October 22, 2020
The Geneva Observer
We hope you are keeping well and staying safe.
Today in The Geneva Observer, another Chinese show of force as Beijing denies Wikipedia official observer status at WIPO, John Zarocostas reports on how Wikipedia got caught up in the great US-Chinese rivalry at the heart of Geneva.
According to the San-Francisco based foundation behind it, Wikimedia is a “global movement whose mission is to bring free educational content to the world,” so it’s perhaps no surprise that Wikipedia is already blocked in China. The move itself however, was justified on the basis that they have a “Taiwan subsidiary.” It was supported by Russia, Iran and Pakistan—famously staunch defenders of the free flow of information.
Keen observers of the “scold war” between the US and China clearly see Beijing’s show of force as a symbolic response to Washington’s success in blocking the election of China’s candidate at the head of WIPO earlier this year to replace former D-G Francis Gurry. The EU joined forces with the US in that successful campaign, one of the last examples of cooperation between the two blocks around a multilateral organization. As we previously reported, this move led to the election of Singaporean Daren Tang, whose term effectively started on October 1.
Beijing’s swipe at Wikimedia is another clear example of how active China is at all levels and on all fronts when advancing its positions in multilateral organizations.
With an unpredictable US Presidential election looming just 12 days away, International Geneva is holding its collective breath for the result. The Geneva Observer understands that several of the main international organisations are putting any major discussions on hold until the elections, including those around the reform of the WTO, the reform of WHO and the investigation on WHO’s response to the pandemic.
As we all wait, we decided to ask Washington, DC-based e-commerce and trade expert Dr Susan Aaronson what a Biden trade posture would look like. You can read her informed piece here. Main takeaway: a Biden administration would not use trade policies to solve non-trade problems.
Also on the WTO, don’t miss former deputy governor of the Nigerian Central Bank Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu’s incisive op-ed on why the time has come for Africa to lead the organisation and why it matters.
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem:
The Multilateral Dialogue Geneva KAS Foundation has just published its second “Geneva Barometer” of the year covering some key developments. The Geneva barometer adds a wealth of analysis and contextualisation to some of the developments we cover regularly.
“The crisis is bringing the issue of the financing of multilateral organisations increasingly into focus. (…) a debate on reforming international organisations cannot be discussed independently of the issue of financing.”
(Full disclosure, The Geneva Observer is supported by KAS Geneva.)
An anatomical dissection of the Human Rights Council
The head of the Human Rights Council Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Eric Tistounet, launched his new book The UN Human Rights Council, A Practical Anatomy, at a hybrid event at the Geneva Academy’s Villa Moynier on Tuesday (October 20) (you can watch again here). Bertrand Ramcharan—former Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and someone who has written extensively on the UN’s human rights system—commented on the book during the event, particularly in relation to the failure of the body the HRC replaced, the Commission on Human Rights.
“Having lived through that period, and having seen the criticisms of the Commission, I have the strong feeling within me that history is repeating itself. That the Human Rights Council is now repeating the history of the human rights commission.”
Tistounet agreed that not repeating history was the central challenge for the HRC, but explained that there was one huge difference between the two: the HRC is far more flexible than the Commission ever was.
Tistounet argues that the Council functions as a sort of common law system: very little is codified, and the rest is based on precedents and practices. For him, this flexibility presents clear advantages, and it was no surprise that the HRC was the only UN body that was able to operate almost normally this year—adapting as it did to the pandemic’s restrictions. Whereas with the Commission, any change had to be agreed, codified and written which led to paralysis (Tistounet recalls an instance of not being able to agree on which member of the Bureau would lead a preliminary discussion on minuting procedures).
The disadvantage of the HRC’s system is that, from a practical perspective, it’s really hard to get into and fully understand. Tistounet’s complete anatomical dissection is therefore a must-have for anyone involved in or observing the Council.
And finally, along with around 100 other “emblematic buildings and monuments in Europe,” Geneva’s Jet d’eau will be lighting up in “UN blue” on Saturday evening (October 24) to celebrate the UN’s 75th anniversary. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that in the face of the COVID-19
“We face colossal challenges. With global solidarity and cooperation, we can overcome them. That’s what the United Nations is all about. The United Nations not only stands with you… The United Nations belongs to you and is you: ‘we the peoples’.”
All the best,
The Geneva Observer