This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter
Today in The Geneva Observer, we start with an unanswered question at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and close with Russia, Iran, and the Perils of Post-Autocracy, an op-ed arguing that, if and when it happens, the collapse of each of those autocratic regimes is more likely to lead to a dangerous political vacuum than to a democratic transition.
In between these pieces, with Moscow threatening to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Jamil Chade reports on the nervousness, bordering on despair, expressed by the negotiators at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. He also has a few thoughts about the WTO Public Forum.
In last week’s Briefing, Sarah Zeines went backstage with the UN Press Corps. Today, she jumps the fence to report on the work of the UN Public Affairs officials. It's all below. As always, thank you for reading us and for sharing our Briefing far and wide.
A GUESSING GAME AROUND ITU
By Philippe Mottaz
Who at the International Telecommunication Union or among its member states decided—and why—to sit on a report about the damage inflicted by Russia on Ukraine’s telecommunications sector since the beginning of the war?
The question has led to much speculation among UN watchers here this week. We might never find out the answer, but the tale illustrates once more how Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine continues to grip the once relatively smooth workings of the multilateral system, including at its more technical agencies.
Undoubtedly, in this case, both the context and the actors involved explain the heightened interest in what might have otherwise been a simple bureaucratic matter. Today’s election of Doreen Bogdan-Martin as the organization’s new chief may have settled tensions for now, but with an outgoing Chinese Secretary-General and a contest for his successor that pitted a Russian candidate against an American, the scene was ripe for some intense speculations amongst the diplomatic community.
What is certain is that last Friday, September 23, the European Delegation to the UN in Geneva urged the ITU leadership to release the report on the damage done to Ukraine’s telecoms sector “at its earliest convenience.”
In diplomatic terms, the coordinated démarche delivered a clear message which can be translated as “do it now.” The letter addressed to outgoing ITU S-G Houlin Zhao, stated that “as Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine continues, marked by targeted attacks on critical telecommunication infrastructure, failures of telecoms services and outages of the mobile networks,” the release of the report would be “crucial” to allow “interested delegations” to make “informed decisions” at the ongoing Plenipotentiary Conference (PP22) in Bucharest. Signed by Lotte Knudsen, the EU ambassador to Geneva, and her colleague Vaclav Balek, of the Czech Republic, the letter recalled that the requested assessment on the damage had been mandated by an ITU resolution “co-sponsored by more than 46 countries,” including 18 members of the organization’s Council.
UN watchers and Western diplomatic sources offered several explanations to The G|O for the delay in the report’s publication, with some pointing the finger at Houlin Zhao himself, as his country was supportive of the Russian candidate.
Others, however, speculated that Washington may have asked for the document’s release to be delayed until after today’s election. “To be honest, in the current climate, with such a tense situation, it was unlikely that the report would be published before today’s vote,” a keen observer of the Geneva multilateral scene told The G|O. They turned out to be right.
In a letter dated yesterday (September 28), the outgoing ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao informs the EU Delegation to Geneva that "an interim assessment report is being prepared " and will undergo review by the ITU services after the Plenipotentiary Conference.
THE CONFERENCE ON DISARMAMENT IS WORRIED. WILL IT FINALLY BE ABLE TO ACT? IT APPEARS UNLIKELY...
By Jamil Chade
Russia’s renewed and repeated threats to use nuclear weapons as it faces territorial setbacks in Ukraine are being taken extremely seriously by the US and the EU. Nor do they go unheard at the Conference on Disarmament—‘the CD, as the Conference is almost unanimously referred to here, both in English and in French.
Though the CD has been in a profound torpor for about a quarter of a century now, unable to negotiate anything or even adopt a working agenda since the negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT ) signed in 1996, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats of using nuclear weapons have made it once more the theater of severe tensions.
So far, hopes that the body could resolve them and pave the way to a solution have been completely dashed—and, we are told, it is unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon. Case in point: during a recent debate on possible options for the provision of ‘negative security assurances’, the discussions exploring the path to an eventual treaty foundered rapidly among bitter disagreements.
In disarmament doctrine, negative security assurance refers to the guarantee that states which possess nuclear weapons will not use or threaten to use them against countries without a nuclear arsenal. For Ukraine—which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, agreed to surrender its nuclear arsenal in exchange for guarantees that its territorial integrity would be respected by Russia—the CD debate was seen as the perfect opportunity to assess the ability of the Conference and its sixty-five members to reach an agreement on negative security assurance.
With Russia threatening to use its nuclear arsenal against Ukraine, the discussion landed before the CD in August. It was, say diplomatic sources involved in the discussions, a tense and uneasy exchange, as Russia repeated that “all options are on the table.” Led by the EU, several governments took the floor to insist that “the guarantees currently provided by the nuclear states are not sufficient” and that a new treaty is more necessary than ever. The debate has obvious political overtones. One source told The G|O that both Russia and Ukraine are using the CD as part of their respective global diplomatic offensive. Nevertheless, there is a growing consensus among CD watchers that the situation might be bleaker than ever, with Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, having decided to wage war in complete violations of the UN Charter, and that it is now the very model of collective security which is now at stake. Russia and the United States remain by far the world’s biggest nuclear powers, with the two countries holding around 90% of the planet’s nuclear warheads. Russia has 5,977 warheads while the United States has 5,428, with China possessing 350, France 290, and the United Kingdom 225.
The US has included negative security assurances in its nuclear policy since 1978. In its latest iteration, it states that it “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Ukraine is a non-nuclear weapon state signatory of the NPT.
Russia, by contrast, in its declarations about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, insists that the use of nuclear weapons can be justified according to its nuclear doctrine when “aggression against the Russian Federation with conventional weapons threatens the very existence of the state”—a wording used on Tuesday (September 27) by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, who said Russia “was not bluffing,” adding that NATO was too scared of “nuclear apocalypse” and would not enter the conflict.
RESPONDING TO EVENTS OR SETTING THE AGENDA? BEHIND THE SCENE WITH THE UN SPOKESPEOPLE
By Sarah Zeines
“I speak for the UN Secretariat in Geneva,” Alessandra Vellucci tells us. Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) since 2016, Vellucci is the leading voice of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the second largest branch of the organization in the world after its headquarters in New York.
From human rights to disarmament and development, UNIS crystallizes many of the UN’s key messages in Geneva thanks to its privileged location and extended network of UN bodies. It’s a complex system in which assessing a communicator’s relevance on a given subject can often be confusing. “We periodically receive requests that pertain to the Secretary-General, but we cannot speak on such matters without prior clearance,” highlights Vellucci as we embark on a 360° tour of her service.
Prioritizing messages and permanent correspondents
While New York’s information centers sleep, UNIS uses its six-hour advantage to keep Geneva’s deadline-ridden reporters at bay; providing commentary for journalists when possible, or apologetically withholding a response when publicizing information on operations would compromise communication strategies. Catering to the press is far from the only job of the Information Service. In a temporary set of offices linking the Palais’ cafeteria to its archive building, Vellucci leads a staff of around twenty. Technicians monitor screens with live footage from the UN’s various conference rooms, while public information officers manage its content. In an adjoining set of cubicles, UN journalists select stories to release in both English and French, simultaneously working on an upcoming documentary funded by the World Food Program and shot across four continents. The bustling energy is not unlike that of a small newsroom.
On this particular rainy day, the tone, as often at the UN, is grave. The protests in Iran and Russia take center stage, followed by an Ebola outbreak—news items that leave little room for other important subjects, such as floods in the Philippines or an upcoming United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) conference.
This hierarchy of content demands significant patience from spokespeople responsible for communicating less pressing matters—patience that “generates frustration,” Vellucci acknowledges. “Whoever wishes to speak at the briefing has to let us know before 10 am. The hotter statements come first. Announcements come at the end,” she summarizes. Reporters also receive differentiated treatment, depending on their status within the organization. “We indulge the journalists with permanent press accreditation by periodically sending them briefing summaries and giving them extra attention when necessary,” Vellucci tells us. “Often, those with temporary badges come for specific events and do not master the UN’s complexity. It’s important to have people here who understand the full scope of our work.”
The UN’s slow but sure shift toward digital media
The VIP treatment of resident journalists practiced by UNIS is a declining occurrence today. The rise of social media, paralleled by the demise of traditional media, has rarefied news agency positions at the UN. Though a solid batch of correspondents still occupies offices on campus—as portrayed in last week’s piece, communications teams throughout UNOG have adjusted to the world’s contemporary mode of content consumerism.
“Unfortunately, most of the media [organizations] covering the UN from Geneva have downsized over the years,” observes Jean Rodriguez, who has been Chief of the Information Unit for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) since 2009. “Our work involves a news component, of course, but also all the content for social media,” says Michele Zaccheo, the documentary filmmaker turned Chief of Radio and TV at UNIS, who we encountered briefly on site.
In fact, the UN’s shift towards Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and, more recently, TikTok, is just the tip of the communications iceberg. Elsewhere in the organization’s ecosystem, digital marketers and tech-savvy professionals are gaining momentum, as many UN information chiefs attest. “At the beginning of my career at the UN, 20 years ago, our success was measured by having full pages in newspapers with a positive take on our messages. Today, the job is about how many likes, views, reactions, and tweets we get,” acknowledges Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal, Head of the Perception Change Project (PCP). “In our case, measuring success is also about the number of partners we attract. It’s about people calling us and asking how they can replicate our messages.”
PCP, which aims to promote International Geneva as a catalyst for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), has made some notable social media moves, namely rallying youth for its 170 Actions to Embrace a Sustainable Lifestyle. “The general audience doesn’t exist anymore,” insists Poltier-Mutal. “Nowadays, we have to tailor information to different target audiences through a variety of channels. The job has become much more complex and requires technical knowledge.” Rolando Gómez, who has been with the UN for 30 years and currently serves as spokesman for the Human Rights Council (OHCHR), has grown his unit by hiring two communications experts specializing in social and multi-media. “When the Council was created in 2006, I was asked to establish a communications plan for the new body. At the time, my post was something between being a spokesperson and a communications officer. As our agendas became more packed and meetings more regular, I ended up building a small team which is increasingly active on the digital front. Prioritizing social media has proven very successful in enhancing our visibility and raising awareness. Our Twitter followers have more than doubled since adopting the new approach and expanding our team.”
Jenifer Fenton worked as a producer for CNN and Al Jazeera before joining the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, and echoes her UN counterparts. “My career started in 1999, when editing was still a tape-to-tape affair,” she remembers. “Luckily, I have two children who give me next-generation assistance on social media. As a communicator, it’s important to know who you need to reach and what platforms they are using.” For other UN bodies, traditional methods remain pertinent—as is the case for UNECE. The comms team is composed of four people: Chief Jean Rodriguez, a graphic designer, and two copywriters. “Social media is an increasingly important aspect of our work,” Rodriguez insists. “But traditional media have by no means become less relevant. We must also keep experts, member states, and academia informed.
In addition to media and social media, these people are mostly reached through dedicated newsletters, website publications, and reports.”
Public image and constructive journalism
With amplified social media presence comes an increased risk of public controversy, and repeated Human Rights violations and controversial management of the health crisis have attracted a hail of criticism to UNOG in recent years. Consequently, its public representation must continuously be micro-managed. “Image monitoring is part of the job,” acknowledges Jean Rodriguez. In an attempt to mitigate negative press, “constructive journalism”—a solution-oriented take on the news introduced to UNOG by Michael Moller back in 2017—has been an efficient way for communicators to put a more positive spin on controversial messages.
“Positive news is trendy now,” agrees Aziyadé Poltier-Mutal. “I know that journalists tend not to like the approach, as it carries the risk of introducing opinions into fact-based news pieces, but I believe that it’s a good way of making a positive impact on society through the media.”
Though the solution-oriented approach has been spreading like wildfire, repeated violations from authoritarian states including Russia and China make communications on human rights matters particularly challenging. “I think that there is a lot of unfair criticism that comes our way,” insists Rolando Gómez. “When distortions are made, I step in; for instance, by sending a letter to the editor responsible for a factually biased article and addressing the issue through press conferences and social media. My job is to try to set the record straight while monitoring what’s being said on a given matter.” It can sometimes be an uphill battle, however, as Gómez points out ruefully: “at the end of the day, people will write what they want.”
RUSSIA, IRAN, AND THE PERILS OF POST-AUTOCRACY
By Robert D. Kaplan*
Sometimes a news cycle constitutes more than just noise. It provides a loud, uncanny signal about what may lie beyond the horizon. That happened this month when a more hopeful, dangerous, and radically different geopolitics came into view. Within literally a few days of each other, we have witnessed the near-collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine and the humiliation of a regime in the streets of Iranian cities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soldiers revealed themselves to be little more than a mob on the move; having tortured and mistreated (%22) the civilians under their control, they abruptly abandoned their positions and literally ran away from advancing Ukrainian forces. Putin’s fascist-trending national security state may be turning to ashes. His threat of nuclear war only reveals that autocratic regimes are at their most dangerous in the years before they expire. As for Iran, the regime’s disrepute among its own subjects has been on full display, with massive protests engulfing dozens of cities and crowds demanding the end of the Islamic Republic.
The rage, spread by social media, was ignited by the death at the hands of the so-called morality police of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for not properly wearing her hijab. But the fuel was decades of repression and corruption and a ruined economy. The war in Ukraine has already changed European and, indeed, global geopolitics.
But the end of Putin’s regime would lead to far more incalculable shifts: the Russian Federation itself could break apart while NATO and the European Union expand eastward. Likewise, the fall of Iran’s clerical regime would alter the entire Middle East, virtually ending the decades-old Sunni-Shia sectarian war and vastly improving the strategic position of Israel and the conservative Arab states. Iraq might even stabilize as a result, to say nothing of Lebanon and Syria.
Neither the Russian nor the Iranian regime is now specifically threatened. Each could hang on for years. But this month provided a glimpse of their eventual demise. Because Putin cannot win or even get a draw in Ukraine, and because the mullahs are openly despised among broad swaths of their own population, their downfall should be viewed as a question of when not if.
In a world where news of one military defeat, or one outrage, or obscure and symbolic act can spread instantaneously on social media, men like Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sleep uneasily.
But while these regimes have no real future, there is no clear and institutionally viable alternative to replace them, and that is where the geopolitical danger lies. After all, we are not talking about just any two countries. Russia is a nuclear-armed great power. Iran is the major pivot state of the Middle East and Central Asia, on the brink of becoming a nuclear power.
Even when democracy succeeds, it does not emerge overnight in states with no real tradition of it. Years of turmoil often ensue. The 1990s in Russia, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were a period of rampant crime, economic chaos, and mismanaged reforms that left roughly 70% of Russians living at or below the poverty line.
It was from this maelstrom of dysfunctional democracy that Putin finally emerged. Ironically, Iran went through much less of a painful, drawn-out political transition in 1979, because democracy was never the mullahs’ goal. Instead, they quickly replaced the Shah’s autocracy with clerical despots. But the mullahs have so destroyed their society that a post-theocratic Iran could be ungovernable or even disintegrate along various ethnic and geographical lines.
That is why the democratic triumphalism that will accompany these regimes’ downfall in the coming years will rapidly give way to the sobering recognition of an awesome political void in Moscow and Tehran, with perhaps more radical forces – Russian ultra-nationalists and Iranian Revolutionary Guards – waiting in the wings. The more destructive a tyranny has been, the more pervasive the subsequent anarchy often is. In this chaotic world wrought by the end of tyranny, the search for order will predominate. Among intellectuals and policymakers, the fear of anarchy will replace the fear of autocracy. This is easier to imagine when one considers just how difficult it will be to stabilize the utterly broken states and societies that Putin and the mullahs will have left in their wake. The decline of autocracy will only make the work of democracy that much harder.
Robert D. Kaplan is Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
TONE DEAFNESS AT THE WTO
With Geneva the human rights capital of the world and Qatar preparing to host the controversial 2022 World Cup, the presence of FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the WTO Public Forum raised eyebrows here this week. Despite the Gulf State pushing back against criticisms of its human rights record and mistreatment of foreign workers hired to build the infrastructure—never mind the ecological nightmare of vast air-conditioned venues—many attendees thought Infantino’s presence denoted an acute form of tone-deafness by the WTO leadership. During the world football supremo’s visit, the two institutions signed an agreement on FIFA’s role in supporting countries in Africa, but in a broad conversation about football’s economic role in the world, Infantino mostly rehashed self-serving slogans and platitudes. It did not represent the best example of what Dr. Ngozi, WTO boss, calls “thinking outside the box,” one of her mottos. On this one, we call foul.
THE END OF THE UNTOUCHABLES?
For the first time, two of the permanent members of the Security Council—the P5—are facing scrutiny at the Human Rights Council (HRC). In its ongoing 51st Session, the Council will debate a resolution to monitor the situation inside Russia.
Alongside this, and following extensive diplomatic activity, the US and like-minded countries put forward a draft decision to hold a debate in China, which will be voted on next week. For its proponents, the draft decision on China is meant to ensure that the Council would follow up on the recent UN report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Strong action was needed since the report had not been mandated by the HRC, and there was no formal obligation for the Council to follow it up.
Moscow and Beijing strongly oppose the Council’s decision, seeing it as further proof that human rights are being weaponized and politicized. Activists and human rights defenders, on the other hand, see it as a sign that the era in which the P5 have been ‘untouchable’ might be coming to an end.
SURPRISINGLY, IN LATIN AMERICA, LEFT AND RIGHT NOW AGREE ON VENEZUELA
Another of the resolutions on the table at the Council calls for an extension to the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into crimes committed by Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela. In a surprising turn of events, both the left-wing Chilean government of Gabriel Boric and Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right Brazilian administration have co-sponsored the resolution
Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Sarah Zeines
Guest Contributor: Robert D. Kaplan
Edited by: Dan Wheeler