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The US' return to human rights, Int'l Gva and COVID-19, and the World Health Assembly resumes at WHO

The Geneva Observer

November 12, 2020


This article is a republished version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Thursday November 10, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content the moment it's published, straight in your inbox.


We hope you are keeping well and staying safe.

Today in The Geneva Observer, G|O contributor John Zarocostas explains the significance of a new UNCTAD report for some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic: seafarers. As you will read, their lot is not to be envied.

And Philippe Mottaz writes on the Biden administration’s stated intention to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy. The last US president to take such a pro-active human rights approach was Jimmy Carter. And many in Washington today, including some conservatives, think adopting elements of Carter’s policies, albeit for a different time, might contribute to repairing American leadership. With authoritarianism growing in the world, there seem to be a new emerging consensus that defending human rights is a path to greater global security.

The US’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) exposes the damage of the Trump Administration

Biden’s human rights approach stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s record both domestically and on the international stage. A poor record that was made extremely clear from reports presented during the US’ Universal Periodic Review session last Monday (November 9, 2020). Since 2018, the US has not accepted any requests for invitations for official visits from the UN’s Human Rights Special Procedures and the US has not responded to many of their communications. Famously, it also withdrew from the Human Rights Council, as well as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. In April 2019 it revoked the visa of the International Criminal Court Prosecutor investigation potential war crimes by US forces and their allies in Afghanistan. More recently—and as we have discussed previously in the Briefing—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ‘Commission on Unalienable Rights’ published a report which, according to Amnesty International, rejects “the interpretive authority of the UN and other international human rights bodies.” Indeed, according to the US’ own submission to the UPR, “No state, organization, or tribunal, including the committees that monitor implementation of treaties, has any authority to impose, change, or expand through interpretation any treaty obligation to which the United States is a party.” Several weeks ago the US also co-organized and signed the “Geneva Consensus Declaration,” which brought a coalition of countries, described by an insider as the “axis of regression,” around the table for a purported human rights declaration that specifically undermined the human rights frameworks and re-evaluated protections from discrimination for women, LGBTI persons and others. Finally, the US’ decision, as the largest bilateral donor to global health programs, to restrict foreign assistance related to abortion has also been hugely detrimental to the rights of women around the world.

These issues, amongst another raft of domestic problems were heavily criticised by many during the oral presentations and interactive dialogue at the US’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session on Monday.

The UPR is one of the most ground-breaking mechanisms of the Human Rights Council. Formally conducted by a working group within the Human Rights Council, with three Council members chosen to take point on each State’s review, it is a cooperative peer-review mechanism for the assessment and advancement of human rights. Between 40 and 50 States are reviewed each year during UPR sessions held three times a year here in Geneva. We are currently coming towards the end of the third cycle of reviews, slated to conclude in 2021 (meaning that by the end of 2021, every State will have been reviewed three times).

The UPR process involves the submission of reports from the concerned state, civil society and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). These three reports are then presented orally and are followed by an interactive dialogue (this is what happened last Monday). The working group then prepares a final report of the comments, with recommendations that can be accepted or rejected by the State. The report is then adopted by the Council and the State will report on its implementation during the next UPR cycle.

The emphasis is on State cooperation, but the process also involves the formal engagement of NGOs: one of the three basic reports is essentially a synthesis of civil society contributions, providing a crucial opportunity for civil society to express their concerns and bring attention to possibly overlooked problems. The relevant document for the US presented this session was established on the basis of 139 stakeholders’ submissions and itemised the numerous ways the US administration has damaged the international human rights system (see above).

International Geneva and the COVID-19 Crisis

Our colleague Stéphane Bussard—International Geneva correspondent for Le Temps—has written two pieces this week on the negative impact of the pandemic on International Geneva (here and here). Main takeaway: the COVID-19 crisis compounded by the UN system’s liquidity crisis is severely impacting the functioning of international Geneva—at its best a hub of various actors all working on the same topics.

Every practitioner The G|O has spoken to on this issue echoes similar concerns. On one hand, the acceleration towards digital participation has the potential for opening up spaces for participation to actors and stakeholders that are not normally able to get to Geneva—and indeed it already has. On the other hand, the reduction of physical meetings risks losing the important, if sometimes intangible, work, meetings, advocacy (buttonholing even) that happens in the corridors and cafés around physical meetings.

The economic impact of the crisis is equally worrisome for the canton’s economy. The hospitality sector is suffering most, with no clear signs that the situation will ever get back to what it was. Between the new digital practices and the UN’s determination to reduce its carbon footprint by reducing travel—a process further accelerated by the liquidity crisis—International Geneva might be undergoing a complete transformation.

WHO's Virtual World Health Assembly resumed this week

In highlighting the "gap between WHO's member states' expectations and requests vis-à-vis the organization and its de facto capacity to fulfill them," Germany called on member states to end the financing "déjà vu" and actually increase their contributions. In this regard, it has proposed that WHO report on its various financing efforts over the past 15 years and explore the connection between support from members and its ability to do its work, and add an agenda item on sustainable financing to its governing board meeting in January.

And finally, after 2020—the International Year of Nurses and Midwives—2021 was designated as the International Year of Health and Care Workers. Princess Muna al-Hussein of Jordan, at the opening of the WHA, stated that “applause without action is no longer acceptable.” We previously reported on the International Council of Nurses’ call for standardized and systematic collection of data on healthcare worker infections. Their director, Howard Catton, added that “while the public show of support has been absolutely amazing, health workers need more than applause and words to continue to provide vital care” and called on “the WHA to commit to take action.” Words that, no doubt, the seafarers could agree with.

All the best,

The Geneva Observer