Amid Growing Global Refugee Crisis, Terror Attacks, General Assembly Appoints New United Nations Chief, Begins Implementing Sustainable Development Agenda

28 December 2016
Seventy-first session, Highlights

Amid Growing Global Refugee Crisis, Terror Attacks, General Assembly Appoints New United Nations Chief, Begins Implementing Sustainable Development Agenda

Secretary-General, Other World Leaders Sound Alarm over Deepening Rifts among Peoples, Urging Greater Solidarity, Partnership

Beginning its work against the backdrop of an expanding global refugee crisis, deepening political divisions and a spate of terror attacks across the globe, the General Assembly’s seventy-first session convened a record number of topical meetings, while also embarking on the daily business of implementing the newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, kicking off the final general debate of his decade-long tenure on 20 September, warned against deepening rifts between “us” and “them” around the globe.  In particular, he said, “gulfs of mistrust” had divided citizens from their Governments, with leaders in too many places rewriting constitutions and manipulating elections.  Pressing them instead to commit to new heights of solidarity, he cited a number of recent multilateral successes, including the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.  Those gains, however, were threatened by persistent conflict and failures of governance, he said, regretting that prospects for a two-State solution between Israel and the Palestinians were diminishing by the day, that yet another nuclear test by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had threatened global security and that violence had caused upheaval in Ukraine.

Assembly President Peter Thomson (Fiji) echoed those sentiments, stressing that millions of people around the globe continued to suffer the brutal effects of war.  The nearly six-year-long crisis in Syria, in particular, continued to generate immense human suffering.  Strongly condemning recent attacks on United Nations aid convoys there, he emphasized that the deliberate targeting of humanitarian personnel was a flagrant violation of international law.  “Week after week, innocent people are falling victim to despicable acts of violent extremism,” he said, adding:  “Collaboration and partnership are needed more than ever.”

Throughout the six-day-long debate, Heads of State and Government outlined their visions for a better world, with many voicing concern about widening chasms among peoples.  United States President Barack Obama stressed that world leaders faced a choice:  to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration, or retreat into a sharply-divided world.  President Michel Temer of Brazil was among those expressing concern over growing xenophobia, extreme nationalism and intolerance.  Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom, referring to her country’s recent vote to leave the European Union — known as “Brexit” — rejected the notion that the move was an inward turn, instead joining others to emphasize the continued importance of the United Nations.

Many speakers also sounded alarms over persistent inequality, pointing to entrenched poverty and systemic racism, with some underscoring the need to make the United Nations itself more democratic, transparent and diverse.  In that regard, President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire said the 15-member Security Council, with its present configuration and working methods, could not effectively resolve conflicts such as the one in Syria, and urged reform to bolster its legitimacy.  Meanwhile, other delegates expressed an array of opinions on five core reform issues:  membership categories, the question of the veto held by the five permanent members, regional representation, the size of an enlarged Council, and Council working methods.

The Assembly also held a number of topical high-level meetings in parallel with the general debate.  On 19 September, it convened a historic summit to address the global movement of refugees and migrants, whose numbers had surpassed 244 million in 2015 alone.  Adopting the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, Member States agreed to begin negotiations towards a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration, and accepted a shared responsibility to manage large movements of refugees and migrants in a humane, compassionate and people-centred manner.  Joining nearly 200 other speakers, including Heads of State, senior officials and observers, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stressed that “race-baiting bigots” were stoking fear against immigrants in many parts of the world.

On 21 September, Secretary-General Ban convened a special high-level event to mark the first steps towards the entry into force of the Paris Agreement.  Adopted in December 2015 and signed by 175 countries on 22 April 2016 — the largest single-day signing ceremony in history — the accord sought to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and ward off the worst impacts of climate change.  During the summit, Secretary-General Ban announced that more than 55 countries had joined the Agreement, officially crossing one of the two thresholds required to bring it into force.

That same day, the Assembly held another high-level meeting to discuss the health and development threats posed by antimicrobial resistance, or the ability of microorganisms to adapt to medications, rendering them ineffective.  Marking the fourth health topic — along with HIV/AIDS, Ebola and non-communicable diseases — to be addressed in the Assembly’s history, participants approved a political declaration, which the Assembly would later formally adopt.  The body also convened two other high-level meetings:  one on 22 September to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development and another on 26 September to mark the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

As the main part of the session got under way, the Assembly embarked on a new process to select Secretary-General Ban’s successor.  For the first time, it heard two-hour presentations by each candidate and held a global town hall debate, culminating in the appointment of António Guterres, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and two-time Prime Minister of Portugal, on 13 October.  A number of speakers hailed the “transparent and inclusive” deliberations and the incoming Secretary-General’s experience on the frontlines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering.  For his part, Mr. Guterres — who would take the Oath of Office on 12 December and assume his post as the ninth Secretary-General on 1 January 2017 — pledged to work as a convener, a mediator and a bridge-builder, helping to find solutions for the benefit of all people.

The Assembly’s First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) convened on the heels of a Security Council open debate on weapons of mass destruction on 23 August and a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly held to promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on 26 September.  Addressing the Committee at the outset of its work, Kim Won-Soo, Under-Secretary-General and Acting High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, urged Member States to be open-minded, break with “business as usual” and show greater flexibility and creativity to narrow differences and find common ground.  In that vein, the Committee approved 69 draft resolutions and decisions — 34 of them by recorded votes — on a broad range of concerns, from curbing the illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons to the humanitarian consequences of intentional or accidental nuclear detonations, to preventing weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists and other non-State actors.  The Committee deferred action pending approval from the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) on two treaty-related drafts — to convene a conference to negotiate a legally binding nuclear weapon ban and to establish a high-level group to discuss a fissile material cut-off treaty.

Taking centre stage in the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) this year was the implementation of the three ambitious development agendas adopted in 2015 — the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Agreement.  Throughout the session, delegations spotlighted the unique social, economic and environmental challenges facing countries in special situations.  They stressed the need to help small island developing States, as well as least developed, landlocked developing and middle-income countries, bridge the digital divide and meet such emerging challenges as climate change.  Financing for development also remained a critical focus of discussion, as did the importance of democratizing international financial institutions, building resilience and empowering women in science and technology.  The Committee forwarded 36 resolutions and one decision to the General Assembly, which voted on five of those resolutions, adopting all.

Where and how to address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity rights within the multilateral system was the subject of contentious debate in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), which produced 50 texts for the Assembly’s adoption.  The Committee finally agreed to language calling for an end to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.  However several delegates took issue with Human Rights Council resolution 32/2 on the protection of people from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  When put to a vote, their attempt to defer consideration of the resolution was rejected, although they succeeded in removing a reference to the Council’s decision to appoint an independent expert on the subject.  Also during the session, delegates called for a moratorium on the death penalty and discussed the reports of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the human rights treaty body system, hearing from the Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, extreme poverty and human rights, as well as human rights in Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Belarus and Eritrea. 

Holding 23 formal meetings, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard dozens of petitioners from some of the world’s remaining Non-Self-Governing Territories, as it considered decolonization issues.  The Committee also discussed such Middle Eastern matters as Palestinian refugees and Israel’s actions in occupied Arab lands.  In addition, it heard from high-level officials representing Governments, international organizations and civil society, as its members took up questions relating to information, international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space, and atomic radiation, as well as peacekeeping operations and special political missions.  The session culminated in the Committee approving 35 draft resolutions and two draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.

After debating a range of comprehensive human resource and management reform issues, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) agreed on texts to shorten the staff recruitment process, promote mobility and workplace conflict resolution, and improve the performance and management of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund.  The Committee also asked the Assembly to revise upwards the Organization’s 2016-2017 programme budget from $5.4 billion to $5.61 billion and to approve funding requirements for the 33 special political missions, the 2030 Agenda, the Umoja enterprise resource planning system and several office refurbishment projects, among other things.  It sent a total of 17 draft resolutions and two draft decisions to the Assembly for adoption.

Approving 25 resolutions and four decisions, all of which were adopted by the General Assembly without a vote, the Sixth Committee (Legal) tackled a wide range of topics, from international trade law to transboundary water resources.  Highlights of the seventy-first session included the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law convening a regional course in international law for Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time in 10 years.  Also considered was the annual report of the International Law Commission, which included the “Protection of the atmosphere”, jus cogens, and identification of customary international law.  However, as in past sessions, delegations were still unable to develop a draft convention on international terrorism. 


As the world continued to reel from a mass migration and refugee crisis, leaders kicked off the first week of high-level meetings by adopting the New York Declaration on the subject.  Endorsing the 90-paragraph proclamation, they agreed to address the crises and the people affected in a humanitarian manner.  Adding a refugee voice to the debate, Mohammed Badran of the organization Syrian Volunteers in the Netherlands shared his experiences.  “We are living on the edge of hell,” he declared, describing incidents of anger and fear directed at refugees in a world where many doors were simply closed to them.

Having hosted nearly 3 million Syrians, Turkey had done so with limited resources and assistance from the international community, that country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said during the general debate.  People fleeing death and tyranny in the Middle East and elsewhere continued to face “degrading acts in European cities”.  The international community had remained indifferent and unresponsive for far too long.  He pledged that Turkey would keep its doors open and called on all who perceived Syrian refugees as a threat to “look for peace behind the barbed wire and high walls”.

Hungary’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Péter Szijjártó, having dealt with an influx of refugees and migrants at its border, said that while the right to a safe life was a fundamental human right, choosing a State where one wanted to live was not.  Uncontrolled and unregulated migratory patterns were a threat to peace and security and Hungary would continue to make the safety of its people the top priority.  It would not allow violations at its borders.  Urging the international community to address the underlying cause of what was uprooting so many from their homes, he said that as long as terrorism existed so would the migration pressure on Europe. 

European leaders were split on the approach to dealing with the displacement crisis, with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany saying that the choice was not just between opening and closing borders, but also between engagement and isolation.  Germany had given shelter to more than 1 million people and begun training them to acquire the skills needed to one day rebuild their own cities.  Delegates also warned against a rise in xenophobia in Europe and beyond.  Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, emphasized the need to respond to rising aggressive nationalism, autocracy and fear-mongering.  In the same vein, President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana noted that extremist forces in many parts of the world had hijacked the dialogue.  Technology was being used to spread anxieties.  Hate speech had become more common and xenophobia had taken over rational thinking, he added.

Opening the seventy-first session on 13 September under the theme “The Sustainable Development Goals:  A Universal Push to Transform our World”, Assembly President Peter Thomson (Fiji) stressed that the 2030 Agenda had to serve as a bright new beacon to pull the world together and out of poverty.  He underscored the link between sustainable development, peace and security and human rights, pledging to encourage a heightening of the Assembly’s human rights work.  Regrettably, there was widespread lack of empathy for people on the move, many of whom were fleeing conflict, persecution or the effects of climate change.  He congratulated those who were not shirking their responsibilities, adding:  “It is time to turn down the rhetoric of intolerance and ratchet up a collective response based on our common humanity.”

In that vein, on 19 October, the Assembly commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  The Assembly President, warning against greater restrictions on rights and freedoms, urged Member States to work together to uphold the basics: the right to life, liberty and security; to equality before the law; to gender equality; to freedom of expression; and to freedom from discrimination, torture, slavery and hunger.

On 26 October, in a near‑unanimous vote, the Assembly adopted a resolution on the necessity of ending the United States economic, commercial and financial embargo on Cuba, despite the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries two years ago.  While 191 countries voted in favour, the United States and Israel abstained rather than vote against the text for the first time, during a year that also saw the first visit to Cuba by a United States President in almost 90 years and the reopening of embassies in their respective capitals.  Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said the human damage caused by the embargo was simply incalculable.  The blockade was a systematic violation of the human rights of all Cubans, he said, adding that it qualified as an act of genocide pursuant to the 1948 Geneva Convention.

Considering the latest report of the International Criminal Court on 31 October, the Assembly stressed that with crimes against humanity multiplying around the world, States must bolster support for the judicial body.  On the heels of Burundi, Gambia and South Africa announcing their withdrawal from the Court, or their intention to do so, Court President Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi said cooperation remained crucial for the entity’s ability to conduct its mandate.  Over the last two decades, the Court had given a voice to victims and had made strides in addressing crimes such as the use of child soldiers, sexual violence in conflict and attacks on civilians, while its Trust Fund for Victims had provided rehabilitation for more than 300,000 people.  Switzerland’s delegate said it was precisely because the Court successfully executed its mandate that some States rejected it.

During the session, the Assembly marked the 70-year anniversary of the International Court of Justice, the Organization’s main judicial organ, with several speakers pointing out that the Court remained the only judicial body with its basis in the United Nations Charter — and whose jurisdiction was, therefore, truly universal.  Delegates reaffirmed their support for the Court and commended its work, including its hearing of more than 160 cases, its 121 judgments and its 27 advisory opinions.  Also in the legal realm, the Assembly considered the many challenges faced by international tribunals set up in the wake of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which had left behind a historic legacy of bringing to justice perpetrators of atrocity crimes.

On 30 November, in its annual debate on the Middle East, the Assembly adopted six resolutions, including a text on the peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine, which called for the intensification of efforts towards the conclusion of a final pacific solution.  Another resolution on Jerusalem reiterated the Assembly’s determination that any actions by Israel, the occupying Power, to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration on the holy city of Jerusalem were illegal and therefore had no validity whatsoever.  It also called upon Israel to immediately cease all such illegal and unilateral measures.

The Permanent Observer of Palestine said the adoption of the resolutions by an overwhelming majority of Member States was a reflection of the longstanding international consensus in favour of reaching a just and peaceful solution.  Israel’s representative said the texts had not only failed to promote dialogue or build trust, they had also created an organizational infrastructure that abused funding to allow anti-Israel activities under the auspices of the United Nations.  Egypt’s delegate said that Israeli settlements were not just an obstacle to peace; they were the crux of the problem.  Even Israeli voices were aware that one people could not live at the expense of another. 

Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — one of the most widely-ratified human rights instruments in history — speakers told the Assembly on 2 December that more efforts were needed to end discrimination against such persons.  Participants shared personal experiences and described challenges relating to employment, education, accessibility and participation in social life.  Stevie Wonder, the internationally renowned musician and United Nations Messenger of Peace, said the Convention stood as a reminder that people with disabilities were not objects of charity but full members of society.  “I am just one example of someone who is abled differently, and yet I beat the odds,” he said.  But, some political leaders were bringing society back to a time when “we are once again handicapped by negative and divisive labels”.  Warning against such hatred and bigotry, he urged Member States to find ways to accomplish “what is right and just for all”.

As the Security Council remained mired in stalemate over Syria, the Assembly took action on 9 December, adopting a resolution demanding an immediate end to all hostilities and expressing outrage at the recent escalation of violence, particularly in Aleppo, where thousands of people remained trapped and in dire circumstances.  Canada’s delegate warned that without action Syria would soon become a giant graveyard, while his counterpart from the United States said the resolution was a vote to pressure the Russian Federation and the Assad regime to end the carnage.  However, Syria’s delegate said that the text violated the Charter and that Canada — along with France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the United States and others — had rained bombs on his country, deliberately targeting hospitals and schools and killing hundreds of civilians.  The representatives of the Russian Federation and Venezuela added that meddling in Syria’s affairs was a modern form of colonialism.

On 12 December, the Assembly swore in Secretary-General-elect António Guterres of Portugal.  Meanwhile, as part of his outgoing agenda, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented a report on 16 December titled “A new approach to cholera in Haiti”.  Adopting an eponymous text, the Assembly called on Member States, relevant United Nations bodies and other partners to fully support the new tactic, intensify efforts to eliminate cholera and address the suffering of its victims, including by providing material assistance.  Haiti’s representative, welcoming the resolution’s adoption, recalled that, during a recent visit to his country, Secretary-General Ban had “finally and formally” acknowledged the Organization’s role in the cholera outbreak and its moral responsibility to aid the victims.

First Committee

From the outset of the session of the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo urged Member States to be open-minded in achieving common goals.  Succeeding in shared ambitions required the jettisoning of old mind-sets and the willingness to shed a “business as usual” attitude.

Progress on disarmament efforts remained elusive and the implementation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons had fallen far short of expectations, said the representative of Egypt on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition.  Disappointment in the continued deadlock in the Conference of Disarmament, as well as the failure of the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to agree on a final outcome document, weighed heavily on Member States throughout the session.

Some speakers called for new approaches as they raised concerns over the current standstill.  Central to those discussions was a proposal from the Open-ended Working Group taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations that the General Assembly convene, in 2017, a conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.  Fifty-seven countries co-sponsored the draft text, which was adopted by the General Assembly following a review by the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) of the programme budget implications.

While some said a nuclear weapon ban treaty was the most viable alternative to a stalled step-by-step approach, the initiative faced opposition from, among others, all five nuclear-weapon States, amid concern that it would actually undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty and fail to address underlying security challenges.  The Russian Federation’s representative said pursuing such a path would inevitably have a negative impact on the Non-Proliferation Treaty and break an established pace of multilateral work on disarmament.  Meanwhile, his counterpart from the United States said that frustration with the pace of progress was not a compelling reason to abandon an approach to reduction that had built upon decades of pragmatic steps, urging Member States to stay the course.

However, some speakers, including South Africa’s delegate, said resistance by nuclear-weapon States to fulfil disarmament commitments had caused serious divisions and created a credibility crisis in the current disarmament and non-proliferation regime.  Expressing concerns echoed by other non-nuclear weapon States about an imbalance on the disarmament playing field, Guatemala’s representative cautioned against a small number of nuclear-weapon States determining when and how nuclear disarmament should take place.

Several delegates cited an exception to traditional disarmament rules and norms as a result of their unique security situations.  As Member States resoundingly joined forces in their condemnation of nuclear tests conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, that country’s representative repeatedly defended its nuclear weapons programme, saying there was no option but to build a deterrent in response to nuclear blackmail from the United States.  The Assembly also adopted by recorded vote another outstanding text containing programme budget implications.  By that draft, the Assembly requested the Secretary-General to establish a high-level preparatory group on a fissile material cut-off treaty.

Cross-border terrorist threats brought a sense of immediacy to the discourse.  Several speakers emphasized the danger of non-State actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction.  At the same time, heightened regional tensions and an intractable conflict in Syria generated intense debate on the latest findings of chemical weapon use in the country.  Typically a consensus document, a draft resolution condemning the use of those weapons included new language in this year’s text on Syria that stirred divisions and required separate recorded votes.

Delegates raised a host of pressing concerns, among them the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, global military spending and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, particularly to vulnerable countries.  On the latter issue, many speakers underscored the crucial role of the Arms Trade Treaty and the need to combat the illicit flow of such armaments.  Emerging technological developments, including unmanned aerial vehicles and armed robots, also cast a spotlight on modern security challenges.  Several delegates called for norms to stymie cyberattacks, while Pakistan’s representative warned that weapons in outer space was no longer the stuff of science fiction.

Over four weeks and three days, the Committee heard statements from 118 delegations within its general debate segment and more than 300 interventions during its thematic discussions.  Out of the 69 resolutions and decisions it sent to the Assembly, 34 were approved by recorded votes.

The Committee Chairperson was Sabri Boukadoum (Algeria).  Serving as Vice-Chairs were Kamapradipta Isnomo (Indonesia), Maria Soledad Urruela Arenales (Guatemala) and Rene Zeleny (Czech Republic).  Darren Hansen (Australia) was Rapporteur.

Second Committee

The world was facing an unprecedented array of global risks and negative trends, ranging from the refugee crisis and climate change to political upheaval and low growth, the Second Committee heard as it opened its general debate on 3 October.  Member States highlighted global economic imbalances and climate change as major threats in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Similarly, Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, stressed that slow economic progress and an accompanying drop in investment as well as commodity prices was hampering development.  Managed globalization could contribute to a more stable and prosperous future, he said, but isolationism and protectionism threatened the world’s partnership for development. 

Globalization offered opportunities for growth, but also threw up hindrances, Member States argued throughout the session.  Speaking at a joint meeting of the Second Committee and the Economic and Social Council, author Thomas Friedman said the world was witnessing three simultaneous accelerations — globalization, climate change, and technology — and that Governments as well as institutions would need to adapt.

Delegates repeatedly noted that the United Nations quadrennial comprehensive policy review would be an opportunity for its development system to coordinate operations and integrate the Goals into the Organization’s work.  They agreed that South-South cooperation was needed to achieve that coordination, but stressed that North-South cooperation was also still vital.

Climate change and its effects on natural hazards, poverty and environmental degradation posed major challenges to development, many speakers emphasized.  Development assistance was important in overcoming challenges exacerbated by climate change, including the El Niño phenomenon, desertification, land degradation and loss of biodiversity.  It was also necessary to provide sufficient resources to developing countries in combating extreme poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, delegates said.  The Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative noted that extreme weather threatened the food security of more than 60 million people worldwide, with small island developing States and mountain countries being particularly vulnerable. 

Aiming to address those challenges, the Committee approved resolutions that would help fight serious drought and/or desertification and promote sustainable tourism as well as entrepreneurship.  Promoting sustainable development in different regions of the world was also a key concern, as evidenced by resolutions on sustainable development of the Caribbean Sea and sustainable mountain development.

Many speakers also highlighted the need to reform the international financial and trading systems by creating an equitable platform for economic growth and development.  They noted that exports had remained stagnant or had drastically declined in recent years due to low world prices, a global failure to adapt to changing markets and policies penalizing traditional trading activities.  Speaking for the Alliance of Small Island Developing States, Maldives’ representative stressed his groups’ heavy dependence on imports, adding that exports were a central source of foreign exchange and cash income.  An inclusive multilateral trading system accommodating the needs of small island States was crucial to ensure sustained growth in global trade.

With increased migration worldwide, delegates also focused on the importance of migrants in boosting economies, stressing the need for well-managed policies and governance.  John Wilmoth, Director of the Population Division in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, noted that the number of international migrants had increased by more than 60 per cent since 1990, reaching 244 million in 2015, but ratification of legal instruments addressing their plight had remained uneven.

Speakers also voiced concern about Israeli occupation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the occupied Syrian Golan, which was increasing poverty and impeding sustainable development.  The relevant resolution demanded that Israel stop exploiting, damaging, depleting or endangering natural resources in those territories and recognized the Palestinians’ right to claim restitution for damage, loss, depletion or endangerment of natural resources due to illegal measures taken by Israel and its settlers.

The Second Committee Bureau was chaired by Dian Triansyah Djani (Indonesia), with Arthur Amaya Andambi (Kenya), Galina Nipomici (Republic of Moldova) and Ignacio Díaz de la Guardia Bueno (Spain) serving as Vice-Chairs and Glauco Seoane (Peru) as Rapporteur.

Third Committee

Where and how to address issues of sexual orientation and gender identity rights within the multilateral system was the subject of contentious debate over two months of meetings in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) as it produced 50 texts to be sent to the General Assembly for adoption.

Following a 4 November briefing by the President of the Human Rights Council, a number of delegates took issue with Council resolution 32/2 of 30 June 2016 on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The African Group, objecting to the linkage between gender discrimination and human rights instruments, had tabled a draft resolution to defer consideration of and action on resolution 32/2, said Botswana’s delegate, a proposal which the European Union representative, among others, warned against. 

The debate over sexual orientation and gender identity continued on 18 November over a text calling for an end to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, which the Committee approved by a recorded vote of 106 in favour to none against, with 69 abstentions.  By its terms, the General Assembly would note the arbitrary deprivation of life resulting from “the imposition and implementation of capital punishment when carried out in a manner that violates international law” — a point of contention for several delegates.  Many objected to a section of the text listing groups that were particularly vulnerable to extrajudicial killings, including those targeted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Some said the reference was an attempt by some countries to impose their value systems on others.  But when put to a vote, the Committee rejected an amendment proposing to remove the contentious language by 84 recorded votes against to 60 in favour, with 27 abstentions.

The skirmishing continued on 21 November, when the Committee approved as amended a draft taking note of the Human Rights Council report and recommendations, by a recorded vote of 94 in favour to 3 against (Belarus, Israel, Mauritius), with 80 abstentions.  That approval followed the narrow passage — by 84 recorded votes in favour to 77 against, with 17 abstentions — of an amendment deleting the original text’s operative paragraph 2.  At issue, again, was resolution 32/2, deciding to appoint an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  Botswana’s delegate, on behalf of the African Group, stressed that the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” were not enshrined in international law, opening debate on that topic and the broader potential procedural consequences of reopening a Council decision.

Intense discussion also broke out around the international legal standing of the death penalty and States’ sovereign rights to determine domestic judicial systems.  On 17 November, the Committee approved an amended draft calling for a moratorium on the death penalty by a recorded 115 votes in favour to 38 against, with 31 abstentions.  Before that action, the Committee approved an amendment reaffirming the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, by a recorded 76 votes in favour to 72 against, with 26 abstentions.

Earlier in the session, the Committee considered reports of the human rights treaty body system, with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression stressing on 21 October that counter-terrorism was being used to justify the detention of journalists, and the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on 25 October, decrying the United Nations handling of the cholera outbreak in Haiti as a “disaster”.  Of the five Special Rapporteurs with country mandates to brief the Committee, only one, assigned to Myanmar, had been granted access to the territory under her mandate.  The other four — covering human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Belarus and Eritrea — had gathered information remotely.  The Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Eritrea — a member of the former Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea — cited “reasonable grounds” to believe that Eritrean officials had committed crimes since 1991.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights presented his annual report on 19 October, noting that his Office was developing guidance on the human rights of migrants in vulnerable situations who had not received refugee protection.  Similarly, the new United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 2 November said the conflicts in Iraq and Syria accounted for almost a quarter of the world’s displaced people.  The war in Syria, now in its sixth year, had caused the largest humanitarian crisis, with 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced and 4.8 million refugees.

Chairing the Committee was María Emma Mejía Vélez (Colombia), with Masni Eriza (Indonesia), Karina Helena Węgrzynowska (Poland) and Andreas Glossner (Germany) serving as Vice-Chairs and Cécile Mballa Eyenga (Cameroon) as Rapporteur.

Fourth Committee

Decolonization questions loomed large over the work of the Fourth Committee, with delegations expressing regret that the urgent task of eradicating colonialism remained incomplete considering that the peoples of the world’s 17 remaining Non-Self-Governing Territories were still voiceless in terms of deciding their own future.

With the decolonization process “in stagnation” despite progress made since the General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples in 1960, a number of delegates encouraged the Committee to find different ways to improve its interaction and cooperation with administering Powers.

During the Committee’s debate on peacekeeping operations, Under-Secretary-General Hervé Ladsous said new coalitions of support were needed to address collective security challenges in today’s multipolar world.  Future peace operations would require expert deployment, effective use of technology and adaptability to situations on the ground.  Since Member States had demanded that the United Nations “do more with less” while expecting the same level of performance, its efforts must focus on maximizing political leverage and comparative advantage, he emphasized.

The Committee took up the question of special political missions on 27 October, when it considered the Secretary-General’s report on policy matters.  Presenting the report, Jeffrey Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, noted that the global strategic environment had deteriorated, with significant implications for the broader peace and security agenda.  In order to reverse that trend, a global effort would be required to prioritize prevention and peaceful resolution of conflicts, he said, describing special political missions as “one of our most important mechanisms for peace processes”.  From the regional office in Central Africa to the newly deployed mission in Colombia, special political missions were often mandated to work side-by-side with regional counterparts in pursuit of peace and stability, he said, noting that such cooperation could have a multiplying effect by drawing on respective comparative advantages.

In addressing questions relating to information, Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, reported that approximately 2.5 million people had watched the webcast of proceedings in the general debate during the high-level period of the General Assembly’s seventy-first session.  In addition, the Department’s information centres had forged partnerships with a view to advancing the Sustainable Development Goals through art, sport, technology or public information campaigns around the world.  While delegates applauded the increased content on the Organization’s websites, as well as on social and traditional media channels, they expressed concern that daily press releases were not available in all six official United Nations languages.

Taking up the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the Committee heard that young Palestinians continued to face unquantifiable challenges, including the risk of radicalization due to mounting insecurity and the frustration of unmet humanitarian needs.  Many delegations voiced concerns about the Agency’s difficult financial situation as well as the volatile environment in which it worked.  The Agency’s services were an investment in the future of Palestine refugees and in the region’s security, some stressed, expressing concern about UNRWA’s structural funding gap.

The Committee also considered the report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israel’s illegal practices in occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories.  Delegates raised concerns over Israel’s expansion of illegal settlements, excessive use of force by its security forces, administrative detentions, collective punishment and attacks against human rights defenders.  An observer for the State of Palestine said the report reflected “painful accuracy”, while Israel’s representative called it the “product of an illegitimate mandate”.

On the effects of atomic radiation, delegates noted that while the findings of the 2013 report on Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident remained valid, the long-term incidence of cancer among its victims required further consideration.  Ukraine’s representative, in particular, observed that the most important lesson learned from Chernobyl was the need for lasting improvements in nuclear and radiation safety around the world.

As for the question of international cooperation in the peaceful use of outer space, the Committee heard that the application of space technologies had improved efforts to manage disaster and natural resources, protect the environment, monitor oceans and climate, and eradicate poverty.  Harnessing the benefits of space science and technology would be crucial for the global effort to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  However, many delegates also stressed the importance of preventing an arms race in, and militarization of, outer space.

By the conclusion of its session on 8 November, the Committee had recommended 35 draft resolutions and 2 draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.

Alongside Chair Vladimir Drobnjak (Croatia), the Fourth Committee Bureau comprised Vice-Chairs Juan Antonio Benard Estrada (Guatemala), Hossein Maleki (Iran) and Wouter Poels (Belgium), as well as Rapporteur Awale Ali Kullane (Somalia).

Fifth Committee

As it managed the first year of the current 2016-2017 budget cycle and zeroed in on ways to make the Organization run more efficiently in a world facing fiscal constraints, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved 19 texts on a wide range of management and fiscal issues.

The Committee passed a comprehensive human resources resolution that many delegates said was necessary to finish ongoing reforms to overhaul how tens of thousands of staff around the world are being hired, trained and paid.  The measures, begun in 2010, aimed to eliminate inequities in the conditions of service between the Secretariat and the funds, programmes and specialized agencies and correct high vacancy and turnover rates in the field.  The seven-part resolution called for shortening the process for filling a post to no more than 120 days, retaining existing criteria intended to ensure an equal geographic balance in the composition of staff worldwide, and ensuring departments and offices continued implementing the Organization’s new staff mobility framework.

In other staff matters, the Committee voiced concern over the benefit payment delays endured by retirees and participants in the $53.8 billion United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund and the need for suitable action to rectify the matter.  It asked the Secretary-General to take steps to improve the Fund’s investment performance, which had fallen below the 3.5 per cent annual return rate target.  Delegates also called for a series of changes and extra funds to continue improving the Organization’s administration of justice system that resolves disputes for tens of thousands of employees worldwide, after an independent review in 2015 revealed that only half of the workforce had access to the system.

During the session that ran from 29 September 2016 until 23 December 2016, the Fifth Committee delegates also handled a variety of crucial fiscal issues and laid down a blueprint for their financial priorities for the next two-year budget cycle that starts in 2018. 

They also scrutinized the Secretary-General’s so-called first performance report — the review of the first year of the current 2016-2017 $5.4 billion budget cycle.  The report, discussed at the Fifth Committee’s 15 December meeting, pinpointed budget adjustments to account for inflation, shifting exchange rates and unforeseen costs.  As a result, the two-year budget was revised upwards to $5.61 billion. 

The Fifth Committee asked the Assembly to keep the 33 special political missions of the United Nations running smoothly by appropriating $639.53 million for them, including for a new mission in Colombia, despite some delegates’ repeated calls to create a separate funding mechanism.

In other fiscal areas, the Fifth Committee called for financing to advance Umoja, the Organization’s enterprise resources planning project, and make the offices at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) more earthquake-resilient, as well as for creation of 16 temporary posts to help implement the new blueprint for global advancement known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In addition, delegates asked the Assembly to approve a cost-free restructuring of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) that would shift more of the Office’s work from its Geneva headquarters to existing and proposed regional offices.  Further, the Assembly was asked to approve funding for the restructuring of the United Nations Office to the African Union, continued maintenance of the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), and efficient functioning of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia and their Residual Mechanism.

The Fifth Committee Bureau included Committee Chair Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines); Vice Chairs Marcio Burity (Angola), Stefan Pretterhofer (Austria) and Marina Nikodijevic (Serbia); and Rapporteur Diana Lee (Singapore).

Sixth Committee

Tackling a raft of legal topics during the seventy-first session, the Sixth Committee investigated issues that ranged from environmental concerns to the principles of universal jurisdiction.  Yet, as it had in past sessions, progress developing a comprehensive draft convention on measures to eliminate international terrorism stalled.  Many speakers expressed regret at the continued stalemate, underscoring how the threat was expanding and taking on new forms, crossing borders not only geographically but also online through social media and media networks.  State-sponsored terrorism was also highlighted by the representative of Afghanistan who spoke of his country’s fight against a “sophisticated nexus” of nine terrorist groups, emphasizing that States or elements within States perpetrating attacks must be held accountable. 

A convention was the appropriate instrument to strengthen State capacity to combat the scourge, said the representative of Trinidad and Tobago, speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).  Nonetheless, because there was no agreement on a draft text, Liechtenstein’s delegate suggested that perhaps it should be taken off the Committee’s agenda or discussed on a biannual basis.  Striking a more hopeful note, the representative of the United States stressed that “we are seeing results,” adding that various Council resolutions addressed a range of issues that exemplified the role of the United Nations in addressing challenges in the fight against terrorism.

However, the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law did have notable success during the past year as a result of the General Assembly’s decision in the seventieth session to provide additional funding for the Programme.  Virginia Morris, Advisory Committee Secretary of the Programme, stressed that the funding had enabled the convening in Uruguay of the Regional Course for Latin America and the Caribbean, a course which had not been held for over ten years.  Other achievements included the publishing of the four-volume International Law Handbook, which would be ready for use by the International Law Fellowship Program in 2017 and available for free online.

"We are talking here of entire generations of State lawyers from all the corners of the world who benefit from the lessons given by leading experts on every subject of the international legal agenda,” said the representative of the Dominican Republic, speaking for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).  Echoing that, the representative of South Africa, speaking for the African Group, also underscored that for a world order to be based on the rule of law, there was a need to study, understand and disseminate knowledge of international law.

The Committee also held its annual deliberation on the work done by the International Law Commission, with delegates commending that body for its work in the codification and progressive development of international law, while pointing out where prudence was necessary.  Topics debated included jus cogens, crimes against humanity, immunity of State officials from foreign criminal jurisdiction, and identification of customary international law, upon which sixteen draft conclusions had been adopted. 

The Commission had also adopted a preamble and a set of eighteen draft articles on “Protection of persons in the event of disasters”, which it was recommending to the General Assembly be elaborated into a convention.  Welcoming that, the European Union would be ready to contribute to the future work on that instrument, said that bloc’s representative.  The United States’ representative, on the other hand, noting that not all concerns expressed by Member States had been resolved, suggested that the draft texts be approached as a provision of practical guidance rather than as a convention.

Delegates also scrutinized the Commission’s work on “Protection of the atmosphere”, with many speakers stating that environmental degradation knew no borders.  Mexico’s representative stressed that the fragmented approach occurring through multiple related conventions and norms showed the need for a condensed regulatory framework, while the delegate of China urged the Commission to respect the existing mechanisms and efforts that addressed such a complex issue.  However, representatives of small island States such as Tonga and Tuvalu underscored their vulnerability to pollution and climate-related challenges, with Tonga’s delegate pointing to the pressing need to continue identifying, develop and codify existing and emerging rules and principles on the matter.

Divided stances also emerged on the relationship between the Sixth Committee and the International Law Commission and the location of future Commission sessions.  Slovakia’s delegate emphasized that the Commission was an independent body of experts whose interaction with the Sixth Committee should occur when the Committee reviewed its report.  Noting that the Commission would be holding part of its seventieth session in New York, he stressed that changing the longstanding practice of holding sessions in Geneva lacked merit.  Nonetheless, the representative of Cuba commented on the “meagre interaction” between the Sixth Committee and the Commission, adding that the work done by the Commission, in regards to subjects under study and codification, had not had a particular result in the Committee.

The report of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) was also reviewed, with that Commission’s Chair underscoring the achievements of UNCITRAL working groups.  Among those accomplishments was the development by the working group on Online Dispute Resolution of its first instrument in the settlement of online disputes, which the Commission had adopted.  As well, Working Group I on Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises had prepared a legislative guide to assist States in crafting legal frameworks for legally recognized simplified businesses.  The Chair also emphasized the important role of UNCITRAL texts for States looking to modernize their international trade law regimes, noting that many States had taken actions on those texts, including ratification of treaties.

As the Committee took up the report of Secretary-General on strengthening and coordinating United Nations rule of law activities, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson underscored that the international community must ensure that Member States were supported in their plans and aspirations.  The representative of Denmark, speaking for the Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), noted that societies where rule of law was respected and an independent judiciary was able to ensure justice and accountability were societies better equipped to protect their people and provide them with services.

Delegates shared best practices to ensure access to justice as a critical driver of the rule of law, describing the unique characteristics of the principle when implemented into national platforms, legal programmes and initiatives.  The representative of Myanmar, pointing out that it was the first year of his country’s democracy, highlighted the place rule of law took in the creation of a newly-formed Government.  That included establishing community forums and mock trials, as well as organizing law centres around the country to provide skills and general awareness of democratic legal systems.

As the Sixth Committee began its consideration of the law of transboundary aquifers, the representative of Japan reminded speakers that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development called for ensuring the sustainability of water for all.  In the ensuing discussion, many delegates stressed the need to approach the matter in a manner conducive to their situation and region.  The representative of Tunisia, speaking for the Arab Group, noted that the International Law Commission had developed a number of flexible articles that provided a good basis on which countries could proceed. 

However, she also stressed that, in light of water shortages in her region, it was important to consider different State practices and factors, including the weather forecast, the economic and social considerations of the countries, and hydrological issues.  Argentina’s representative, also speaking for Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, emphasized that the text began with the recognition that the States in which the aquifers were located had sovereignty over the portion of water or aquifer system located within their territory and that States which had transboundary aquifers also had the responsibility to develop effective mechanisms of cooperation for their equitable and reasonable management.

The General Assembly, per the Sixth Committee’s recommendations, also granted observer status to five international organizations, including the International Chamber of Commerce, which has been a candidate for many years, despite not meeting observer criteria.  The resolution, highlighting the exceptional nature of the Chamber, stressed that there should be more opportunities for the corporate world to contribute to the achievement of the Organization's goals and programmes.  Nonetheless, the Russian Federation’s representative underscored that granting such status should neither set a precedent nor change existing criteria for observer status. 

Chairing the Sixth Committee Bureau was Danny Danon (Israel), alongside Vice Chairpersons Bilal Ahmad (Pakistan), Kaswamu Katota (Zambia) and Zoltán Turbék (Hungary) and Rapporteur Isaías Arturo Medina Mejías (Venezuela).

For information media. Not an official record.