GPO 2024

Editorial: The Geneva Policy Outlook 2024

Geneva Policy Outlook
Feb 5, 2024
9 min read
© OHCHR/Pierre Albouy

By Achim Wennmann

As a finger on the pulse of Geneva’s global policy space, the Geneva Policy Outlook 2024 (GPO24) gathers a selection of articles aimed to stimulate reflection on and provide practical impulses for international cooperation and global governance. It draws on the many exchanges throughout the year with senior policymakers from “International Geneva”, which serves as a global hub to address challenges through cooperation, dialogue and negotiation. While the GPO24 does not have the ambition to offer an all-inclusive coverage of policy issues, it does highlight the ‘can do’ attitude in Geneva’s policy circles.

The GPO24 highlights the ‘can do’ attitude in Geneva’s policy circles.

Diplomacy in times of shifting constellations

The major emerging theme for 2024 is the need to adapt diplomacy to address systemic challenges with greater agility and pragmatism. Climate change and environmental degradation, shifting demographics, geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and technological revolutions are all threatening the survival of humanity. In this context, David Harland emphasises that diplomacy should rally around a hierarchy of interests for human survival. There will be a greater expectation in diplomacy to manage the tensions between pragmatic compromising and upholding normative ambitions. “We live in an age of shifting constellations: countries that cooperate on one issue may compete on another and be in an active conflict on the third. […] This is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is merely reflective of the way the world works at the moment” Harland writes. Governments need to expand their toolbox to deal with this ambivalence, for instance, by turning to “hybrid diplomacy” that involves private diplomacy actors to unlock progress in negotiations where formal efforts are blocked. The Russia-Ukraine Grain Deal is an example of this type of diplomacy.

Jamil Chade zooms into a significant moment where diplomacy shaped a new era of global governance: the negotiations of the 2023 BRICS Summit in South Africa. The final declaration recognised the “legitimate aspirations” of South Africa, India and Brazil for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. The BRICS Summit also enhanced collaboration to break the US Dollar dominance in international finance. Chade previews that the BRICS group will become a more important policy coordination platform – like the G7 – with consequences for negotiations in Geneva on a wide range of issues. However, are Geneva-based international institutions ready to embrace a greater diversity of positions reflective of the non-Western world? 

Claire Somerville underlines how a new form of diplomacy has already arrived in Geneva in the form of ‘anti-gender’ and ‘anti-rights’ coalitions. She argues that “gender issues can become a soft diplomatic target and an entry point to breaking consensus-based multilateralism”. The stakes for gender rights advocates are high, as the human rights of women, girls and gender minorities become geopolitical trade-offs. The weaponisation of norms to weaken multilateralism and the application of sovereignty clauses (under which states claim discretion to deviate from international rules or norms on the grounds of national sovereignty) deserves greater attention by all countries interested in maintaining a functioning multilateral system and preventing backsliding on gender and other issues. 

Advancing multilateral negotiations

Despite these challenges, several negotiations and diplomatic processes are taking place in Geneva, albeit at the slow pace of multilateralism that is reflective of the technical complexities and the range of positions involved. 

Suerie Moon provides an outlook on the negotiation of rules to govern pandemics and underlines three big obstacles for 2024: Divisions on substance, disagreement on the form any rules should take (treaty and regulation, treaty or regulation, or two regulations), and on the process for finding common ground. Moon concludes, “The world urgently needs better rules to govern pandemics, but the road to get there is rockier than ever” suggesting ongoing negotiations well beyond the deadline set for May 2024. Negotiations on specific issues pushed forward by smaller groups might be a way to broker a compromise, but this would come at the cost of fragmenting negotiations and limiting the meaningful participation of smaller delegations.

In the policy realm of international trade, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) must face a choice: “evolve to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century or drift toward the periphery of global governance”. Daniel C. Esty, Trevor Sutton, Joel Trachtman, and Jan Yves Remy argue for a reform of the WTO which should “commit to regearing the global trade system for a sustainable future”. After all, “many of the most acute problems facing human civilisation today cannot be solved without trade – and its capacity to disseminate cutting-edge ideas, technologies, services, and infrastructure at speed and scale across the world”. The authors synthesise the findings of a year-long consultation towards the Villars Framework for a Sustainable Trade System that is “designed to make the WTO and other multilateral trade institutions fit-for-purpose in the 21st century”. The WTO’s sustainability agenda will, however, require ongoing conversations with sceptics who perceive this agenda as a trade and technology promotion agenda in disguise. Hence, 2024 will be an important year to forge a consensus on the role of trade for a sustainable future. 

Ching Wei Sooi offers a unique perspective into the field of space governance in Geneva. Space security diplomacy is an ongoing, important issue for the Conference on Disarmament with a specific agenda item on preventing an arms race in outer space. There is a clear need for “ethical frameworks guiding the peaceful use and exploration of outer space”. States are developing counter-space technologies, “capabilities, techniques, or assets that can be used against another space object or a component of a space system in order to deliberately deny, disrupt, degrade, damage or destroy it reversibly or irreversibly, so as to gain an advantage over an adversary”. Given the diversity of relevant actors in the field of space security in Geneva – from international organisations to a growing space research and industry sector – key tasks for 2024 are to continue building a common language and to maintain confidence-building processes to explore opportunities for cooperation and regulation on this sensitive topic.

Roxana Radu reflects on the current patchwork of AI governance and the role of International Geneva. Radu highlights the political context of geopolitical competition and important upcoming elections, as well as the “the search for checks and balances to counter the unprecedented power of a few players in the AI industry” as key factors shaping the context of AI governance. Geneva’s role in AI governance can build on a critical mass of organisations focused on standardisation and international law. Geneva can also contribute to developing a common vocabulary across multiple communities and jurisdictions relevant to meaningful regulation of AI – a point also made on space security governance above. Other fields for contributions could be the protection of non-digital knowledge and harnessing the voice of academia – including the sciences and social sciences – on issues of AI governance. 

Responses to war 

A key question for 2024 is how diplomacy can remain relevant for the prevention, mitigation and resolution of violent conflict.

With wars in Ukraine and Gaza raging and at least over 100 other violent conflicts happening elsewhere at the same time, a key question for 2024 is how diplomacy can remain relevant for the prevention, mitigation and resolution of violent conflict. The GPO24 offers three views about what could be done from Geneva. 

Andrew Clapham highlights the role of human rights to set out the obligations of parties to the conflicts as well as to provide fora for monitoring compliance. He states that “The Human Rights Council has solidified its monitoring role in times of war”, and that today, it seems “inconceivable that unconscionable violence, destruction, massive mobilisations and bombardment in the context of wars such as those in Ukraine and Gaza would not attract scrutiny from the UN’s human rights machinery”. Thus, beyond the usual referral to the Geneva Conventions and humanitarian law, human rights offer an additional instrument to protect civilians in times of war. “The time has come for a serious discussion on the challenges that war poses for the enjoyment of human rights” and 2024 should see progress towards an “agenda to protect human rights in war”, he argues.

Mark Zeitoun, Natasha Carmi, Laura Turley, and Mara Tignino look at the war in Gaza through the lens of water. They posit that “Water ignores the borders that politicians and geographers have laid down on the territory, and every effort they have made to divide the people who live there”. The authors also underline the importance of working towards the special protection of water systems in the rules of war. This article is representative of the prospect of “hybrid diplomacy” – noted by David Harland above – whereby specific issues can offer opportunities for engaging fighting parties or gaining access to conflict zones. The wealth of technical expertise within the diversity of organisations in Geneva – including in the private sector – is a significant asset to support “hybrid diplomacy”.

Based on a review of crisis management and conflict resolution efforts in Ukraine, Fred Tanner argues that even in times of full-scale war, Geneva-based organisations have a role to play in both political and humanitarian mediations, as well as in recovery and reconstruction. International Geneva's track record provides a solid foundation for managing the consequences of the ongoing war in Ukraine in 2024. The escalation of geopolitical tensions is forcing Geneva actors to anticipate an increased demand for mediation, humanitarian assistance, reconstruction, and the hosting of peace talks. By proactively taking such steps, International Geneva aims to be better prepared and positioned to address the evolving demands of a changing and turbulent world in 2024.

Towards a new multilateralism?

The GPO24 highlights four examples of how multilateral diplomacy can be more agile in responding to systemic challenges.

Multilateral diplomacy has evolved over the last two centuries primarily as a result of managing and codifying relationships between states. While formal decision-making in multilateral organisations is still controlled by states, the work to solve global problems requires a much broader set of actors. Over the last decade, Geneva has been a laboratory for a more networked and inclusive multilateralism targeted at ‘getting things done’. The GPO24 highlights four examples of how multilateral diplomacy can be more agile in responding to systemic challenges.

Filippo Grandi reflects on the 2023 Global Refugee Forum (GRF) and on how it might be indicative of a new multilateralism with three key features: a movement “dedicated to peace, compassion and humanitarianism”, a cross-sector approach “encouraging disparate entities to unite around themes”, and “minilateralism” focused on ongoing work of regional bodies in specific displacement situations. The GRF was the moment for these features to converge and, therefore, it also emphasises that large gatherings bringing together hundreds entities and thousands of participants remain an important part of a new multilateralism. The GRF’s result was “more than 1,600 pledges […] by States, businesses, NGOs, refugee-led organisations, charities, cities, financial institutions, academics and universities, faith groups and many others”. In a world of ongoing wars and misery, Grandi proposes three directions of work to turn these pledges into action: resolving the funding shortage in the humanitarian sector, building stronger resilience among affected populations at the onset of a crisis, and a holistic and humane view of displacement.

Paola Deda presents the experience of the Forum of Mayors within the context of the Committee of Urban Development, Housing and Land Management of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). This work builds on the strong demand from Mayors for a “formal space to interact informally with other actors” and “informal ways to exchange views to have an impact on formal decisions”. The Forum of Mayors emphasises the importance of the experience of Mayors “to address the pressing challenges of a globalised world” and opens the question of the “under-discussed” issue of the de jure integration of cities and local authorities into the intergovernmental machine. Still in its nascent phase, the Forum of Mayors has evolved into a mechanism of exchange between state and city diplomacy, and offers a prospect to build “formal or informal relationships with global UN processes in Geneva”.  

Marie-Laure Schaufelberger highlights the place of the finance industry in the global coalition shaping the direction and pace of a more resilient and sustainable economy. Schaufelberger sets out that “the transition to a more resilient economy requires far more investment than it receives today, which implies that those allocating capital must redefine their responsibility to society”. Action opportunities in this direction include the allocation of capital to “the companies developing the technologies and services that reduce the pressure on ecosystem services and build circularity” and to companies aligning with science-based environmental targets. In addition, investors can and should engage in change. She adds that “the Climate Action 100+, a collaborative investor initiative, which has gathered backing from USD 68 trillion in assets to engage the world’s 170 largest corporate greenhouse-gas emitters, is a great example of this new model.” The Building Bridges movement is another example that has become an important element in shaping the collaboration between the UN system and the finance sector in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The ability to solve concrete problems will be an ever more important feature of a credible multilateralism. Christopher Fabian reflects on the experience of combining blockchain technology, financial innovation and multilateral regulation “to connect every school in the world to the internet and bring the remaining 2.6 billion disconnected people online.” Fabian highlights that Geneva offers a useful foundation for solution-focused multilateralism given its strong footprint of government representations and experience in public-private partnerships. Another point is Switzerland’s visionary regulation of the blockchain sector. Elements for supporting such action-oriented multilateralism include the creation of experimentation spaces and strategies for attracting talents that have the ability to work across the professional boundaries of the tech, finance, government and academic sectors.  

The contributions to the Geneva Policy Outlook 2024 and over one year of exchanges between senior policymakers in Geneva have resulted in more questions than answers. This is why Gabriel Gomes Couto, Swetha Ramachandran, Léna Rieder-Menge, Achim Wennmann and Xinyu Yuan – your editorial team –  conclude the GPO24 with a list of “Questions for 2024”. These aim to guide the discussion about how Geneva, as a global hub, needs to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

About the author

Dr Achim Wennmann is the Editor of the Geneva Policy Outlook as part of his work as Director for Strategic Partnership at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

All publications of the Geneva Policy Outlook 2024 are personal contributions from the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institutions they represent, nor the views of the Republic and State of Geneva, the City of Geneva, the Fondation pour Genève, and Geneva Graduate Institute.