Nov 20, 2020

COVID-19 and the UN - Compromised Space and Undiplomatic Immunity

The UNPO hosted today a webinar to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of unrepresented diplomats to engage with the UN Human Rights Mechanisms. Titled “Compromised Space and Undiplomatic Immunity”, the event took place in parallel to the UN Minority Forum on Minority Issues and brought together a panel combining representatives of NGOs, a representative of Taiwan and academic input. During the session, Dr Fiona McConnell from the University of Oxford shared the latest findings of the research conducted in partnership with UNPO this year, as part of the Compromised Space campaign.

UNPO General Secretary Ralph Bunche opened the session to introduce the organisation and to contextualize the research and policy work that has been done during the year of 2020 in light of the pandemic. Mr Bunche highlighted the two fundamental research questions were on whether political marginalization has increased during CODID-19 and whether there has been a disproportionate impact on unrepresented peoples. Based on extensive interviews with UNPO members, the UNPO and its partners from the University of Oxford found ample evidence that, once again, those denied equal access to mechanisms of national and international governance have been particularly hard hit by the public health crisis.

Director General of the Cultural and Economic Taipei Delegation, Ambassador Ling-Yu Wang shared her views on the success of Taiwan in fighting the pandemic despite its exclusion from major international organisations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Ambassador Wang recalled that the country had been preparing itself for another public health crisis since the SARS epidemic years ago. At the time, Taiwan was left isolated and blocked from accessing valuable information and international support due to political interference. As a result, the country implemented regulatory reviews and created a public health response task force, which came in handy when the new coronavirus hit in 2020. Thanks to efficient institutional policies, transparency, communication and resource allocation, Taiwan has been so far the most successful case in the fight against COVID-19. “A democratic elected government and the free flow of information can effectively contain the pandemic while at the same time upholding the value of human rights”, she added.

Associate Professor In Human Geography at the University of Oxford, Dr Fiona McConnell took the floor next to share an overview of the research conducted this year, as part of the broader Compromised Space campaign. She showed how the documentation has tangible implications to unrepresented peoples in accessing and participating at the UN. Among these obstacles, Dr McConnell pointed out the  cancellation of side-events,  which provides a vital forum for civil society participation and information sharing with the UN Human Rights Mechanisms, and inequalities in provision for remote participation, which includes state internet shutdowns, cyber security concerns, surveillance and state reprisals. Dr McConnell also recalled that the pandemic has contributed to significant delay and confusion surrounding the status of pre-existing ECOSOC status applications. Towards the end of her presentation, she offered concrete recommendations to the UN bodies and UN member states on how to improve access to the organisation for marginalized peoples and how to ensure accountability for states engaged in reprisal acts against unrepresented diplomats.  

Executive Director of Kurdistan Human Rights - Geneva, Mr Taimoor Aliassi offered an insight into the challenges of civil society organisations ran by Iran’s minorities while  trying to navigating the UN world. Speaking about the multiple forms of reprisals activists suffer in the hands of the Iranian regime, Mr Aliassi  explained that often the families back in Iran are harassed by state agents whenever their relatives speak out against Iran at the UN. Another serious obstacle compromising the space at the UN are the so-called GONGOS, whose presence has intensified over the years. Mr Aliassim also mentioned the undemocratic nature of the ECOSOC Committee, which holds authoritarian states such as Cuba, Venezuela and Iran in the decision-making and therefore consistently block any request for status coming from a Kurdish organisation. Finally, with regards to the extra layer of hardship imposed by COVID-19 restrictions, Mr Aliassi concluded by saying that “we are really losing more and more the UN space that we earned after two decades of hard work”. 

Program and Advocacy Manager of World Uyghur Congress, Ms Zumretay Arkin explained how crucial side-events are for civil society organisations. “It offers a safe space where we can openly criticize states and also engage in relevant discussion with different stakeholders”. Ms Arkin observed that, as opposed to delivering statements at the official session of the Human Rights Council, side-events are more targeted on specific issues and less intimidating, thus offering a safe-space for discussion with relevant actors. With regards to the growing influence of China at the UN, she recalled that CCP propaganda is gaining territory at the Palais des Nations, which hosts regular exhibitions organised by the Chinese Mission on ethnic harmony in the country. Ms Arking also pointed out cyber security concerns, particularly for those imminent deportation or in other vulnerable status. “Everything that is said online can be traced, so having in person meetings can be very important because we are able to overcome sensitive issues”. In her final message, she reminded that while the pandemic took us all by surprise, it was expected a much more resilient and effective response from the UN, and that alternative solutions should have been offered to facilitate a smooth transition to the new reality. 

CIMI Representative,  Mr Paulo Lugon Arantes spoke about the struggle of the indigenous peoples to have their voices heard in an increasingly reduced space for them at the UN. Particularly focusing on Brazil, which is today ruled by a notorious far-right president with anti-indigenous policies, Mr Arantes offered an overview on the deeply rooted lack of political representation for native people in the country. In this context, participation at the UN is perhaps the only reliable platform indigenous peoples have, but confronted with the lack of ECOSOC status, technical issues to access internet and very limited resources, their participation is further diminished. As an alternative solution, Mr Arantes recommended the UN to facilitate hybrid events, which would allow for the increased participation of indigenous peoples’s voices.


Watch the recording of the webinar here