The Week in Multilateralism

Friday, October 15, 2021

Note: Apologies for the hiatus in posting—I have been immersed in final revisions to a forthcoming book on the law of the sea and ocean governance. The manuscript is now off to the printer and should be on bookshelves soon. For anyone interested, you can find out more here or here. Without further ado:

The World Bank’s Data Dust-up

Reverberations continue from allegations that the World Bank tweaked one of its best known publications at the behest of China’s government. At the heart of the controversy is the Bank’s annual Doing Business report, which assesses countries in terms of how easy it is to establish a business. Because it features explicit rankings of countries (and because the report has been one of the Bank’s most popular), it has long been a source of friction. In the wake of this latest controversy, the Bank announced that it would no longer publish the report.

The impact of the controversy has extended across Washington D.C.’s 19th Street to the International Monetary Fund; a key official in the underlying controversy was Kristalina Georgieva, who was then serving as a top Bank official but is now the IMF managing director. This week, the IMF’s executive board met to consider her role and whether it should take any action. The board ultimately stayed its hand, but U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was distinctly lukewarm in her conversation with the Bulgarian economist:

Secretary Yellen emphasized that the report raised legitimate issues and concerns. She noted it is Treasury’s view, in line with other IMF Board members, that absent further direct evidence with regard to the role of the Managing Director there is not a basis for a change in IMF leadership. Secretary Yellen also conveyed that Treasury will monitor follow-up closely…

Media accounts suggested that Washington might have preferred to replace Georgieva, but she retained the support of European IMF members. That support was likely decisive given that the top IMF position has always gone to a European. For her part, Georgieva at a press conference tried to shield the Fund from reputational damage, although in a way that the Bank may not appreciate. Via the Financial Times:

“The IMF staff is exemplary in the way they carry out their work and there is no doubt in the credibility of the IMF or our data or our research,” Georgieva said. Referring to the World Bank’s headquarters, she added that “the problem — it is on the other side of 19th Street”.

Joining the Human Rights Council

The United States is set to join the UN Human Rights Council after several years of self-imposed exile. In all, the General Assembly this week elected 18 new members to the Council. The selection of several members with dubious rights records, including Cameroon, Eritrea, and the United Arab Emirates, drew a reaction from human rights groups, who pointed to the need for competitive elections to the Council. Like much else at the UN, elections to the Human Rights Council are done via regional blocs that usually agree in advance on their chosen candidates.

The Council made news earlier this month when it passed a resolution on the right to a healthy environment. That measure secured the support of all but a few members and was welcomed as a landmark achievement (it’s worth noting that four important countries—China, Japan, India, and Russia—abstained on the vote).

Covid Origins, Take Two

The World Health Organization is assembling a new team to investigate the origins of the virus that causes Covid-19. The organization’s first attempt to examine the pandemic’s roots was fiercely criticized for its limited access to Chinese officials and facilities and for dismissing the possibility that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan. The new body, to include up to 25 members, will be tasked with providing an “independent evaluation of all available scientific and technical findings from global studies on the origins of SARS-CoV-2.”

The roster of experts proposed by the WHO included some members of the original team but also a host of new faces. China’s ambassador in Geneva was not pleased by this new round of scrutiny and it is not clear what kind of access China will permit:

Chen Xu, China's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told a separate news conference the conclusions of the joint study were "quite clear", adding that as international teams had been sent to China twice already, "it is time to send teams to other places."

Briefly Noted:

  • Final preparations were underway for next month’s climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The Biden administration is dispatching a large delegation that will include multiple cabinet secretaries and agency heads. Meanwhile, a British newspaper reported that Chinese president Xi Jinping has decided against attending in person.

  • The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is basking in the glow of a landmark deal that sets a global minimum tax on multinational corporations. In its press release, the organization described a “landmark deal, agreed by 136 countries and jurisdictions representing more than 90% of global GDP, [which] will also reallocate more than USD 125 billion of profits from around 100 of the world’s largest and most profitable MNEs to countries worldwide, ensuring that these firms pay a fair share of tax wherever they operate and generate profits.”

  • UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declined to participate in an ASEAN session that would have included Myanmar’s military leaders. The Asian diplomatic group has for months been attempting to manage fallout from the February 2021 coup in that country, and UN officials have been involved in diplomacy as well. There are signs that ASEAN patience with the military government is wearing thin, and the junta annoyed regional diplomats by snubbing the organization’s special envoy.

  • Kenya took the helm of the UN Security Council this week, and President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke to the body during a session on peacebuilding. Kenyatta emphasized the need for greater diversity in multilateralism, including through reform of the Security Council’s membership. Kenyatta’s role at the Security Council marks something of a multilateral revival for the politician. The International Criminal Court accused him of crimes against humanity in 2011, but the case against him ultimately collapsed.

  • The United States will donate millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the African Union. Meanwhile, the head of the World Trade Organization described as “stuck” long-running negotiations on a waiver of intellectual property rights associated with vaccines. But there appears to still be hope that WTO members might reach consensus on the issue.

  • The International Court of Justice sided (mostly) with Somalia in a dispute with Kenya about the countries’ maritime boundary. The Kenyan government rejected the ICJ ruling and criticized the court for “overreach.” For a good discussion of the diplomacy surrounding the dispute, see this Q&A with Meron Elias.

  • The Non-Aligned Movement convened in Serbia on the sixtieth anniversary of the group’s first summit, which also met in Belgrade.

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