) holds its quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference next week.
How did the UN in Geneva handle the COVID-19 pandemic? How did it, and its staff, respond to it? What lessons can be learned from an experience that profoundly upended diplomatic work as the Palais and the UN campus essentially shut down? The G|O’s Jamil Chade has been parsing a report by the UN Internal Audit Division. The investigators’ verdict: “Adequate measures were implemented to mitigate the effect of the pandemic.” But the document also reveals a few surprises…
With journalists the target of abuse from strongmen and populists, and the public often distrustful of our profession, the gracious words spoken recently by a very senior Geneva-based western diplomat to the Geneva press corps could not have been more heartwarming and encouraging. We can’t resist the pleasure of sharing them with you:
“Whether it’s on human rights, humanitarian assistance, technology, global health, or countless other issues of import, your reporting distills and interprets the arcane complexity into stories that help the world understand the significance of the work we do. Your intellectual rigor, attention to detail, and pursuit of the truth is appreciated by all of us. We honor your fearless dedication to the underappreciated, underpaid, but critical profession of journalism.”
On that note, we felt it’d be a nice idea to send The G|O’s Sarah Zeines backstage at the UN pressroom. Her report, like the rest of today’s G|O Briefing, is below. As always, thank you for reading us!
HOW CHINA, RUSSIA, AND THEIR FRIENDS ARE USING THE GENEVA-BASED INTERNATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS UNION TO TRY TO IMPOSE THEIR AUTHORITARIAN INTERNET AND SURVEILLANCE MODELS ON THE WORLD
By Philippe Mottaz
The battle for the future of the internet is raging, with Geneva at its epicenter. Next Monday, the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will open its quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference.
Houlin Zhao, the ITU’s Chinese outgoing Secretary-General, says of the upcoming conference: “Countries will unite at the ITU to set the direction of digital transformation for years to come.” His words couldn’t be truer, for top of the agenda at the conference, which will take place in Bucharest, is the election of the organization’s new Secretary-General and a slew of other important positions, all hotly disputed. Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden each have their candidate for the top position, as the contest pits American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a veteran of the organization, against Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy minister at the Russian Ministry of Telecom. The two represent diametrically opposed and irreconcilable visions of the internet and its governance: open vs. closed, top-down and state-controlled vs. participative and bottom-up, intended to guarantee freedom of thought and expression or built to censor content and crack down on dissent.
The stakes are so high that in striving to defeat the Russian candidacy, the US and its allies and friends have been coordinating their diplomatic response and lobbying efforts for the last two years in Geneva and beyond, even prompting Joe Biden to issue a statement on Tuesday (September 20) urging the 193 members of the organization to support Doreen Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy. US declarations of support for American candidates to top positions at international organizations are not unusual. But they rarely come from the White House, in particular about an organization referred to as “the most important UN agency you have never heard of.”
COMMUNICATION STANDARDS HAVE (GEO)POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS
On its face, ITU sets standards in telecommunications. Receiving an email or a phone call from an Android phone to your latest iPhone, moving from a 4G or 5G network; expressed in their simplest form, this seamless digital communication is what telecommunications standards permit.
But, as a recent study by Geneva-based DiploFoundation and the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation (KAS)* points out, standards also “have economic, social, and (geo)political implications.” The conflicts about standards and about the governance of internet is one more theater where global political and economic power are unfolding in the digital age.
The ITU is just one among several standards-developing organizations (SDOs). But to grasp what is at stake and the reasons for such a flurry of diplomatic activity and heightened level of confrontation, it is essential to understand why the ITU has become the main battleground in deciding the future of the internet.
The ITU is a multilateral organization, meaning that decisions are taken by states, usually by consensus or, if none is found, by a vote. As China expert Elizabeth Economy explains, “China supports a greater role for intergovernmental regulation of the internet because it grants primacy to the state in determining norm setting.”
By contrast, the US and most Western countries defend a “multistakeholder” model that includes governments, civil society, academia, business, and others. This is a continuation of the model upon which the internet was created and which has allowed it to become what it is today. In this regime, says German researcher Alina Epafinova, “states are only one of many actors involved in setting policies for the internet’s infrastructure, use and regulation. They [those states] are forced to listen to the opinions of scientists, technical specialists and the international organizations that regulate the internet’s foundational elements and facilitate the creation of international digital standards.”
From its early days, however, the internet grew mostly outside of the ITU, its standards developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
In this context, China’s push to bring the internet under the governance of the ITU is not surprising, writes Kate Jones, an associate fellow with the International Law Programme at Chatham House and an associate of the Oxford Human Rights Hub, in a recent paper. “ITU’s multilateral, state-centric diplomacy gives China and its international allies a better shot at setting standards than multi-stakeholder SDOs would.”
AUTHORITARIAN REGIMES SEE THE INTERNET AS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT
China and Russia see the internet as an existential threat to their regimes, both internally and externally—a fear exacerbated in Moscow since the war in Ukraine, leading Vladimir Putin to impose massive additional censorship in the country by blocking access to Western sources of information. However, if the two countries share an aim to control the internet, they have different objectives and different methods.
China, says Australian researcher Samantha Hoffman, practices “tech-enhanced authoritarianism. […] Rather than creating fundamentally new ways of controlling populations, technology augments the [Chinese Communist] party’s standard methods of exercising authoritarian dominance,” she argues. “China’s ‘social management’ concept includes ‘opinion mining’ and ‘relationship mapping,’ achieved by amassing big data through facial and voice recognition systems and geo-localization, all forms of surveillance tested and perfected in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where, according to the UN, ‘human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity' may have been committed.”
Implicitly referring to Russia’s final objective, Hoffman adds that “in terms of geopolitics, some autocracies try to use technology in their wider efforts to expand their global influence and undercut the stability […] of democracies.” Internally, in late 2019, driven by a desire to create what he calls “a sovereign internet,” Vladimir Putin developed a legal framework for the centralized management of an internet wholly contained within Russia’s borders. According to Alina Epifanova, “full implementation of such a system will be extremely difficult,” but she predicts that “the regulations will increase the fragmentation of the global internet and augment Russian reliance on Chinese technology.”
NEW INTERNET ARCHITECTURE AND THE RISK OF A "SPLINTERNET"
The now officially joint effort by China and Russia to create an alternative, state-controlled internet has been years in the making. If successful, it would lead to what is commonly referred to as the “splinternet”: a balkanized internet wherein some countries would isolate themselves behind a sort of global digital Iron Curtain.
The most controversial and disputed attempt so far to change the nature of the internet—and, ipso facto, its governance—was Beijing’s 2019 bid to push ITU to adopt a different internet architecture—and to have Chinese giant Huawei build it. In its presentation to the ITU in September 2019, revealed by the Financial Times a few months later, China argued that the internet in its existing form had become technically obsolete and insisted that its sole aim was to build a new system that would integrate the latest state-of-the-art digital developments.
China makes the development of standards a priority of its foreign policy. The Digital Silk Road (DSR) policy is designed to implement the digital element of its Belt and Road Initiative—a global infrastructure development strategy—using Chinese standards.
For Western countries, changing the current internet governance by giving it to the ITU is simply unacceptable, as it would “de-democratize” it. Doing so would also mean that New IP would be legitimized and recognized as a trade-protected standard, and Governments could choose to deploy either a Chinese or a Western version of the internet. With its punishing standards, the former would mean citizens of these countries would not be free to choose their content or their applications. They could also see their access to the net entirely cut off or diverted, as Russia recently did in Ukraine, offering a glimpse of what Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign internet” would look like if fully implemented.
China’s 2019 proposal for a new internet architecture was quashed by consensus at the ITU. However, this decision has not deterred Beijing from pursuing either its development or implementation, both at home and in some friendly countries.
OMINOUS THREATS TO FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS
New IP also poses very clear threats to fundamental human rights, as Kate Jones describes in her academic paper co-authored with Emily Taylor and Carolina Caeiro, two internet governance and technical experts. Whereas in the current configuration of its different layers, internet “pipes” are “dumb” and only serve to transmit data, they write, New IP would incorporate new capabilities to monitor content, as well as “capture, transfer and use personal data which would violate states’ obligations in the International Bill of Rights to respect and ensure human rights.”
“At its core, New IP would render the Internet an instrument for government control,” they argue. New IP, Jones tells The G|O, “would seriously undermine individual privacy, freedom of opinion and expression.” As is already the case in Xinjiang, entire populations could be targeted and discriminated against.
The human rights dimension of standards and Big Tech more broadly are, of course, of major significance for International Geneva. “I was quite surprised to discover that in Geneva and in the UN system in general, parallel conversations are happening on similar issues but with very little overlap,” Jones tells me. She is encouraged by the fact that last year the Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for work on the relationship between technical standard-setting processes and human rights.
With Silicon Valley focusing primarily on money and innovation and only marginally interested in the societal consequences of its technology, we seem to be condemned to play catch-up, meanwhile framing the debates in terms of ethics. “The problem with ethics is that it is malleable,” says Jones. “It is not the same as human rights law, because it is not a set of legal standards. It entails little accountability. Unlike in human rights law, in ethics, you don’t have mechanisms and instruments to make sure that companies or countries are fulfilling their responsibilities.” Jones and her co-authors recommend that the “human rights and diplomatic communities should […] increase their participation in standardization processes.” They also call for the UN to set up a unit on standards and human rights within the Office of the High Commissioner to advise technology SDOs on human rights issues.
THE CHALLENGE OF CREATING A DEMOCRATIC, RIGHTS-RESPECTING INTERNET
It is unlikely that the efforts by countries to have greater control over the internet will abate. There is hardly a government today that doesn’t believe some form of regulation is necessary. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, such calls have also come from the West, with Europe in the lead.
Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard social scientist and author of the seminal book The Age of Surveillance, says that the reality is that we already have two versions of the internet, “a market-led capitalist version based on surveillance that is exploitative” and an “authoritarian version, also based on surveillance.”
“There certainly have been major scandals in the US and the West involving surveillance,” Jones concedes, “but the difference between China or Russia is that in the West, you have the back-up of democratic accountability and legal processes.”
The challenge, Western experts agree, is how to build on the foundations of the existing internet but to ensure that it is rights-respecting and compatible with democracy.
For Jones, the battle against the Chinese or Russian internet model must be fought “for the sake of people in those countries who are severely oppressed, like the Uyghurs in China, but also for all citizens who are afraid of speaking freely. And we should stand firm against countries which use their strong economic might to dominate other countries while riding roughshod over human rights.”
The election of the ITU’s new Secretary-General will be decided by secret ballot.
ADJUSTED TO HYBRID WORKING AND AFFLICTED BY VACCINE HESITANCY, WILL THE PALAIS EVER GO BACK TO NORMAL?
By Jamil Chade
Workplaces and schools may never be the same again following the changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But what of the UN during that period of dramatic upheaval? A rare insight into the impact the pandemic had at the Palais des Nations can be gleaned from an audit conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
The point of the of the investigation, published on June 3, was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the measures implemented by UNOG to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure continued operations. The review covered the period from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2021.
The audit largely focuses on the lessons to be learned from UNOG’s response. But it is the data it presents that offers a glimpse into what might be the “new normal” at the Palais des Nations.
Comparative figures show that in 2018 and 2019, over 12,000 in-person meetings were held at the UN in Geneva. An enormous and consequential number—for many, in-person meetings are key to the UN’s work.
The organization insists operations were maintained through 2020, the year the virus hit globally. The numbers, however, tell a profoundly different story: that year, the UN held just over 4,000 meetings in total—a third of those organized before the pandemic. Fewer than 3,000 of these were in-person events, with 466 virtual meetings and 893 in a hybrid format.
It was a situation that extended into the following year, despite the push for vaccinations. In 2021, just over 5,000 meetings were held, out of which around 2,300 were in person and 2,400 in a hybrid format. Geneva came close to a shut-down.
At the time, some Western countries were openly worried that the regulations—both those of the UN and of Switzerland, the organization’s host country—were too stringent, and might give ammunition to those members who engage with the UN reluctantly on issues such as human rights and disarmament, whilst also allowing them to escape media scrutiny.
AS WHO EXHORTED THE WORLD TO GET VACCINATED, SOME OF THE UN'S STAFF IN GENEVA FAILED TO HEED THE CALL
The audit also offers some revealing insights into the behavior of the Palais’ staff.
All Geneva-based secretariat staff was required to report their vaccination status confidentially by 15 November 2021. However, “[d]espite UNOG’s numerous requests[…], by 31 December 2021, more than 40 percent of the staff it administered were yet to report their vaccination status,” the report says.
Furthermore, statistics provided by UNOG indicate that a mere 43 percent of those who had reported their status by 31 December 2021 were fully vaccinated—at a time when the World Health Organization was urging the world to get jabbed. “UNOG had, however not provided […] details of the staff who had not reported their status and was therefore not able to follow up with individual staff,” the audit concludes.
Release of further data to the auditors was prevented by confidentiality rules—a response that was also given to The G|O after it asked for updated numbers. The United Nations Information Service (UNIS) told us that “this information is considered internal to UN, and is usually not shared with external partners,” explaining that “the previous figures were made public as they were part of an UN internal audit.
“This being said, we can safely assume that the number of staff who have reported their vaccination status has indeed increased,” according to Alessandra Vellucci, director of UNIS Geneva.
Velluci further stated to us that “the information regarding vaccination status is used by the Organization for risk management. We consider that at this juncture of time the risk is low. The level of immunity reached by UN Geneva staff is similar to [that in the] local population. The higher risks are managed by mandatory vaccination for certain occupational groups, such as interpreters, [with] special protective measures still in place. The low risk is [evidenced by the] decreased number of reported COVID-19 cases.”
"DE-DENSIFICATION"—THE UN'S NEW NORMAL
The risk may have subsided, but business at the Palais has not returned to its pre-pandemic state.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, there had been no requirement for the secretariat to facilitate virtual or hybrid conferences. To enable continued operations under COVID-19 conditions, UNOG needed to technically upgrade conference rooms, as well as making other sweeping changes. In 2020 alone, UNOG spent $1.6 million in its pandemic response; this included additional cleaning services, installation of plexiglass barriers, equipment to enable meetings with Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI), and operational support for RSI.
As of January 2022, the organization had prepared 13 conference rooms capable of hosting virtual or hybrid conferences. It seems clear that this new technical capability will continue to find a use in the coming years. The fact is, this “de-densification” of the Palais has become a reality.
Some diplomats are still adapting to the new situation and the challenges of negotiating remotely. Others, however, see a silver-lining in the new normal: it contributes to reducing the carbon footprint of the organization.
BACKSTAGE WITH THE UN CORRESPONDENTS
By Sarah Zeines
The UN press room in Geneva has a solemn air about it. Behind the massive wooden desk of the UN Information Service (UNIS) sit the organization’s spokespeople. Next to them, the guest representatives of the various Geneva-based UN specialized agencies await their turn to speak. Due to the war in Ukraine, a number of them appear remotely, as they have been deployed in the field. In a few months, the room will be gone, replaced by a slick, optimized “media center.”
For the UN press corps, the twice-weekly briefings are a ritual and a tether, permanently inscribed in their calendar. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, invariably, they receive an email with the agenda of the meeting and a Zoom link for those who cannot attend in person. Visiting journalists from around the world sometimes join the hard-core group of permanent Geneva correspondents, a cross-generational crowd including old hands who have been at it since before the invention of the mobile phone and social media (a scourge for some, who think it has killed the job) and a fresh batch of reporters who, upon their arrival, discover both the complexity of their new beat and how intimidating and opaque the organization they will have to cover can be.
In its diversity, the group of full-time UN Geneva correspondents mirrors, politically and geographically, the makeup of the world. They form a clan or coterie, but behind the camaraderie created by being together so often, covering briefings from the UN or diplomatic missions, there is fierce competition between them as they work at warp speed to file their reports and bring the UN’s activities to the world.
CHASING THE EXCLUSIVE STORY
Many of the Palais’ permanent correspondents have been around for years, regularly engaging in friendly gossip with their local counterparts. The group atmosphere is light, but should not be misconstrued; the nature of the work makes this batch fiercely competitive. Breaking an exclusive story amid a consistently massive output of embargoed press releases and communications of all sorts is often mission impossible, especially since the pandemic has dramatically decreased face-to-face encounters. It’s the kind of feat that arouses envy within the clique.
Emma Farge, who has been in Geneva with Reuters for the past five years, broke one of those sought-after stories over the summer. The Bermuda native, who has mastered French over the years, uncovered a letter in which China asked the United Nations to bury a highly critical report about its activities in Xinjiang Province. “I was pretty proud of that piece,” she admits modestly as she sips her coffee before a Tuesday briefing. “Most of the time, I try to pick a priority story—in theory, we could do up to ten a day. As a correspondent, one gets a feel for what’s newsy and what’s not. The article that hits the editor’s sweet spot is the one that will provide valuable insight to Reuters’ investors while saying something interesting to the public. Though the most critical stories tend to be the most important ones in my experience, I happen to enjoy happy news from time to time—I just covered the local two-headed tortoise’s 25th birthday. I also went to the Alps over the summer for a piece on melting glaciers. My work here in Geneva can be very diverse.”
DIFFERENT ANGLES FOR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES
When they’re following the UN’s routine beat, news agency reporters are comfortable outsiders; navigating the Palais’secrets with the ease that comes with knowing the territory in detail while bearing the heavy social responsibility of their investigative essence. “After a while, you get to know people who are willing to talk anonymously,” confides Laurent Sierro, who works for Keystone-ATS. The relaxed, forty-something Valaisan has been a familiar face at the Palais for almost a decade, facing some serious challenges as a journalist, such as the media-censured visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the UN in 2017. “China wanted to be more committed to multilateralism, yet was sending a contradictory message to the world,” he recounts. “The UN can have limitations from member states, but this was the first time that a country [had] organized a closed event that excluded the press in Geneva. The visit was more of a bilateral encounter between states, except in this case there was a big audience present.” He adds: “I don’t believe that the UN bowed down to China by keeping reporters out, but it was unusual.”
In an ideally-placed office facing the UN flags so popular with Instagrammers, Sierro enjoys the independent and solitary nature of his work. His writing is a learned mix of human rights, humanitarian affairs, global health, the climate crisis, world trade, and international tech news. “Before the fusion of the Agence télégraphique Suisse (ATS) with Keystone in 2018, I was also covering Geneva’s private sector, but I have focused on multilateralism since,” he explains. “It’s difficult to make this particular part of Geneva compelling to the rest of Switzerland—especially to the German-speaking part. As the host country, we try to be generous with our information and I write anywhere from two to ten pieces a day.”
Moussa Assi, who has been reporting from Geneva for Al Mayadeen TV (Lebanon) the past five years, covers the city’s news with a different perspective. Every month, he produces five to six video pieces and a handful of news briefs tailored to the Arab world. “It is common knowledge that the West dominates the UN’s discourse,” he points out.
For Assi, the international community’s bias is consequential. “Palestine’s aid from Western countries has been reduced significantly since the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict; from 2 billion dollars to 317 million, according to a recent report.” He concludes: “The UN needs to be an independent entity which does not cave into the pressure of financially stronger member states.”
A DEMANDING BEAT
The East-West tensions are often at the heart of UN reporting—as was the case for the many journalists covering the release of the controversial report on Xinjiang province in China from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The highly sensitive document was sent out just a few minutes before midnight, followed moments later by chief Michelle Bachelet’s permanent leave of office; a situation that left an exhausted crowd of correspondents frustrated in their requests for comment.
Antonio Broto, who has been writing from Geneva for the Spanish news agency EFE for the past four years, was one of the reporters who had to analyze the OHCHR’s document at the late hour: “It was annoying, but not that surprising for me. I was stationed in China before coming here, and I know how much transparency [is lacking] in the country. In the end, a big part of the job in Geneva is about being an efficient translator of complicated content. We get complex reports all the time that we have to summarize within tight deadlines. That’s what we’re here for.”
As a freelancer, Gabriela Sotomayor, who has been working as a UN correspondent since 2008, has a different approach. Covering the UN is not, for her, about summarizing reports but rather anticipating the impacts of such studies beyond Geneva. Originally employed by Notimex, a Mexican news agency, the outspoken specialist now writes for the weekly outlet Proceso and makes occasional on-air appearances during major events. Each week, she also puts her penmanship at the service of “Naciones Hundidas” (a pun that translates as “Sunken Nations”), a chronicle in the newspaper Eje Central dedicated to International Geneva’s shortcomings: “My job is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time, she says. I always need to find original angles to mainstream news and then tailor them to a Mexican audience. It’s a considerable task because there are so many things going on in this town.”
To make things harder, the Mexican columnist has found that her work has become more demanding with the current remote working trend. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s been harder to get information. People are often not on-site, while online press conferences leave little room for questions. One needs to ask the same thing in many ways and look for specialists to get quotes, especially on human rights issues,” she laments. Though she believes that “there is no conspiracy against journalists,” she highlights that the “increasing difficulty in accessing information is very convenient for the UN.”
Magali Beuchat, who was hired a little over a year ago by the Japanese agency Kyodo News, echoes Gabriela’s complaints. Her newcomer status, coupled with her geographical distance from Japan, has led her to realize how hard it can be to get a quote. “Access to information is not always easy due to the logistics behind the various UN agencies,” she admits. “WHO is completely off limits for most reporters and there are so many different spokespeople throughout the different agencies. I understand the difficulties endured by the communicators, who need to be transparent while accommodating member states, but these dynamics make my job extremely challenging.”
Beuchat and her colleagues are not the only ones striving to translate and explain—sometimes by scrutinizing it—the UN and the broader international Geneva ecosystem. Across the table, public affairs officials are trying to strike a balance between the journalists’ demands for transparency and their obligation to remain neutral while serving their institution and its member states. A feat that is arguably one of the toughest communication assignments in town.
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines
Edited by: Dan Wheeler