#11 The G|O Briefing, September 10, 2020


This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, we review the Fondation pour Genève’s report (launched this week) on Internet governance in International Geneva. It posits that Geneva is a “natural home for Internet governance.” Yet, it also identifies serious challenges for Digital Geneva to play a meaningful role at a time when geopolitics are in turmoil. The report is the second in a series the FPG is publishing on the State of Affairs in International Geneva. The first (published in December 2019 and available only in French and German) examines International Geneva’s health cluster (‘Pôle Santé’). It contains a useful  ‘International Geneva in Facts and Figures’ chapter at the beginning—we’ll come back to this further down in the briefing.

But first, a word on pandemic hoarders.

Not in the supermarket aisles this time, but vaccine hoarders. Ahead of yesterday’s (September 17, 2020) G20 Health and Finance Ministers virtual meeting to discuss progress and global gaps in pandemic preparedness and responses, Oxfam has released a statement warning that a “small group of rich nations have bought up more than half the future supply of leading COVID-19 vaccine contenders.” According to their analysis: “Wealthy nations representing just 13 percent of the world’s population have already cornered more than half (51 percent) of promised doses of leading COVID-19 vaccines.”  

Warning further that “companies simply do not have the capacity to make enough vaccines for everyone who needs one.” UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima was quoted as saying, "We in the AIDS movement have seen in the past how corporations use monopolies to artificially restrict supplies of life-saving medicines and inflate their prices.” Indeed, under the current system, if and when a vaccine is ready, it will be up to the company to decide whether to share the technology and allow other companies to produce it. If they don’t, that would mean limited vaccine production.

Oxfam specifically points to US-based biotech company Moderna (one of the leaders in the vaccine race) which has “received 2.48 billion dollars in committed taxpayer’s money” and says it “intends to make a profit from its vaccine and has sold the options for all of its supply to rich nations.” Moderna has already partnered with Swiss multinational Lonza to help beef up its production capacity and is launching a new hub in Basel. It confirms Switzerland is certainly safe … but it is a small consolation.  

International Geneva after COVID-19It’s becoming a bit of a truism to say that COVID-19 reinforces and amplifies existing trends. The Fondation Pour Genève's first report on facts and figures about International Geneva shows a marked reduction in the number of international conferences and of delegates and experts coming to Geneva in 2017-2018. It’s possible that concerns around cutting carbon footprints and costs, as well as the development of video conferencing technologies, started a downward trend. A trend that COVID-19 will certainly have dramatically amplified. In a future return to normal, the UN system in Geneva will need to grapple with what it should and shouldn’t be doing in person, which events can be held virtually, and what is mission critical, needing to be done face to face. While far more is being done online, COVID-19 distancing requirements also require more and larger rooms. The UN Office in Geneva’s Division of Conference Management (UNOG’s DCM) is one of the largest conference centers in Europe and provides infrastructure, planning, and other services. It sets up managers, interpreters, translators, editors, conference assistants, and technicians. Dealing with COVID-19 is requiring more resources, but it is also suffering from the liquidity crisis, and it is currently stretched to breaking. The UN’s treaty bodies, for example, have been struggling to function properly. Not just in scheduling times that work for all the experts' time zones (already a huge challenge for longer meetings), but also the videoconferencing software being used has been criticized by experts as it restricts interactivity. For its part, the Human Rights Council is having to run for a longer period of time despite its reduced program because of a lack of available rooms and services.

Similarly, International Geneva’s higher education institutions began classes this week amidst more pandemic confusion.

With so many central issues being raised—like how best to deliver classes and worries over financing (Geneva’s institutions’ reliance on international students means that finances will be put under pressure)—the pandemic is an opportunity for a rethink of the value and use of universities’ physical space, as well as their income structures. For one thing, if a university’s income is a function of the fees they charge and the number of students they attract, this creates a pretty clear incentive to lower marking standards. The result has been the creation of a system whose priority is to produce credentials for the job market rather than educate (defined how you like). There is no evidence of a rethink so far.  

And finally, The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (set up in 2011 by the HRC) released a 25 page report this week. Other than the ongoing conflict, Syrians are also in the grips of a deepening economic crisis and the impact of sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic—as the report states: “Civilian suffering is a constant and personal feature of this crisis.” Titled “No clean hands,” the commission examines continuing violations and abuses by “nearly every conflict actor controlling territory in Syria.” It concludes that Turkey has effective control of some of the Kurdish regions. At a press briefing on Tuesday, its chair was clear: “Turkey should act to prevent these abuses and ensure the protection of civilians in the areas under its control.”