2022: key takeaways for international Geneva

The UN Human Rights Council holds a special session on the war in Ukraine, on 12 May 2022. The year 2022 was rattled by Russia’s invasion. (Keystone/AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

From famine in the Horn of Africa to human rights probes on the Ukraine war to pandemics treaty talks to a visit from the Taliban, here are the key events that marked 2022 for international Geneva.

A year which we hoped would bring some respite from crisis mode came onto the stage by the sound of marching boots. The Covid-19 pandemic, which had rattled the world for the previous two years, lost its limelight during the first months of 2022 when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February upended the lives of millions of Ukrainians who would flee their homes and many more globally who would suffer from the ripple effects of the war.

In International Geneva, work continued as usual in some organisations despite spillovers from the war, while others were shaken to their core, raising fundamental questions about their way of working. We look back at what dominated the agenda here in 2022 and what to watch out for next year.

War at the heart of Europe

Since Russian troops crossed the border on 24 February, UN aid agencies and other humanitarian actors scrambled to respond. Groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Red Cross movement, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), UNICEF, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), all of which had been active in Ukraine for years, massively stepped up their actions in the country this year, helping civilians caught in the crossfire access food, shelter and basic services.

A complex issue the ICRC has been working on is visiting prisoners of war. The organisation has reached hundreds of prisoners since the start of the conflict, but access has unfortunately been “sporadic” so far, it has said. But the ICRC welcomed “important progress” earlier this month when it visited prisoners on both sides, with delegates able to check on their conditions, treatment and share long-awaited news with their families. Achille Després, an ICRC spokesperson in Ukraine, said the organisation hoped the development would lead to more regular access in the future.

With the reign of Peter Maurer coming to an end this year, it will be up to the new boss, Mirjana Spoljaric, to push forward on this sensitive issue.

Humanitarian chaos

While a show of unprecedented solidarity from donors may have alleviated the crisis in Ukraine from the start, humanitarian actors were quick to warn that it was being done at the expense of other global crises spiralling out of control.

In the Horn of Africa, a myriad of challenges including drought, disruptions to grain supplies and rising prices caused by the war in Ukraine fuelled the worst food crisis in 40 years, where 22 million people are now in need of assistance. Despite this, the World Food Programme’s pleas for more funding were repeatedly ignored throughout the year.

“We don’t have the luxury of just focusing on what needs to be done today,” Michael Dunford, the World Food Programme’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa, warned in November.  “We also need to start preparing for the next shock – whether that’s the next drought, the next flood, or the next crisis.”

Elsewhere, such as in the Americas, Geneva’s humanitarian agencies strive to fund multiple crises such as in Haiti, where heightened gang violence has complicated aid access, while migration from Venezuela, now amounting to over 7.1 million, continues to be one of the most underfunded crises globally.

On 13 December, the UN launched a record appeal for $51.5 billion to help 339 million people it expects will require aid  in 2023.

A ‘beacon of hope’

On the trade front, the UN  tried to ease some of the pressure on markets to lower food prices  by brokering two deals in July to allow for shipment of grains, foodstuffs and fertilisers from Ukrainian ports as well as Russia to global markets. Around 14 million tonnes of food were able to be shipped through the Black Sea deal, according to the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul, which is responsible for the operation. The deal has been hailed by the UN secretary general António Guterres as a “beacon of hope”.

The secretary general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Rebecca Grynspan, who coordinated part of negotiations, said at a press briefing on 15 December in Geneva that prices had come down for the past seven months and food was reaching developing countries, “easing the pain for households”. “This has shown the importance of the multilateral system and the UN as the only one to be able to broker such an agreement in the midst of a war,” she said.

But Grynspan warned that “we are still not where we want to be”, adding that  obstacles remain with regards to fertilisers and volumes they want to see delivered.

Taliban in town

Before war broke out in Ukraine, another decades-old conflict arrived at Geneva’s footsteps when a delegation of Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders visited the city in early February for talks aimed to unblock the delivery of humanitarian aid. During the visit organised by the NGO Geneva Call, the Taliban made a number of promises, including guaranteeing the protection of medical facilities and humanitarian access.

Ten months later, nearly the entire Afghan population is living in poverty and preparing for another long winter while the country is in economic collapse. Afghan women and girls are bearing the brunt of the disaster while government bans continue on education, dress, travel and political participation.

Unable to speak in detail due to the sensitive nature of the talks, Geneva Call’s Alexandre Munafò however said dialogue has “continued” since the visit, which was “in itself a positive step”. In October, the organisation’s director general Alain Délétroz conducted a follow-up trip to Afghanistan to assess whether promises made in Geneva were being met.

“Of course we recognise that the overall humanitarian situation has deteriorated,” Munafò said. “But we believe that every inch of dialogue that we can have is the right way to go, especially with armed groups and de facto authorities that have taken over the entirety of the country recognising their duty to protect and respect civilians.

Geneva was also chosen by the United States to house an independent foundation to manage half of Afghanistan's frozen funds.

Covid continued

As Covid-19 continued to do what it does best, ploughing into 2022 through a series of Greek-alphabet denominated mutations, the world strove to make sense of pandemic experiences. Having already killed at least 6.6 million people globally, the disease has had devastating impacts, particularly in places where labour informality made lockdown measures difficult to impose, driving poverty and food insecurity to new levels and driving up gender-based violence.

“The pandemic virus will not disappear,” Mike Ryan, health emergencies director at the World Health Organization (WHO), told Geneva journalists on 13 December. “It will remain a global phenomenon. The question is whether it will remain a public health emergency of international concern. The job is not done.”

In June, discussions began at the World Health Assembly on a pandemic treaty to address some of the faults observed during the pandemic. But many issues barring progress on the text remain, including access to treatments, resisted by the pharma industry, and tracing emerging threats, where transparency on the origins of Covid-19 in China is still lacking. Meanwhile, other health challenges emerged, including the global spread in monkeypox, renamed Mpox, and a resurgence of deadly cholera outbreaks, most recently in Haiti, where response is complicated by swelling gang violence.

Highs and lows at the Human Rights Council

The conflict in Ukraine also put the multilateral system to the test with states at the Human Rights Council rallying to hold Russia to account for human rights violations. Just weeks after the conflict began, the council established an independent commission of inquiry to investigate alleged violations in the context of the invasion, which has since concluded that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine.

Russia was eventually kicked out of the Geneva body in April, becoming the second country in the council’s history to have its membership rights stripped. While the Security Council in New York remained paralysed by Russia’s status as a permanent, veto-holding member, the Human Rights Council “picked up the slack”, according to Marc Limon of the Universal Rights Group, taking “incredibly robust actions to the limits of its mandate and even pushing those limits a bit further forward” to hold Russia to account.

Another country that came under scrutiny at the council was Iran, with states voting overwhelmingly in favour last month to set up a fact-finding investigation into alleged violations in the country following the violent crackdown on anti-government protests.

The council’s reputation took a blow in October however when states rejected a motion to hold a debate on alleged human rights abuses by China against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, following the release of the UN’s long-delayed report in August that found serious human rights violations in the region that may constitute crimes against humanity. The vote was seen by observers as a major setback to efforts to hold China accountable and damaging to the credibility of the UN as a whole. Limon said the rejection of the motion was “terrible for human rights”.

It remains to be seen whether western countries will recover from the defeat and bring the Xinjiang issue back to the table. Between that and Russia, the rights council risks becoming polarised and reaching a stalemate, as its outgoing president Federico Villegas told Geneva Solutions in September. But with a new configuration of council members and a recently appointed UN human rights chief, everything is possible in 2023.

A year of ‘historic’ green decisions

One of the sectors that stayed relatively clear of  the geopolitical turmoil was environment and climate change. A high number of negotiations in Geneva or involving the international Geneva community ran smoothly, with most delegates putting political differences aside. For Diana Rizzolio, coordinator of the Geneva Environment Network (GEN) tasked with organising many of the meetings and related events, major gatherings produced “historic” decisions.

These include the launch of negotiations for a plastics treaty at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a deal on fisheries at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva, the creation of a loss and damage fund at the Cop27 climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh and an agreement to protect one third of the Earth’s land and waters at the biodiversity summit in Montreal. “Multilateralism is alive,” she said.

Despite the advances, campaigners repeatedly warned about attempts by certain countries to water down ambition throughout negotiations, which in some cases still managed to make a dent. Guido Broekhoven, who followed biodiversity talks for the WWF said: “It’s not the perfect agreement but it’s certainly a good one that sets the right level of ambition by agreeing to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.”

The next step for countries will be to implement the deal, Broekhoven said, starting with updating their national biodiversity plans and presenting them at the next biodiversity summit due to be held in 2024 in Turkey.