Julian Braithwaite

Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Part of UK in Switzerland

11th January 2016 Geneva, Switzerland

The Geneva Agenda for 2016

The Geneva institutions are facing big questions at the start of 2016.

Will the humanitarian system adapt to the challenges of protracted conflicts and unsustainable mass migration?  Will the World Trade Organization (WTO) rediscover its role at the heart of the global economy?  Can we respond effectively to the growing threat of pandemics and the obsolescence of antibiotics?  Can the United Nations (UN) hold its ground on human rights?

We all have a big stake in ensuring that the answers come out right.


Antonio Guterres, the now legendary head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who stepped down last month, was fond of saying that the humanitarian system was broke but it wasn’t broken.  He quoted the exponential growth in the number of displaced people over the last decade and the related costs of supporting them; and how funding from the UN’s member states was failing to keep up.

But in so far as the current system is no longer sustainable, it is also broken as well as broke.  As Antonio also said, protracted conflicts now account for 80% of all the people displaced around the world and the factors behind their rise are unlikely to be reversed any time soon.  The average time spent as a refugee is now 17 years.  We need the emerging economies to help bring new resources into the system.  But even that won’t be enough to make the current system financially – or politically – sustainable.  Unless we can find viable ways of supporting the long-term displaced, and stemming uncontrolled movement of people, particularly into Europe, calls to reopen the 1951 Convention will grow.  And political support in the dozen or so countries who largely fund the current humanitarian system will wither.

Next month’s conference in London is a chance to agree a new humanitarian approach for Syria that recognises the role that education and economic opportunity must play in a sustainable response to displacement.  We hope that this in turn will offer ideas for the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, and the reform of the humanitarian system as a whole.


Last month’s WTO summit in Nairobi may be over but the battle to define what it means has only just begun.

Many in the developing world argue that Nairobi was a bitter failure, despite the significance of the decision to phase out many agricultural subsidies, and the other elements of the deal that benefit developing countries.  Others say that the Doha Round is effectively over, and highlight the other big agreement at Nairobi, to liberalise over a trillion dollars worth of trade in high-tech goods.  They argue that variable geometry of this sort, which brought together countries that represented 90% of this fast growing global market, but less than a majority of the WTO’s membership, represents the future.

All the members of the WTO have an interest in ensuring that we find a flexible way forward that doesn’t so polarise the WTO as to undermine it.  So the priority this year is to build coalitions that break down the increasingly artificial barriers between developed and developing countries, on the issues that matter most to the global economy, such as services, liberalising digital trade, and the key outstanding Doha issues.


Globalisation has its externalities, and the threat to human health is one of them.  As the costs and barriers to global travel have come tumbling down so the movement of people – and therefore microbes – has increased exponentially in scale and speed.  In the last decade alone we’ve had pandemic scares from viruses that have been terrifyingly fast, or terrifyingly lethal.  We have to plan for one that will be both.

Similarly, the massive increase in the uncontrolled availability of antibiotics around the world has combined with the unprecedented movement of people to spread drug resistant strains of bacteria that could be killing as many as 10 million people a year by 2050.

Later this month the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Executive Board will consider a raft of reforms designed to implement the lessons learned from Ebola.  The UK will be arguing for bold and fast.  On Anti Microbial Resistance, with our allies, we plan to push this to the top of the international agenda in 2016.


Human rights may be universal, but they are not universally respected by governments around the world.  After two decades of remarkable progress we are beginning to see a backlash.  Last year saw the hard won gains on the rights of women, the diversity of families, the balance between religion and freedom of speech, and the treatment of minorities, come under repeated attack in the Human Rights Council.  Too many countries still block effective action to tackle gross violations of human rights because they see it as interference in a country’s internal affairs.

Those countries who support a strong UN human rights framework will need to be better organised in 2016 if they are not to lose ground.


Seeing up close the waste and grubby politics that are also part of the UN can give you a jaundiced view of the international system.  Like their membership, UNHCR, WTO, WHO and the rest of the Geneva institutions are not perfect.  But they represent a remarkable collective achievement by the community of nations, and have achieved remarkable things.  We should never take that for granted.

About Julian Braithwaite

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015. Julian was born in Rome, and has…

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015.

Julian was born in Rome, and has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, where he studied biochemistry, history and international relations.

He is married to Biljana Braithwaite and they have
two daughters, Anya (born 2000) and Katya (born 2004). He spent much of his career dealing with the crises in the former Yugoslavia and goes to Montenegro every summer.

Julian posts on the United Nations and the issues around globalisation, including human rights, the internet, global health, humanitarian crises and arms control.