International Geneva braces for more uncertainty in 2022

The country flags in front of the main entrance of UN headquarters in Geneva. (Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

As 2021 comes to a close, International Geneva’s organisations come to terms with another year of preparing for the unexpected amid a pandemic that continues to throw the world off guard.

A number of big meetings will be taking place in 2022 in Geneva and beyond, where some of Geneva’s NGOs main concerns such as preserving nature, ensuring equal distribution of vaccines and reducing plastic pollution, will be center stage.

New environmental treaties at the top of the agenda

Environmental advocates are hoping for a Paris-like deal for nature to come out of the Biodiversity Summit in Kunming, China, with states agreeing to ambitious targets to halt and reverse the degradation of biodiversity, including preserving one third of the world’s lands and oceans.

“WWF will be calling on world leaders to secure an ambitious biodiversity agreement that drives immediate action to reverse the loss of biodiversity with the aim of securing a nature-positive world by 2030,” said Lin Li, director of policy and advocacy at the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF).

Green advocates will also be crossing their fingers for ministers to be able to meet in Nairobi, Kenya in February to kick off negotiations for a treaty on plastic pollution. The UN Environmental Assembly is due to be held in person for now, but with limitations for participants, including mandatory vaccination and a limited number of representatives per interest group.

The annual climate summit, due to take place in November, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, will also occupy Geneva’s environment network. While the decision to hold the conference in Africa has been hailed by many observers, the choice of Egypt has drawn its fair share of criticism. Egypt’s recent crack down on civil rights has raised concerns about whether protesters will be able to demonstrate like they do every year to push leaders to greater commitments to fight off climate change.

Some of the outstanding issues from Glasgow’s Cop26, including climate finance for developing countries and loss and damage, are likely to carry over and occupy the agenda.

A lesser-known but equally important treaty to protect the high seas will also be the focus of Geneva’s marine community, with delayed talks likely to resume in March. “IUCN will actively engage in the UNCLOS BBNJ process to conclude a strong global agreement on the management of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction high seas,” said Sonia Peña Moreno, director of IUCN’s International Policy Centre.

Heated debates will carry on at the Human Rights Council, where humanitarian crises, including in Yemen, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, will likely dominate the agenda. However, the political arms struggle between the US and China will gather much attention.

“That kind of acrimonious bilateral relationship has sucked others in and has captured a lot of the council's important work and led to this high level of polarisation at the council,” noted Marc Limon, executive director of the Universal Rights Group.

“The question for next year is when the US takes its seat on 1 January, will tensions escalate?”

Organisations will also follow the increasing attention on climate change at the human rights body, particularly keeping an eye on the nomination of a UN special rapporteur on climate change in March.

“We will follow negotiations closely to make sure that the person appointed is competent,” said Yves Lador, representative of Earthjustice in Geneva.

All eyes on International Geneva’s health authorities

On the Covid front, all eyes will be on Geneva as the World Health Organization continues discussions for a treaty to better prevent, prepare and respond to future pandemics – a key negotiation that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will be keeping a close eye on.

“We need to continue to push for a much stronger and binding instrument,” said Jagan Chapagain, IFRC’s secretary general. “And hopefully, at some point, we will have a treaty with the ‘treat’ not just on paper.”

Developing countries are also set to keep pushing at the World Trade Organization for a waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines and other treatments. The proponents argue that such rules are hampering their access to vaccines, which are essential to curb the spread of the virus and avoid new mutations.

But while these meetings are key, for Chapagain there needs to be support for local actors who are at the frontline of building trust with communities and dispersing vaccine hesitancy.  “While we have invested billions on production of vaccines and even transport of vaccines, we haven’t invested on vaccination efforts,” he said, citing the need to support countries with organisation and infrastructure to be able to give out the jabs.

Key meetings on the tightrope

The emergence of the Omicron variant last month just days ahead of the  WTO ministerial conference, forcing them to call off the meeting at the last minute, suggests that the fate of major multilateral meetings still hangs in the balance.

While smaller negotiations can go ahead and country delegates continue to meet, major talks face greater uncertainty. The trade agency decided to postpone its big conference until March rather than hold it virtually because it considered that the in-person attendance of ministers was paramount to close negotiations.

But as 2022 threatens to bring more border closures, costly quarantines and vaccination constraints, organisers have to come to grips with the decision whether to hold meetings at the expense of fair participation from all actors, particularly from developing countries, or to delay talks, thwarting progress.

The World Economic Forum on Monday announced it will postpone its annual meeting of political and business leaders in Davos from 17-21 January after already being forced to cancel its 2021 edition.

Among the other gatherings still hoping to stage their comebacks later in the year is the meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been rescheduled for a third time to take place near the end of 2022.

Countries are supposed to come up with new biodiversity goals for the 2020 decade, but before an agreement can be reached, the subsidiary bodies tasked with writing a first draft have to meet in person in Geneva to tie up as many loose ends as possible. That meeting has also been postponed from February to a later date which has yet to be announced.

“Full and fair participation of all parties and other stakeholders is essential to securing a legitimate and widely accepted international agreement,” said Li.

“At the same time, the UN and other stakeholders must continue to investigate every opportunity available to ensure negotiations can move ahead with full and fair participation despite the continued uncertainties caused by the pandemic.”

For Lador, having in-person meetings will require additional efforts to make sure everyone can participate: “It means we give ourselves the capacity to have real representative participation from the different regions and from the different constituencies here. We facilitate vaccination and cover costs for quarantine when there is a need.”

Civil society to remain on the sidelines

With Covid likely to continue to disrupt plans, most organisations have opted to play  it safe and continue to meet completely in virtual mode or have only the high-level participants attend in-person, while leaving smaller actors, such as rights groups, out of the room.

Geneva’s NGOs have painfully experienced it at the Human Rights Council, which meets three times a year. For the third year in a row, civil society actors will probably have to settle with following sessions through the screen.

“Civil society would quite like to go back to normal meetings, it’s states who are hesitant,” said Limon. “Civil society is desperate for that to happen because they increasingly feel excluded from debates at the Human Rights Council because it’s online.”

“It really is a problem for more advocacy NGOs, which aren't able to really listen in to negotiations and are not able to lobby different delegations. It's also bad for think tanks like ours because a lot of our influence is from just talking to delegations on an ongoing basis.”

For Lador, there is a “clear degradation” of the participation of civil society at the HRC and the longer the conditions drag on, the more difficult it becomes for small NGOs to weigh in key issues being discussed at the human rights body.