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Guterres launches month of UN climate action, Cannabis reclassified, and Syria, UPI, WIPO, and WTO

The Geneva Observer

December 3, 2020


This article is a republished version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Thursday December 3, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content the moment it's published, straight in your inbox.


We hope you’re keeping well and safe.

Today in The Geneva Observer, the UK is the first country to give regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine and will begin delivering the programme next week. And while this is unquestionably good news, we at The G|O are not above looking a gift horse in the mouth. The fine words about global solidarity from the beginning of the pandemic are about to be tested by reality. Will countries potentially give up on receiving batches of vaccine in favour of distribution to vulnerable populations elsewhere? Will governments from richer countries face domestic political repercussions for hogging vaccine doses? History would tend to say no.

In Europe though, the immediate big row is over whether to allow skiing this winter. France considers random border checks to stop skiing abroad, while Swiss health minister Alain Berset has said that Switzerland “does not react to pressure from other countries.” In any case, “there is no pressure on us, but there may be difficulty for Switzerland’s reputation if there are sudden outbreaks all over Europe and others would say it is coming from Switzerland.”

The row has now reached WHO. “It’s not just about skiing, it’s a much broader issue,” says Dr Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s Emergencies Programme. “The real issues are going to come at airports, on buses taking people to and from ski resorts, ski lifts and pinch points in the skiing experience where people come together in large numbers, not to mention the après-ski that so many people seem to enjoy.” Remember Verbier, or Ischgl.

Will you still be able to ski in 2050, though? Or we will have committed “climate suicide” before, a possibility that UN Secretary-General Guterres took very seriously in his speech on climate change yesterday, kicking off a month of UN climate action.

Also in the Briefing: the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs removes cannabis from the highest category of measures; Syrian peace talks continue in Geneva; and Libra is back!

“The state of the planet is broken”

That was UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ blunt assessment at an address to New York’s Columbia University. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back—and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.,” the UN chief argued forcefully.

His address came on the back of a UN Environment Programme report which found that as things stand, countries are on track to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement call for a 1.5°C temperature limit. Additionally, a World Meteorological Organization’s “State of the Climate Report” said that 2020 was set be one of the warmest years on record, while the warmest six years recorded have all been since 215. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has also just published a report identifying climate change as the biggest threat to natural World Heritage, threatening as it does a third of natural World Heritage sites.

Guterres’ remarks launch a month-long push of UN Climate actions. Next up is the Climate Summit on December 12 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Accords—a more positive affair given the expectation of the US’ return to the fold. But behind the scenes, discussions are already ongoing. For example, to finalise UNEP’s “Beyond 2020” Biodiversity and Chemicals and Waste frameworks. The UN had set itself a goal of achieving the sound management of chemicals and minimize their adverse effects on human health and the environment by 2020. It’s been clear for several years that those targets would not be reached and decisions on how to move forward were expected to be taken this year, however COVID-19 related delays mean the dialogue continues until 2021.

For Guterres, the pandemic is an opportunity for the world to reset (read our piece on the Battle for Lake Geneva over where the reset is defined) in a more equitable and just way, reducing its carbon footprint and stopping the biodiversity crisis. “The door is open; the solutions are there. … I have detailed an emergency, but I also see hope.”

Joe Biden has made fighting climate change a priority of his campaign and he’s staying on course during his transition. The US’ return to the Paris Agreement will undoubtedly change the dynamics, particularly if China implements its most ambitious decarbonization program ever, recently announced by Xi Jinping. In a piece you can read on our website, Erik Berglöf, Chief economist of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank assesses the credibility of Beijing’s plan and its importance in a changing global context.

The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs removes cannabis from the highest category of measures

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime’s governing body narrowly voted yesterday to remove cannabis and cannabis resin from the highest level of classification in the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, following a WHO Expert Committee recommendation from 2019.

The decision to move cannabis from the same level as heroin and other opioids into the same category as cocaine (due to the “high rates of public health problems arising from cannabis use”) is still a far cry from decriminalisation.

The decision is “very welcome” says Khalid Tinasti, director of the Geneva-based Secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy—a high-level panel of world leaders including Ruth Dreifuss, Louise Arbour, Helen Clark, and others. Tinasti added, however, that while it is “a welcome move that shows that the change has started, it is also a disappointing one since much political capital has been wasted on a limited technical issue that will not change much the reality of cannabis in the world. Overall, the UN did not recognize the therapeutic value of cannabis; it only stopped questioning that it has any medical value.”

Changing a drug’s classification is not simple. Two major international treaties (from 1961 and 1971) essentially codify the internationally applicable control measures on the availability of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances. In them, specific substances are categorised into schedules which determine the level of control. Essentially, WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) is tasked with reviewing the existing literature on a substance and suggests which schedule in the Convention would be appropriate. That submission is then recommended by the WHO’s D-G who sends it to the UN Secretary-General, who then submits it to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs for a vote. This is what happened with cannabis this week.

The G|O understands that one issue is that WHO has shown little interest in getting involved in drug policy, despite enormous pressure from many governments and civil society.

Asked by The G|O why it was important that the international law relating to narcotic drugs is loosened, Tinasti responded:

“It is not only important, it is key for the relevance of international cooperation itself. International law states strongly that no drugs should be used for recreation, yet consumption, production (both agricultural and synthetic) and trafficking have never been higher since data is collected. Prices go down constantly, more potent substances are available, and prevention has little credibility because it overstates the potential harms.

Reform and change are about our future societies, and to what extent those that are decision-makers in the global community are ready to accept that the reality on the field is what matters. It is a matter of providing the right tools for successful drug control, not put in place a strict legislative and punitive arsenal as the sole response to drug use that is as diverse as humans on earth.”

Predicting China's trolling diplomats

It seems there is no escaping the “trolling” diplomacy which we reported on a few weeks back. Amidst growing tensions, Australia and China are escalating their war of words after China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson fabricated an image purporting to show an Australian soldier cutting the throat of an Afghan child, after allegations of war crimes committed by 39 Australians soldiers in Afghanistan. Australians’ fury at the tweet is everywhere to read. Some Chinese commentators, however, are remarking that it has allowed Australian PM Scott Morrison to deflect the attention from the soldiers’ alleged crimes.

GitHub, the Microsoft owned open-source platform even offers an AI powered Hua Chunying “simulator,” named after China’s Foreign Ministry Master Troller. As questions about the new US administration’s policy on trade dominate the political agenda, a South China Morning Post journalist facetiously asked the simulator what would China respond if “the Martians were to launch a protectionist trade policy.” The simulator responded: “The Martians launched a trade protectionism policy to intervene in China’s internal affairs, which seriously violated international law and the basic norms of international relations—a naked act of hegemony.”

According to press reports, the simulator was created for fun, but the use of AI in foreign policy is a serious matter attracting significant attention. It is of particular interest and importance for International Geneva where several initiatives are under way to study the impact of AI on diplomacy and on conflict prevention and resolution.

Elswehere in the ecosystem

  • Syria

All this week, Members of the of the Syrian Government and opposition have been meeting in closed, paired down sessions at the Palais des Nations. It is the fourth Constitutional Committee meeting, and it is happening in “small groups” due to COVID-19 restrictions. Almost 10 years since the beginning of the civil war that has embroiled Syria, both groups are not expecting substantive progress. The modest objective, stated by the UN, is to build trust in the process.

“We all know the Committee has not made the kind of progress we had hoped for,” Deputy Special Envoy Khawla Matar said, briefing the UN Security Council. “The commitment of the Syrian parties to the package of two meetings and with agreed agendas presents an important opportunity for members to engage in good faith in a business-like manner to move forward the political process.”

  • Some worrisome news from the Inter Parliamentarian Union

The IPU has released its yearly figures on the human rights abuses experienced by parliamentarians around the world in the lead-up to Human Rights Day on December 10. There has been a progressive upward trend in acts of intimidation and violence since the 1970s, but the trend has accelerated since 2016, with women MPs suffering disproportionately. In 2020 the IPU Committee examined the cases of 552 parliamentarians from 42 countries whose rights were allegedly violated. Eighty-three of them, from 13 countries, were new this year, with 43 reported from Venezuela alone.

  • China get consolation at WIPO

At WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization), the incoming Director General, Singaporean Daran Tang's senior management team selection got the formal nod from the agency's Coordination Committee at a meeting today (December 3, 2020). In a conciliatory move, Tang named Chinese Binying Wang, who lost a leadership race to Tang, as one of the four Deputy Director-Generals.

  • WTO’s Trips Council continues to discuss the COVID-19 related Intellectual Property waiver

An informal meeting was held to continue discussion on the South African and Indian proposal for a COVID-19 related intellectual property waiver. The Council has until the end of December to reach an agreement on the proposal. IT is expected a report of the discussions will be submitted to WTO’s General Council session on December 16-17.

And finally, Libra slides into its own Diem.

Libra, the blockchain-based payment system that would also include a private currency being proposed by a consortium including Facebook has officially rebranded as Diem. Whether it will be Carpe’d, however, remains to be seen. Cryptocurrencies, led by Bitcoin, reached an all time high in late November, only to slump later. But one thing is clear, cryptocurrencies are here to stay and will at some point become mainstream. Switzerland and particularly Geneva do not need to be convinced: they have been leading the efforts to regulate the cryptosphere, which explains in turn why the Libra Foundation opted to be based here.

All the best,

The Geneva Observer