Malawi’s snub to virtual diplomacy

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A minister alone facing an empty room. This is the image that will remain of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, which will end on Friday in Geneva. A fully virtual meeting due to the pandemic. Well almost. On February 24, the Minister of Justice of Malawi, Titus Songiso Mvalo, rose in person to the podium of the Assembly Hall at the Palais des Nations to deliver his speech. The first days of the session were indeed devoted to interventions by ministers or heads of state.

“It is a great honor to address the Human Rights Council,” begins Titus Songiso Mvalo that day. He goes on to say that Malawi, one of the new members of the Human Rights Council, is a “strong supporter of multilateralism”. He pleads for a solidarity effort to fight against Covid-19. A speech of less than ten minutes.

The minister’s intervention is broadcast live on UN television. The framing is tight. But a photo taken over the speaker’s shoulder shows the surreal side of the situation. The author of the snapshot is the secretary of the Human Rights Council. “We were very surprised to see a minister arrive,” testifies Eric Tistounet. We had lost the habit of organizing the address of a dignitary in the flesh. “

The UN official publishes his photo on social networks. With the following comment: “Malawi, the one and only dignitary who speaks in person in the room… in front of 1,490 empty seats… human beings, we miss you…” In Malawi, the press seizes it and considers that the minister has ridiculed his country. “The president sent his minister from Lilongwe to Geneva [plus de 7000 kilomètres, ndlr], in Switzerland, a city known for its high prices. All this to talk to empty seats. He is the only minister who came, while his colleagues were attending the same meeting via Zoom ”, the online media Malawi Voice is indignant.

The desertion of small countries?

The minister had other obligations in Switzerland, hastened to clarify Eric Tistounet. The embassy of the small southern African country – 21 million inhabitants and ranked 174th according to the UN development index out of 189 countries – did not respond to our requests on the minister’s mysterious agenda. In Bern, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is not aware of any meeting with Swiss representatives.

The money spent on this trip would have been more useful “to buy oxygen cylinders for patients with Covid-19”, quipped the Malawi Voice. Given this controversy, small countries may think twice before moving to Geneva. Eric Tistounet however sees opportunities in virtual diplomacy. “More than 130 ministers and dignitaries took part in the Human Rights Council this year, which is much more than in previous years,” he says.

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The inaugural part of the session, very formal, would therefore not have to suffer from these remote interventions, often pre-recorded, taking a minimum of time for the speakers. On the other hand, to negotiate, sometimes step by step, the resolutions adopted the last week of the Human Rights Council, “it is the cross and the banner”, recognizes Eric Tistounet. “It is very complicated to establish trust with an interlocutor by interposed screens, because we cannot be sure that confidentiality is guaranteed,” he says. NGOs, too, complain that they have less easy access to diplomats. During the sessions, the meetings were held at the Serpent bar inside the UN, with a view of the harbor and Mont-Blanc. Alas, the establishment has been closed for a year.

The goose that lays golden eggs

“Previously, it was normal to have panelists come from the other side of the world to speak for twenty minutes. Those days are over and it’s better for the UN’s carbon footprint, ”says Eric Tistounet. Which believes that the delegations will return to Geneva, but in a more targeted way. Switzerland is also betting in the future on hybrid meetings, where some of the participants are physically present.

The question is crucial for the host country and in particular Geneva, which benefits from the economic benefits of these international meetings. The canton estimates that it derives 3.5 billion francs per year from the presence of international organizations on its soil. In 2019, the latter had organized nearly 3,500 meetings. Some 180,000 delegates or experts attended, a figure which was down compared to 2018. Attendance at Geneva undoubtedly, despite the fact that data is not yet available for the year 2020, collapsed. with the pandemic.