General Assembly Adopts ‘Milestone’ Reforms, Including Improving Transparency, Accountability of President’s Office

13 September 2016
Seventieth General Assembly, 117th Meeting (AM)

General Assembly Adopts ‘Milestone’ Reforms, Including Improving Transparency, Accountability of President’s Office

The General Assembly today adopted a consensus resolution outlining a number of “milestone” reforms to reinvigorate its work as it moved into its eighth decade, notably to improve the transparency and accountability of its President’s Office.

By the resolution, contained in the report of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly (document A/70/1003), the Assembly decided that the president-elect would take an oath of office and observe a code of ethics — each detailed in annexes I and II of the text and to be attached to the Assembly’s own Rules of Procedures.

The world body, by the text, decided that Assembly presidents would provide financial disclosures on assumption and completion of their duties, and requested both the Ethics Office and Department for General Assembly and Conference Management to provide an induction briefing to all presidents and their Office members prior to their assumption of duties.  It also requested the Secretary-General to submit proposals to review the budget allocation of the President’s Office and make staff programme budget resources available from the date of the election.

“It points to the critical need to continue to strengthen the role and authority of the General Assembly and to improve its working methods,” said Mogens Lykketoft (Denmark), General Assembly President, congratulating the Ad Hoc Working Group for delivering another landmark resolution.

The text addressed the selection and appointment of the Secretary-General and other executive heads, he said.  It was, however, in relation to the transparency and accountability of the Assembly president where the resolution had made its greatest mark.  He had placed the highest priority on that issue, particularly in how he and his staff had discharged their responsibilities.

The text included an oath of office, he said, which his successor would take later today, and a code of conduct, which would apply to Office staff members.  There were also other measures, which, taken together, formed a substantive package of actions to strengthen the integrity of the President’s Office and, by extension, the United Nations itself:  mandated record keeping; financial disclosure requirements; vetting of trust fund contributions and comprehensive induction briefings for the President’s office staff.

As his Presidency was drawing to a close, Mr. Lykketoft said he had a sense of great optimism as to what the United Nations could achieve when working together.  A Secretariat representative then outlined programme budget implications for the biennium 2018-2019 arising from the text’s adoption.

After the adoption, the European Union’s representative said the significant new elements in the text would not have been possible without the flexibility shown by all Member States in the negotiating process.  The text was a milestone in strengthening the accountability, transparency and institutional memory of the Office of the President of the General Assembly.  On 18 July, the Council of the European Union had adopted its priorities for the General Assembly, reiterating the need for reform and the reinvigoration of global governance systems.

In a similar vein, Brazil’s delegate welcomed the “breakthrough” resolution, saying that measures such as the provision of financial disclosures by the President, among others, would help in observing the highest standards of transparency.  However, the text had fallen short of expectations concerning the overdue need to provide the President’s Office with meaningful resources from the regular budget.  The Assembly could not be a rubberstamping body.  Citing advances in paragraphs 44 and 45, he said the prescription that there should be no monopolies in the senior posts had come from previously agreed language in resolutions 46/232 and 51/241.  That principle must guide the new Secretary-General’s appointments from the outset, he said, advocating improvement in the Secretariat’s function.

Several speakers also focused on the selection process of the next Secretary-General.  Estonia’s representative, on behalf of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group, said it would continue to advocate for the best-qualified person to be selected through a fair and transparent process.  He also called on the Security Council to live up to the expectations of the general membership concerning the new standards of openness and transparency with regard to the selection process.

Croatia’s delegate, who had served as co-chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group, called the resolution a “triumph of consensus” and a continuation of resolution 69/321.  While there was ample room for progress, creative improvements had been made in the selection and appointment of the Secretary-General and strengthening of the Assembly President’s office.  That the annexes would be immediately annexed to the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure spoke to the significance and reach of the actions taken today.

Colombia’s representative said “we’ve come a long way” in creating a more inclusive, democratic and transparent Assembly.  Recalling resolution 70/1003, which had highlighted the need for gender and geographic balance, she said there had been high female participation in the search for the next Secretary-General.  The Assembly had fine-tuned its procedures with the Security Council and Economic and Social Council so that all could function more efficiently.  She drew attention to the appeal in the text for more consistent alignment between the Assembly and the Sustainable Development Goals.

In other business, the Assembly — by a vote of 82 in favour, 9 against (Bolivia, Iran, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, Syria, United Republic of Tanzania, Venezuela, Zimbabwe), and 21 abstentions — decided to include agenda item 130 titled “Global awareness of the tragedies of irregular migrants in the Mediterranean basin, with specific emphasis on Syrian asylum seekers” on the draft agenda of its seventy-first session. 

Speaking before action, Syria’s representative, who had requested the vote, said item 130 had failed to look objectively at all aspects of migration throughout the world or the main reasons for large migrant movements:  terrorism, Israeli occupation of Arab lands and unilateral economic sanctions.  It had also failed to address migrants from Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen.  Some 80 per cent of those coming to Europe were of African or Asian origin.  Focusing only on Syrian refugees would not provide the widespread solutions that were needed.  His delegation rejected the use of Syrian asylum seekers as political ploys. 

The representative of the Russian Federation said the problem of illegal migrants should be considered in the General Assembly in a broad, inclusive manner taking into account all aspects, including human rights.  Focusing on Syrian migrants seemed inappropriate and politicized.  He proposed excluding the reference to Syrian asylum seekers to avoid an unnecessary rift within the General Assembly.

A number of delegations advocated support for the item’s inclusion as originally conceived on the draft agenda of the seventy-first session, including from Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Turkey and the United States.

Several others favoured the Russian proposal to delete the reference to Syrian refugees, arguing that the issue should be considered comprehensively, including speakers from China, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran and Venezuela.

After the vote, Albania’s delegate explained she would have voted in favour of the item’s inclusion had she not missed the action.

Syria’s delegate welcomed genuine efforts to address the issue of Syrian refugees.  Noting that Syrians accounted for only 21 per cent of all asylum seekers, he said he had voted against inclusion on the agenda.  He expressed his appreciation to those who had voted in favour of not confining the issue to a Syrian one.

Singapore’s delegate supported the item’s inclusion on the agenda from a respect for States’ rights to make such proposals.  Irregular migration in the Mediterranean basin was a global concern.  While approaches to addressing large movements of migrants and refugees might differ, the Assembly was the forum where States could discuss that issue with a view to finding durable solutions.

The Assembly will reconvene at 3:00 p.m. to close its seventieth session.

For information media. Not an official record.