• Joint WHO-China report unable to provide conclusive answers 
• A small step at the UN on cyber security 
• Events in Myanmar remain on active UN agenda 
• Human Rights Council again adopts resolution on Sri Lanka 
• National ‘Ring fencing’ of key UN posts

Joint WHO-China report unable to provide conclusive answers

The eagerly awaited report of the visit of a 17 member WHO team of scientists to Wuhan, China earlier during the year (see UNCovered January 2021) to study the sources of the novel Corona virus was formally released on 30 March. The report stems from a consensual resolution adopted at the World Health Assembly in May 2020, “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions.” The 120 page joint WHO-China report prepared by the 17 international scientists with an equal number of Chinese experts offers the most detailed look yet at what happened in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and early 2020. However, it is unable to answer conclusively the critical questions of when, where and how the virus began spreading.

Addressing four possible hypothesis about the origin of the virus, the report considers the theory that the virus likely spilled over to humans in nature as a “possible to likely pathway’; an introduction from a bat through an intermediate animal host as a “likely to very likely pathway”; dismisses the possibility of a lab accident-related origin as an “extremely unlikely pathway”. Finally, addressing the theory that the virus spread via frozen food - an idea touted by Chinese officials eager to suggest the pandemic originated outside the country - the report calls for additional research on whether the cold chain may play a role in transmission but casts doubt on the idea that early cases were imported to Wuhan. “This would be extraordinary in 2019 where the virus was not circulating widely,” it reads. Still, the report ranks introduction through the cold chain as a “possible pathway,”

According to the report, genetic data indicates that the first cases could have come as early as September, though more likely between mid-November and early December. It mentions that all the published genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 isolated from human cases are very similar, suggesting that the start of the outbreak resulted from a single point introduction in the human population around the time that the virus was first reported in humans in Wuhan, China.

Among the report’s findings is that the Huanan market linked to early cases was not necessarily the source of the virus, as some once believed, but may have been the site of an early outbreak or an accelerator of the virus that was circulating in December 2019. It notes the earliest reported case, from Dec. 8, did not have any link to the market, but suggests that mild and asymptomatic cases may have gone undetected. The report, therefore, does not draw a firm conclusion and calls for additional research on the role of that and other markets and puts forth a long list of recommendations for additional research: more testing of wildlife and livestock in China and Southeast Asia, more studies on the earliest cases of Covid-19 and more tracing of pathways from farms to markets in Wuhan.

Even before the release of the report, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said that he had concerns about “the methodology and the process,” including “the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.” Soon after the report’s release, in a measured response coordinated by the US, 14 countries issued a joint statement sharing concerns that the report  was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples” and called for a “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.” Some members of the international team in media interviews have acknowledged that the level of access was suboptimal but stressed that they were able to obtain information the world did not have before. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General did some damage control by acknowledging, during the release of the report, that more research is needed across a range of areas. He emphasized that, “for now all hypotheses will be on the table and will need further study,” and promised to “follow the science.”

Comment: The findings of the report are far from conclusive and will be overshadowed by questions about China’s lack of transparency — and the WHO’s apparent inability to press and gain more. The report is unlikely to douse the several contentions about the where, when and how regarding the origins of the novel Corona virus. As the DG of WHO rightly put it, the report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. However, whether the further studies which will also need several actions, including by China, will happen in a global environment which remains fraught with a lack of trust remains uncertain.

A small step at the UN on cyber security

Generally, issues relating to the “challenges of modernity” tend to fall through the institutional cracks of  various UN platforms. Hence, rarely are matters requiring forging of the rules of the road for managing technological innovation - digital regulation and taxation, artificial intelligence, virtual currencies and cyber security - areas of substantive  consideration by UN bodies. One of the rare exceptions to this was the establishment, in 2018, of the United Nations Open Ended Working Group (OEWG) on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. All UN members were invited to participate in the OEWG which was mandated to  develop rules, norms, and principles of responsible behaviour of states, discuss ways for their implementation, and to study the possibility of establishing regular institutional dialogue with broad participation.

In March 2021, the OEWG after its third and final substantive session unanimously adopted its  final report and the Chair's summary. The final report did not tread any new ground. Rather, it reaffirmed many of the elements agreed to in previous reports of the UN Governmental Groups of Experts (small expert groups appointed by the Secretary General which had submitted reports in the past following closed door meetings). The final report based for the first time on meetings open to all states and consultations with civil society groups reaffirmed that international law, including the Charter of the UN, applies to cyberspace; agreed that norms provide guidance for State action in addition to international law; encouraged the further development of confidence building measures (CBMs) and further cooperation between States in order to implement them; and recommended the further development of capacity building measures. The report did not address issues such as espionage, internet governance, development and digital privacy. Also while the OEWG considered terrorism and crime as important topics, it felt that detailed discussion of these topics and the development of recommendations for them is best done in other UN bodies.

The chairman’s summary collated the various proposals that had been made but that did not garner consensus. It is annexed to the final report but does have the approval of the states. It captures the various contentious submissions such as the extent of applicability of international humanitarian law to cyberspace;  possibility of a legally binding instrument or legal framework on international cyber security; a possible cyber programme of action (PoA) as the way forward; consideration of a Global Initiative on Data Security, an outside, non-OEWG initiative.

Comment: Even before the first OEWG on ICT (information and communication technology) had completed its work, in November 2020 it was agreed that there would be another OEWG after the conclusion of this one. This next process is set to run from 2021-2025 though the way ahead is still to be agreed upon. Participants will have to start from the ground up as these processes do not build upon each other. The sharp differences that came to the fore on so many aspects of cyber space during the last OEWG discussions do not augur well for progress during the next OEWG. However, an inclusive process endeavoring to forge the rules of the road in this important area is well worth continuing.      

Events in Myanmar remain on active UN agenda

The  repeated resort to harsh crackdowns by the security forces of Myanmar against those demonstrating the removal of the civilian government, and the mounting toll of deaths of the protesters has ensured that the situation in Myanmar  continued to figure in UN bodies in New York and Geneva. Also, during the month, Secretary General Guterres has twice added his voice  calling for a “firm, unified international response” to “end violations of fundamental human rights and return to the path of democracy”, condemning the killing of civilians and subsequently also terming the crackdown as “unacceptable”.

The Security Council, building upon the press statement issued on 4 February, adopted a presidential statement (S/PRST/2021/5) on 10 March. It expressed support for the democratic process and strongly condemned the violence. This was the first formal outcome from the Council on the situation in Myanmar since a presidential statement in 2017, following widespread violence and displacement of people largely from the Rohingya community. It signaled the growing recognition of Council members about the gravity of the current crisis, but as in the case of the press statement of 4 February it does not make reference to the military takeover.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council adopted without a vote a resolution continuing support for the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar – previously established by the Human Rights Council – “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011”. Predictably Myanmar dismissed the outcome and any possible future international prosecution based on the findings of the mechanism.

The crisis about the removal of the Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the UN Amb. Kyaw Moe Tun who had spoken out against the military takeover (see UNCovered February 2021) was tided over. Following the announcement of his removal, the government appointed his deputy Amb. Tin Maung Naing to replace him. However, he declined to do so and resigned. Myanmar's U.N. mission told the United Nations, in a note that Kyaw Moe Tun remained the country's envoy.

Comment: The continuing unrest in Myanmar means the situation will remain on the active agenda of UN bodies. However, China and Russia are not keen to have the Security Council play an active role, arguing against interference in what they consider internal matters. Also, both the elected members from the region - India and Vietnam - have been cautious about the Security Council’s involvement. Hence, unless there is a drastic deterioration of the situation, scope for substantive Security Council outcomes will remain limited.

Human Rights Council again adopts resolution on Sri Lanka

Following up on the concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka articulated in a report issued by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (see UNCovered January 2021) a core group consisting of UK, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, Malawi and North Macedonia co-sponsored a resolution titled ‘Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Apart from the core group of co-sponsors the resolution was also supported by 35 other members of the UN, including several such as the USA who are currently not members of the  UNHRC and hence were ineligible to vote at the UNHRC.

The resolution was adopted with 22 votes in favour, 11 against and 14 (including India) abstaining. The resolution refers to the “persistent” lack of accountability for abuses committed through the years by “all parties” in Sri Lanka, and expresses a lack of confidence in the ability of the present government in Colombo to address the shortcomings. The resolution will “strengthen” the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) “to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction”.

Sri Lanka categorically rejected the resolution to expand the role of the OHCHR, terming it as “intrusive”. It warned of the adverse effects that will lead to polarisation of Sri Lankan society, contrary to the insistence of its proponents that it will bring about reconciliation and felt that the amount of $ 2.8 million to be provided for strengthening the OHCHR can be better used to improve the lives of the people affected by the conflict.

Comment: As has been the case with all previous resolutions moved against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, it was evident that the resolution at this session too would be adopted. This was especially so in light of the Rajapaksa government withdrawing co-sponsorship of the earlier resolution 40/1 on Sri Lanka adopted in March 2019 without a vote and the sharp criticism in the High Commissioner’s  report of the changes in the human rights situation during the last year or so. The resolution providing for a further report with further options for advancing accountability ensures that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka will remain under close scrutiny at the Human Rights Council.

National ‘Ring fencing’ of key UN posts

Often US commentators refer to key appointments as indicative of the policy approach of an Administration by referring to the aphorism - “personnel is policy”. Transposing this to senior appointments at the UN highlights the predominance of the five permanent members of the Security Council. While the situation was long known to UN insiders it has resurfaced recently as part of the process to select the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC)/ the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN’s most senior humanitarian official to succeed the UK’s Mark Hancock.

The UNA-UK (UN Association of UK) coordinated an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, signed by over 50 former diplomats, parliamentarians and civil society leaders calling on him to champion an open and inclusive appointment process rather than one which follows the practice of the UN Secretary General appointing the nominee from the UK. They highlighted that over the past decade 20% of roles at Under-Secretary-General or above have gone to nationals of the Permanent Members – nearly 10 times higher than is proportional.

Going against UN General Assembly Resolution 46/232 (adopted in 1992), that demands that no senior official ever succeed an official of the same nationality in the same role, national “ring fencing” has become a common practice for key appointments. 

For example:

  • The last five heads of UN peacekeeping have been French
  • The last four Emergency Relief Coordinators have been British
  • The last three heads of the UN Department of Political Affairs / Peacebuilding and Political Affairs, the last four heads of UNICEF (and all seven permanent heads of UNICEF) and the last five Executive Directors of the World Food Programme (WFP) have been American
  • The last three heads of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) have been Chinese
  • The head of either the UN Office in Geneva or the UN Office in Vienna since 1993 has been Russian, and Russia is expected to hold the recently created role of head of the UN Office of Counter Terrorism for the foreseeable future

Comment: Senior UN officials swear an oath to act as impartial international civil servants and to not take instructions from their home nation. However, national monopolies of key posts creates a perception of influence and partiality. It damages both the legitimacy of the UN as a global organisation with an independent international civil service, and also its performance through a failure to recruit for senior roles on merit. Yet, no early end is envisaged to this entrenched practice, especially ahead of the re-election bid of UN Secretary General Guterres.

(The views expressed are personal)


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About the Author

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin

Former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations and Former Spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin ended his diplomatic assignment as the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations on 30th April 2020 and has recently returned to India.

In a diplomatic career spanning more than three decades, he represented India's interests in important capacities, promoting friendly ties across the globe.

As the Official Spokesperson of India's Ministry of External Affairs during 2012-2015 he is credited with the effective use of social media tools to considerably expand public diplomacy outreach.

An experienced multilateral diplomat prior to his assignment at the UN, Ambassador Akbaruddin, played a key role as the Chief Coordinator in the organization of the India-Africa Forum Summit held in October 2015 in New Delhi. All 54 African States that are members of the United Nations and the African Union participated in this milestone event in India-Africa ties.

Ambassador Akbaruddin also served as an international civil-servant at the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna from 2006-2011 as Head of the External Relations and Policy Coordination Unit and the Special Assistant to the Director-General of the IAEA.

Ambassador Akbaruddin has previously served at the Indian Mission to the United Nations as First Secretary(1995-98) during which he focused on UN Security Council Reform and Peace-Keeping. He was a member of the UN’s apex body the Advisory Committee on Administrative & Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) during 1997-98.

Ambassador Akbaruddin served as Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad (1998-2000). During 2000-2004 he was the Consul General of India, Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and prior to that was First Secretary in Riyadh and Second Secretary/Third Secretary in Cairo, Egypt. He is proficient in Arabic.

Since his retirement Ambassador Akbaruddin has written extensively on issues of global governance, international order and multilateralism.

Ambassador Akbaruddin has a Master's Degree in Political Science and International Relations. He is married to Mrs. Padma Akbaruddin and they have two sons.

He is an avid and passionate sports enthusiast.