The war in Ukraine is transforming the dynamics of International Geneva

On Tuesday, March 1, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was about to deliver his video message to the Human Rights Council (HRC), an entire contingent of more than one hundred diplomats representing forty countries, European and others, bolted out of their seats and left the room. They gathered in the hall outside and unfurled a Ukrainian flag, while Lavrov spun Moscow’s revisionist tale about Ukraine and ranted about the US and the West to an almost deserted room.

Among the dignitaries who stayed put was Damares Alves, the Brazilian minister for human rights, family, and health. Her boss, Jair Bolsonaro, had recently made a trip to Moscow and, pre-invasion, met with Vladimir Putin. He was given preferential treatment, sitting directly next to the Russian president, with whom he had a chummy talk. Why had he gone, and why had he not asked Putin to de-escalate? When The G|O’s Jamil Chade posed these questions to the Brazilian minister on the eve of the opening of the HRC’s meeting, she refused to answer, threatening instead to call UN security. These are telling scenes of the tense atmosphere at the UN in Geneva. They illustrate the speed and depth at which the invasion of Ukraine is fast reshaping the global political and moral landscape.


“There is no place for Russia’s narrative at the Human Rights Council,” a senior European diplomat stressed during the walk out. “Russia’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on the UN,” stated Evgeniya Filipenko, Ukraine’s Ambassador. A few hours later, standing outside the room, Uzra Zeya, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, told our group of reporters that this was a “pivotal moment for the world and for the UN Human Rights Council.” “We cannot ignore reality,” she stressed, “our obligations under the UN Charter, our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or accept the false narrative put forth by Russia as it violently invades a fellow Human Rights Council member.” At the UN however, etiquette endures: Lavrov, now prevented from travelling but for so long a familiar presence here, was introduced as “his excellency.” Still, the revulsion his speech inspired was palpable.

Downtown, meanwhile, Geneva’s financial and trading center was scrambling to assess the impact of the various sanctions imposed by the Swiss government on Putin’s network of oligarchs. It is a fair assumption that the same law firms and financial advisors that have made Geneva and Switzerland so attractive for Russian billionaires over the years are also hard at work mitigating the sanctions’ potential fallout. An investigation by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation has revealed that some of the wealthiest Kremlin-linked Russians currently established in this country are in fact not targeted by the Swiss sanctions. A real-estate broker in the city who deals with high-net-worth individuals tells The Geneva Observer that the Swiss government’s eventual decision to follow EU sanctions will have little impact on his business: “Wealthy Russians here have to comply with the law and have been monitored for years. The bulk of my clientele comes from France, Belgium and the UK.”

One early casualty of the war, however, has been the activities of the Honorary Russian Consul in Lausanne. Swedish billionaire Frederik Paulsen, in the news lately after it was revealed that he used to entertain prominent journalists and politicians on long trips to Siberia, announced on his foundation website that he had begun the process of “the closure of activities undertaken by the Consulate, sine die.”

The effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are widespread here. For International Geneva, multilateralism’s engine room, they will be profound and long lasting. This aggression cannot be erased, no matter how the situation evolves on the ground. The current crisis is of a completely unprecedented order: From Syria to Yemen, Afghanistan, Soudan and Myanmar, the humanitarian and human rights communities have had to deal with wars and humanitarian catastrophes before, but none of these were caused by a permanent member of the Security Council invading a sovereign country in blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter. Fiona Hill, former member of the U.S National Security Council under Trump and a foremost Russian expert, is spot on when she tells Politico that “Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle, not just between democracies and autocracies but in a struggle for maintaining a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force.”

Can Russia still be a member of the Human Rights Council? The WTO? Two US Congressmen have asked for its expulsion. For that matter, what about any of the other Geneva-based international organizations? With the HRC debating a Ukrainian resolution calling for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry on Russia, while the UNHCR, the ICRC and the humanitarian community at large is mobilizing its resources to respond to the unfolding tragedy, one has to wonder. These questions are now openly debated in Geneva. According to The G|O’s diplomatic sources, an almost certain consequence on an institutional level will be the failure of Russia’s candidature for the top post of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), creating a clear path for the only other candidate, American Doreen Bogdan-Martin.

The UN General Assembly’s overwhelming condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine has certainly offered a clear sign of Moscow’s growing isolation. Calls for a complete overhaul of the Security Council structure have been heard before; they will grow louder. Russia’s recent use of its veto to defeat a resolution condemning its attack on Ukraine has once more demonstrated the profound flaw of a body that regularly prevents international action in response to crises. In Geneva, as at the UN General Assembly in New York, the entirely new dynamics created by the Ukrainian crisis won’t be constrained by the veto system.

Irony of ironies, it may well be that by choosing naked aggression, Vladimir Putin has given a new lease on life to the “liberal international order” he was so bent on destroying. No doubt, after having suffered one of its most devastating blows, the resilience of the multilateral system and its ability to transform itself will also be tested here. But caution should also prevail—other delusions may still await us in these dark times.