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Why the US election matters greatly for Int'l Gva, more China/US at WTO, and the Hmong in Laos

The Geneva Observer

November 6, 2020


This article is a republished version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Friday November 6, 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, our attention—like most of International Geneva’s (and, frankly, the rest of the world’s)—is all on the results still coming through in the US elections. And while most eyes are on Washington (or on CNN’s John King and the ‘Magic Wall’), the stakes are higher for some agencies than others. Also, of very significant importance for International Geneva is the fact that, by keeping the Senate, the Republicans could be in a position to block or delay a number of executive branch positions, including ambassadors. The Republican Senate, for example, significantly delayed President Obama’s nomination of ambassadors to Geneva.

Organizations where the US is the principal stakeholder, such as ICRC, UNHCR, GAVI or the Global Fund, will probably see little difference under a Biden Presidency. But for WHO (where the US is on course to leave it under a second Trump term), the ILO (which can expect more engagement on labor issues from a democratic president), WTO (where debates will be less contentious and existential), Human Rights mechanisms (with potential reengagement with the Human Rights Council), Disarmament (traditionally the democrats have been more interested in disarmament) or Climate Change issues, a Biden administration would look very different.

Collectively, however, Joe Biden’s election could also break the current strong coalition of authoritarian States questioning the existing multilateral order that has coalesced around the Trump Administration: “l’internationaliste trumpienne” as one French commentator put it. Certain things will stay the same: Trump has left his mark on trade and the China issue will not go away, although it would be approached in a different way. In fact, Daniel Gross, Director of the European Center for Policy Studies, argues that the US should accept China’s rises (on The G|O website).

For now, another episode of the China US ‘scold war’ is playing out in a proxy war at the WTO.

Hong Kong has opened legal proceedings in the WTO challenging new labelling rules that were ushered in by the Trump administration after Beijing introduced tough security laws in Hong Kong. Under the executive order signed by President Donald Trump on July 14, which suspended preferential trade accords with Hong Kong (a full WTO member in its own right), all products made in Hong Kong—effective November 10—would have to be labelled ‘made in China’.

"This is something very political,” is how one WTO expert described the move to The Geneva Observer, saying it's linked to heightened trade tensions between the US and China and the tough law and order stance imposed by Beijing in its bid to clamp down on pro-democracy protestors. Stuart Harbinson, a former Hong Kong ambassador to the WTO, told The G|O:

“The [US’] action to date looks like a warning shot along the lines of – ‘we are not convinced about HK’s separate trade status and will be watching how you conduct yourselves.’”

"The amount of trade affected is quite small. However, Hong Kong regards this as an attack on its status as a separate customs territory and feels it has no choice but to challenge the measure,” Harbinson added.

A possible change of administration in the US could see trade and human rights issues even higher on the political agenda, a WTO expert said. Asked if the US administration could revisit and also slap punitive tariffs, Harbinson, who was also a special adviser to the WTO director-general, stated:

"I guess it is possible that the administration could revisit and take a harder line. I'm not sure, though, that they think this is a big issue. The election result—assuming Biden [wins]—might also mean they will leave things as they are."

UN’s Special Rapporteurs look at one of the most forgotten peoples in the world

They are often referred to as one of the most forgotten people in the world. Last week, ten of the UN’s Special Rapporteurs published a joint allegation letter sent to the Government of Laos PDR late August concerning the “alarming situation of the Hmong indigenous community.”

This letter points to information which alleges “indiscriminate attacks” on the Hmong community, “enforced involuntary disappearances, denying access to the rights to food, housing, health and safe drinking water.”

The Hmong are the third largest minority in Laos. During the Vietnam war, the Hmong were recruited by American security forces to try and stop the Vietnamese invasion of Northern Laos in the Secret War. After the American retreat, the Hmong were essentially left on their own. Since then, they have been routinely called bandits and persecuted as traitors. Although much of the population has emigrated out of Laos, it is alleged that, amongst other things, those remaining have faced “constant military attacks” by the Laotian military, and have been forced into hiding in the jungle around Northern Laos.

Laos does not recognise any indigenous groups, leaving them with little to no access to protections under national or international law. The last UN pronouncement on the subject was a 2009 UN High Commissioner for Refugee formal request to the Lao government to access 4000 Hmong persons who were deported from Thailand (in spite of UN appeals to halt the Thai deportation). Quite why there seems to be 10-year gap in action from the UN is unclear.

The most recent developments, however, are a good case study for understanding how Geneva’s human rights mechanisms work (or not) in practice. The Geneva Observer understands that the impetus for the allegation letter came along with civil society activism during and following the Laos government’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in January 2020. In particular, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization’s (UNPO) joint submission with the Congress of World Hmong People for that UPR round, which began a process of dialogue and consultations between them and the UN’s human rights mechanisms.

UNPO hopes that, on the basis of this action from the UN human rights experts, “the entire international community” will “put increasing pressure on the government of Laos to respond appropriately … and to cease the crimes being committed,” says the UN Representative of UNPO Mercè Monjé Cano.

And finally, the Konrad Adenauer’s office in Geneve (KAS Geneva) is hosting a discussion next Tuesday (November 10) on Health and Democracy: ‘Preparing democracies for pandemics: emerging questions in view of COVID-19’. It’s based on a BMJ (a top academic health journal) article on democracy and health:

“The coronavirus pandemic is not an advertisement for the healthy effects of democracy. … The mixed performance of democracies represents a departure from their success in confronting other health challenges, relative to other forms of governments.”

We may be supported by KAS Geneva, but we have no mixed feelings in recommending you check it out.

That’s it from us. Back to CNN.

All the best,