Isolationism Obsolete as World Becomes Ever More Interdependent, New Zealand Prime Minister Warns
The global climate emergency as well as zero-sum geopolitics, declining development assistance and rising global debt set the backdrop for world leaders as the General Assembly began the annual general debate for its seventy-fourth session, with many calling for solidarity to meet the planet’s most pressing challenges.
Secretary-General António Guterres warned in opening remarks that the international community is at risk of a “great fracture”, noting that “many people fear getting trampled, thwarted, left out and left behind” by automation, demagogues, traffickers and warlords at a time when “we see borders and hearts closing” to refugees and displaced people. At the same time, the world is losing the race to combat climate change, which increasingly poses a dire threat to humanity, he said.
Addressing the theme for the seventy-fourth session — “Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion” — he offered a hopeful perspective, saying that “if we change our ways now” to reduce emissions and cap the rise of global temperatures at 1.5°C, the battle for the planet can be won. “We are here to serve,” he declared, calling upon all nations to reconnect with the vision of the Organization’s founders, restore trust and move ahead together.
General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande (Nigeria) emphasized that multilateral cooperation remains the best way to tackle global challenges. “Evidence abounds that we can do great things if we are courageous, steadfast and show empathy,” he said, describing the presence of 193 Member States united around common goals as itself “a remarkable feat”.
As world leaders shared their respective visions of how best to overcome the planet’s most pressing problems — including the need to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — some advocated unilateral approaches while others championed the benefits of global cooperation in pursuit of common goals.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda summed up a theme threading through the six-day general debate, stressing that the international community now stands at a crossroads that could either be a turning point or a moment when multilateralism has lost its way.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand said the notion of isolationism is obsolete as the world becomes ever more interdependent, pointing out that domestic decisions now have global ramifications. New Zealand experienced this connectedness first hand on 15 March, when an alleged terrorist, using the Internet to broadcast his crimes, attacked a place of worship, killing 51 people, “devastating our Muslim community and challenging our sense of who we are as a country”, she said. United in solidarity, the country banned semi-automatic rifles 10 days after the attack, and two months later, gathered leaders in Paris to adopt the Christchurch Call, which brings together companies, countries and civil society in commitment to a range of actions to reduce the harm that online content can cause.
President Moon Jae-In of the Republic of Korea said the United Nations and the broader international community were instrumental in helping his country overcome the scourge of war. Furthermore, dialogue and negotiations launched in 2018 produced significant results on the Korean Peninsula, he added, noting that Panmunjom, once a symbol of division, has become a demilitarized area “in which not even a single pistol exists”.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of Portugal said a multilateral vision shared by everyone is worth fighting for. Recalling the world’s failure to embrace multilateralism in the form of the League of Nations and the subsequent war, he urged the international community not to repeat that mistake, stressing: “We need more and not less United Nations.”
President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger said the world must engage in “win-win cooperation” rather than zero-sum approaches because national interests benefit from cooperation among nations in tackling common challenges, from increased migratory flows to the impact of climate change. He also called for a new global governance model to replace the one adopted after the Second World War, pointing out that the latter is no longer adequate to help overcome twenty-first century challenges.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom said the values informing technology design will shape the future of humanity, which will either face an Orwellian world of suppression or one of learning that threatens famine and disease but not freedoms. Emerging technologies must promote that freedom, openness and pluralism, he added, calling for common global principles to shape norms and standards for emerging technologies.
President Donald J. Trump of the United States said the essential divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking they are destined to rule over others, and those nations that only wish to rule themselves are once again thrown into stark relief. The future belongs not to globalists but to patriots, he added, emphasizing that wise leaders always place the good of their people and country first. The United States prizes liberty, freedom and self-government above all, he said, noting that, having spent $2.5 trillion since his election to rebuild the military, it is the world’s most powerful nation.
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil thanked the United States for having demonstrated respect for freedom and State sovereignty. “We are not here to erase nationalities and overrule sovereignty in the name of an abstract global interest,” he said. Pointing out that the Amazon has been mistakenly called a “world heritage” and its forests the lung of the world, he said that in so doing, other countries have disrespected Brazil in a colonialist spirit, questioning its most sacred principle, “our sovereignty”.
Other Heads of State cautioned that international peace is placed in jeopardy when national sovereignty and territorial integrity are violated. President Michel Aoun of Lebanon said the social and economic repercussions of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East are becoming more entrenched. “Indeed, no justice or peace can be established as long as the principle prevailing in our world is ‘I am strong therefore I am right’.”
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said the Middle East is burning in the flames of war, bloodshed, aggression and occupation, as well as religious and sectarian fanaticism and extremism. “Our region is on the edge of collapse, as a single blunder can fuel a big fire”, he warned, stressing: “Security cannot be purchased or supplied by foreign Governments.”
President Rumen Radev of Bulgaria expressed regret that over the past year, the international community has been unable to reach a breakthrough on any major conflict. The proclaimed victory over the so-called “caliphate” of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in 2018 was not enough to bring the war-torn Middle East closer to peace, he noted.
President Igor Dodon of the Republic of Moldova, referring to the Balkan States, declared: “The confrontation between major geopolitical players for a better positioning in our region has never ceased.” Noting efforts to lure his country into alliances with either the Russian Federation or the West, he said it has paid a high price and demanded full respect for its neutral status.
African leaders called for normalizing the situation in Libya, noting that destabilization of that country has seen a tsunami of weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, many linked to Boko Haram and ISIL. Many stressed that the security crisis in the Sahel is a direct result of the Libyan State breaking down.
Indeed, Africa is being ravaged by terrorism, President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço of Angola noted, outlining several areas that require urgent, collaborative action. The international community and the African Union must focus particular attention on normalizing the situation in Libya since territories under the control of different militias are the source of arms and ammunition used by fundamentalist groups across the continent.
President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso agreed, speaking in his capacity as Chair of the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) countries, said the activities of armed terrorist groups are spreading throughout the subregion and beyond. It is imperative to strengthen multilateralism and the role of the United Nations in addressing common problems, including terrorism and poverty, he added.
Meanwhile, others called urgently for actions to address the climate emergency. “Our sovereignty cannot be compromised by climate change,” said Deputy Prime Minister Minute Alapati Taupo of Tuvalu, emphasizing that restricting global temperature rise to 1.5°C is not enough to save countries such as his own, which face the existential threat of rising sea levels.
King Tupou VI of Tonga agreed, stressing: “Climate change is not only a political issue for us, but also one of survival.” Recalling that Pacific leaders recently declared a “climate change crisis” in their region, he called for urgent action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and thereby prevent catastrophic global warming.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said the interconnectedness of countries, despite their differences and frictions, means that a multilateral rather than an isolationist approach is the only way to end poverty, halt pandemics and reverse the effects of climate change. Applauding the multilateral institutions that comprise the current world order, he said that, as a small nation, Singapore depends upon it for its very survival and is a “staunch advocate” of the United Nations.
The Assembly also convened a series of high-level meetings to address a range of pressing issues, from eliminating nuclear weapons to universal health coverage.
On 23 September, world leaders gathered at a high‑level meeting, held under the theme of “Universal health coverage: Moving together to build a healthier world”, approving an action-oriented political declaration aimed at achieving that objective by 2030. Secretary‑General Guterres said: “shockingly, half the world’s people are still waiting to exercise that right, with serious consequences for us all”, with some 100 million people worldwide impoverished by catastrophic health-care expenses. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said lack of access to affordable primary health care is a problem in both low- and high-income countries, where sometimes cancer patients choose death due to the financial disaster treatment would bring to their families. “Ultimately, health is a political choice,” he said.
On 24 and 25 September, a high-level political forum on sustainable development was convened, with world leaders approving a political declaration that launched an ambitious and accelerated new decade of action in pursuit of critical development targets. Mona Juul (Norway), President of the Economic and Social Council, said that the world needs to aim much higher, adding: “Our policies are not yet yielding the deep changes needed to combat exclusion and poverty in all its forms.” By the declaration’s terms, Heads of State, ministers and other senior Government officials reaffirmed their pledges to end poverty and hunger, combat inequality and build peaceful, just and inclusive societies, mirroring the Sustainable Development Goals enshrined in the 2030 Agenda.
On 26 September, the Assembly held a high-level dialogue on financing for development. Member States warned that declining levels of official development assistance and rising levels of debt are impeding the world’s ability to pay for efforts to realize the Sustainable Development Goals and address the negative impact of climate change, particularly in Africa and among small island developing States. Bill Gates, Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said progress made in international development is at risk, and there is no single solution for getting back on track. But, some things can make a significant impact, he said, emphasizing: “We must be realistic about gaps that the private sector can and cannot fill.”
On the same day, the Assembly convened a high-level meeting on the elimination of nuclear weapons. The meeting commemorated and promoted the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, with non-nuclear-weapon nations calling for commitments from possessor States. Jackson Mthembu, Minister in the Presidency of South Africa, recalled his country’s experience as the only one to have developed and then voluntarily eliminated its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s. Many speakers discussed the proposal to create a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, with Jamal Fares Alrowaiei (Bahrain) noting, on behalf of the Group of Arab States, that the creation of such an area has been outlined since the 1995 Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
On 27 September, the Assembly held a high-level meeting to review progress made in addressing the priorities of small island developing States through the implementation of the Samoa Pathway. Part of the Assembly’s midterm review of the Samoa Pathway’s 10-year action plan, the gathering saw world leaders endorse a political declaration aimed at protecting these States from the impact of climate change and accelerating their sustainable development efforts. They also called for scaled up investments to bolster economic growth and diversification, including in ocean-based economies and creative and cultural industries. Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley of Barbados said: “Those of us who have a security pass to come into this building must recognize that we are here not just as representatives of our countries, but as trustees for humanity itself.”
Sharp divisions emerged in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), with delays caused by protests led by the Russian Federation that the United States breached its host country obligation on issuing visas. Grappling with all aspects of disarmament, from the advent of “killer robots” to nuclear and chemical weapons, delegates called for recorded votes on two thirds of the 60 draft resolutions and decisions it sent to the Assembly. “I have seen how work in this Committee is like a window to what happens in the world,” Chair Sacha Sergio Llorentty Solíz (Bolivia) said on the session’s final day, after members rejected a draft decision proposing to move its next session overseas if host country issues remain unresolved.
Amid waning multilateralism, growing protectionism and unequal wealth thwarting nations’ efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Second Committee (Economic and Financial) delegates in 2019 urged the international community to boost financing, open up trade, eliminate poverty and combat climate change. In tackling these concerns, they stressed the importance of increasing official development assistance, closing the digital divide, reducing debt, upholding World Trade Organization rules, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and honouring other Paris Agreement pledges. In all, the Committee approved 50 draft resolutions.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) recommended 62 draft resolutions to the General Assembly during a busy eight-week session, enlivened by debate around the Human Rights Council report in general, and country-specific mandates, in particular. While most of these texts were approved without a vote, an undercurrent of dissension ran through the proceedings, as the Committee grappled with a range of issues, from the advancement of women to racism and the rights of indigenous people. These issues came to the fore as the Committee turned a spotlight on issues of equality, establishing an International Day for Equal Pay and designating an entire decade (2022-2032) to the preservation of indigenous languages. The broad theme of migration was also prominent, most notably in discussions on the humanitarian plight of refugees.
As the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) took up consideration of the embattled United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), delegates reviewed the allegations of misconduct and the financial crisis confronting the Agency. While some pointed out that an investigation by the Secretariat found no evidence of corruption, others said that supporting UNRWA constitutes a misuse of international funds. Petitioners and delegates also called for self-determination for the 17 remaining Non-Self-Governing Territories, with representatives of Mauritius and others calling upon the United Kingdom to withdraw from the Chagos Islands Archipelago in compliance by the recent ruling of the International Court of Justice. Moreover, during an ad hoc special joint meeting with the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), delegates called for a legally binding instrument to prevent the militarization of outer space. Holding 25 formal meetings overall, the Fourth Committee considered agenda items including decolonization, Middle-East-related issues, peacekeeping operations, special political missions, atomic radiation and questions relating to information, while also holding numerous interactive dialogues. The session culminated in the approval of 35 draft resolutions and three draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.
The Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved 17 draft resolutions and 2 draft decisions for adoption by the Assembly, including a $3.07 billion programme budget for 2020, the first yearly budget since 1973. Amid the ongoing liquidity crisis at the United Nations Secretariat, delegates explored ways to rectify the chronic cash deficit plaguing the Organization’s regular budget operations while seeking to adapt to the shift from a biennial to an annual fiscal cycle aimed at better aligning resources with programme delivery. The Committee’s consensus-based work was undermined by divisive political narratives on some of the 39 special political missions. Among the most contentious issues was whether Member States’ assessed contributions to the regular budget should be used to fund the independent mechanism created by the Assembly to assist the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes in Syria since March 2011. Despite some opposition, resources for the entity were approved. The Committee also urged implementation of proposals to make the United Nations premises more accessible for persons with disabilities and approved funding to complete the flexible workplace strategy under way at New York Headquarters and construction projects at offices in Addis Ababa and Bangkok, among other things.
The Sixth Committee (Legal) session began with heated discussions on the obligations of the host country to all Member States, as delegations called for the prompt issuance of visas and the lifting of travel restrictions on certain nations. At the conclusion of the session, although the Committee sent 17 resolutions and nine decisions — all approved without a vote — to the General Assembly, consensus-based decision-making proved more difficult than in previous years, with long-standing divergences re-emerging during debates. Nonetheless, in his closing remarks, Committee Chair Michal Mlynár (Slovakia) reminded delegates that what may seem like a lack of progress may be evaluated in hindsight as a crucial moment in the development of international law.
As the General Assembly commenced its seventy-fourth session on 17 September, President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande (Nigeria) set the tone for the year, underscoring the 193-member organ’s central role in ending poverty, combating climate change and empowering vulnerable people around the globe. The outcomes of the annual high-level general debate, alongside critical summits on health care and climate change, will guide its work. “We must never forget that the world looks up to the United Nations,” he said.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres drove that point home days later as he opened the Assembly’s high-level general debate on 24 September, stressing that as the Organization prepares for its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2020, “we have to convince people that the United Nations is relevant to all, and that multilateralism offers real solutions to global challenges.” He urged Governments to avert “a great fracture” of the multilateral order, amid fears that the largest economies will create two competing worlds, each with its own zero-sum politics. “A great many people fear getting trampled, thwarted, left out and left behind,” he stressed.
Throughout the high-level week, which ran until 30 September, many world leaders echoed the call for a return to multilateralism, with Niger’s President urging countries to engage in win-win cooperation, rather than a zero-sum approach, because it benefits national interests. “By standing alone and isolated, one fails,” Croatia’s President agreed. She called the Sustainable Development Goals “an obligation to our citizens and the international community”.
As the Assembly moved through the session, it adopted two resolutions on 10 October formally endorsing political declarations approved during its high-level week. The first — committing States to achieve universal health coverage by 2030 — heard some object to references to ensuring “universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes”. Libya’s representative said such wording runs counter to the religious specificities of some countries, while the United States delegate stressed that “there is no international right to abortion.”
By the second resolution, the Assembly formally adopted the outcome of its Midterm Review of the Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (Samoa) Pathway, pledging to help these countries mitigate the risks of climate change and access much-needed financing. On 15 October, the Assembly similarly endorsed the political declaration adopted at its Sustainable Development Goals Summit, held from 24-25 September, pledging to accelerate implementation of the Goals by empowering cities, local authorities and communities in pursuing the 2030 Agenda.
Turning to Africa, the Assembly on 23 October discussed the continent’s path towards the 2030 Agenda and the African Union Agenda 2063, with delegates calling for renewed international support. Mr. Muhammad-Bande recalled Africa’s progress in fighting poverty and empowering women, pointing out that it will nonetheless need to increase its gross domestic product (GDP) by 11 per cent annually over the coming decade to close its financing gap. On that point, Zambia’s representative, on behalf of the African Group, welcomed the transformation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) into the African Union Development Agency — and its focus on strengthening both regional integration and national capacities.
The Assembly also heard its traditional annual briefings, notably by the head of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, who on 23 October outlined efforts to bring the perpetrators of atrocities committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to justice. International Court of Justice President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf then updated delegates on 30 October on cases and judgements, noting that in September, Latvia became the seventy‑fourth State to accept the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction. “The pace might be slow, but the trend towards a wider acceptance of the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court in the international community is quite clear,” he said.
Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) presented the annual report of the Economic and Social Council on 31 October, in her capacity as President of the 54-member body, warning that the world is off track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and calling for a course correction. On 4 November, International Criminal Court President Chile Eboe‑Osuji delivered his annual address, calling for universal ratification of the tribunal’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute. “Each ratification adds another brick to the wall that protects humanity from the gravest crimes imaginable,” he said. While several delegates called for predictable financing, some expressed reservations, with China’s delegate cautioning that the Court’s powers should be exercised with prudence. The representative of the Philippines recalled her country’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute in March, emphasizing that the treaty is anchored in the principle of complementarity, not substitution. Myanmar’s delegate called the Court’s case against his country illegitimate and an attempt to override national sovereignty.
The Assembly’s annual debate on the Cuban embargo, from 6-7 November, featured a precedent-setting change, as Brazil’s delegate, for the first time, voted against the resolution on ending the decades-long ban. By a recorded vote of 187 in favour to 3 against (Brazil, Israel, United States), with 2 abstentions (Colombia and Ukraine), the Assembly expressed concern that the embargo is still in place and urged States applying such laws to take steps to repeal them. Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Minister said the United States Administration has escalated its aggression against his country with additional sanctions and threats. Damages from the blockade amount to $138.8 billion at current value, he said.
The United Nations liquidity crisis featured prominently during the 8 November debate on General Assembly revitalization, with Mr. Muhammad-Bande stressing the need to streamline activities. In that context, Zambia’s representative, on behalf of the African Group, proposed restricting the number of high-level meetings and annual resolutions.
On 11 November, Acting Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Cornel Feruta presented the Agency’s report on Iran’s implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which also covered the country’s enrichment of uranium above permitted levels. The report likewise outlined advances relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear programme. During the debate, Iran’s delegate said the United States withdrawal from the 2015 accord rendered it ineffective and warned that Iran will be forced to further limit the agreement’s implementation every 60 days. The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea meanwhile called the IAEA report unfair, attributing tensions on the Korean Peninsula to provocations by the United States.
The Assembly marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in a two-day debate from 20-21 November that heard from nearly 100 speakers — including children themselves. Mr. Muhammad-Bande described as a “scandal” the fact that an estimated 1 billion children experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence in the last year alone. A 10-year old child from Libya — speaking for “all children whose voices children whose voices can’t be heard, children who are suffering from lost families and cold nights, wishing to live in peace and calling out for help” — urged the Assembly “not to steal our dreams”.
As for equitable representation on the Security Council, the Assembly held its annual debate on 25 and 26 November amid pitched appeals for transparency. Warning that the Council risks losing legitimacy, many called for increasing the number of permanent members beyond the current five: China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and the United States. Sierra Leone’s delegate, on behalf of the African Group, called Africa’s absence on the Council a historic injustice. He advocated for at least two permanent seats and five non‑permanent ones, a proposal that Libya’s delegate said was only fair, as 70 per cent of the Council’s work relates to Africa. Veto power was a continual source of debate, with Norway’s representative, on behalf of the Nordic countries, blaming it for the Council’s paralysis. The Russian Federation’s representative, however, credited the veto with preventing the United Nations from being drawn into “dubious ventures”.
In its annual debate on Palestine and the Middle East, on 3 December, the Assembly adopted — by a recorded vote of 147 in favour to 7 against (Australia, Canada, Israel, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, United States), with 13 abstentions — a resolution calling on Member States not to recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including as related to Jerusalem — one of five passed by recorded vote. The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said failure to hold Israel accountable for its crimes has led that country to believe it is above the law. Israel’s representative meanwhile said the Palestinian Authority policy of glorifying terrorism against Jews and condemning Jews for living in Jerusalem is counterproductive to peace. Several speakers denounced the recent Washington, D.C., decision to no longer regard Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory as inconsistent with international law.
On the development front, world leaders attending the Assembly’s High-level Midterm Review on the Implementation of the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries for the Decade 2014‑2024, from 5-6 December, adopted a political declaration recommitting themselves to the framework and proposing partnerships around transit, energy and infrastructure to ensure better market access for 440 million people.
The Assembly on 9 December adopted a resolution urging the Russian Federation to withdraw its military forces from Crimea and end its temporary occupation of Ukraine’s territory without delay. By the text titled “Problem of the militarization of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, as well as parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov” — adopted by a recorded vote of 63 in favour to 19 against, with 66 abstentions — the Assembly urged the Russian Federation to end its militarization of Crimea.
Ukraine’s representative voiced alarm that the Russian Federation continues to deploy nuclear materiel in the region and urged the international community to duly respond. The Russian Federation’s delegate called the text a “bare-faced lie”. The people of Crimea have long made their choice: “They decided to reunify with Russia”, he said. The European Union’s delegate, however, said Moscow’s violations of international law have caused a dangerous escalation of tensions.
On 10 December, the Assembly adopted two texts on oceans and seas linked to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. By a recorded vote of 135 in favour to 1 against (Turkey), with 3 abstentions (Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela), it called on States to harmonize national legislation with the Convention, and when doing so, to consider the needs of developing countries. In explanation of vote, Turkey’s delegate recalled that his country is not party to the Convention and therefore does not agree that it has a universal character. Papua New Guinea’s delegate, on behalf of the Pacific small island developing States, challenged the Assembly to do more than simply note the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report in the resolution; it must cite specific findings about the impact of climate change on the ocean.
Global health was again under the spotlight on 11 December, as the Assembly passed a resolution calling on States to boost efforts to achieve universal health coverage by 2030 — with some delegations again rejecting references to reproductive rights and calling for a vote on two paragraphs. By a recorded vote of 121 in favour to 8 against (Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Nauru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United States), with 19 abstentions, the Assembly included language reaffirming its commitment to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health rights. The United States representative said Washington, D.C., does not recognize abortion as a family planning method, while Guatemala’s delegate said his country’s Constitution protects human life from conception.
Likewise, on 16 December, the Assembly shot down an amendment proposed by the United States to remove language around reproductive and sexual health before adopting a resolution on strengthening coordination of United Nations emergency humanitarian assistance. It decided not to amend operative paragraphs 58 and 59 by a recorded vote of 112 against to 4 in favour (Guatemala, Nigeria, Qatar, United States), with 26 abstentions. It also rejected amendments to operative paragraph 62 of its resolution on “International cooperation on humanitarian assistance in the field of natural disasters, from relief to development”, by a recorded vote of 106 against to 6 in favour (Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Qatar, Russian Federation, United States), with 25 abstentions. The texts were two of five focused on coordination strategies, which the Assembly adopted by consensus.
As the Assembly rounded out the main part of its session, it held a high-level event on 17 December marking the conclusion of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The Assembly President said that, with two indigenous languages vanishing each month, the world must focus on ensuring the survival of the remaining ones.
Sharp divisions loomed large over the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security), as delegates tackled all aspects of disarmament, from nuclear and chemical weapons to the militarization of outer space and the advent of “killer robots”. Painting a grim picture, Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said a toxic mix of dangerous rhetoric, qualitative weapons development, eroding relations between nuclear‑weapon States and the unwinding of former arms control agreements have resulted in the world’s 14,500 nuclear devices becoming a real and present danger. In response to that challenge, the Committee sent to the General Assembly the draft resolution “Joint courses of action and future-oriented dialogue towards a world without nuclear weapons”, approved by a recorded vote of 148 in favour to 4 against (China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Syria), with 26 abstentions, after a dozen recorded votes were held on its preambular and operative paragraphs. Japan’s representative acknowledged yawning differences in reaching common ground on nuclear disarmament, “but we must persevere and find a way forward”.
Nuclear‑weapon nations disagreed on who bears responsibility for a deteriorating global security environment, with the representative of the United States inviting like‑minded Member States to persuade China and the Russian Federation to cease aggressive policies that undermine the rules-based international order. Rejecting those accusations as baseless, China’s delegate said “the culprit is the United States” when it comes to the lack of progress in disarmament processes. His counterpart from the Russian Federation expressed regret that the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty ceased to have effect when the United States, under “trumped‑up” pretexts, formally withdrew from it in August. He said extending the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty) between Moscow and Washington, D.C., would make sense to prevent a deterioration of today’s strategic security situation.
Several countries reaffirmed their commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme, with some calling on Tehran to respect its obligations despite the United States withdrawal. The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said peace and security on the Korean Peninsula hinges on the United States attitude going forward. The Republic of Korea’s delegate said denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is at “a critical juncture”, but has cause for optimism, as the door remains open to future discussions. Several non-nuclear-weapon States expressed support for the step‑by‑step approach to disarmament set out at a 16‑nation meeting in Stockholm in 2019. “Time is of the essence,” said Sweden’s representative, who urged all States to do everything in their power to work towards a goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Members also exchanged views on other weapons of mass destruction, with many speakers welcoming the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons decision to set up the Investigation and Identification Team to pinpoint those responsible for deadly attacks in Syria. That country’s representative, supported by the Russian Federation, denied that its armed forces ever used such weapons on civilians, pointing the finger of blame to terrorist groups. The Russian Federation’s representative, meanwhile, repeatedly took the United States to task for the tardy destruction of its last chemical weapons, due to be completed in 2023, just over a decade behind schedule. “We must all persist in striving to consign these heinous weapons to history,” said the United Kingdom’s delegate, who recalled the use of a toxic chemical substance in an assassination attempt in Salisbury in 2018.
Delegates also highlighted the socioeconomic cost of rising military budgets and the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons during a thematic debate on conventional weapons. The $1.8 trillion spent on the world’s armed forces in 2018 would be better directed towards development and fighting extreme poverty, Cuba’s representative said. Myanmar’s delegate said small arms and light weapons were involved in 589,000 violent deaths in 2017, with fewer than 20 per cent being the direct result of armed conflict. Latvia’s speaker added that civilians account for 90 per cent of casualties in contemporary armed conflict. Côte d’Ivoire’s representative recalled that more than 100 million illegal small arms are circulating in Africa, with 10 million in the Sahel region alone.
Underscoring frustration among some Member States over the way that the United States, as the United Nations host country, is issuing — or not issuing — visas for their respective disarmament experts based away from Headquarters, delegates rejected a draft decision proposing to shift future Committee meetings to Geneva or Vienna, by a recorded vote of 18 in favour to 69 against, with 72 abstentions. Other delegations agreed with the United States that the matter ought to stay in the hands of the Committee on Relations with the Host Country and the Sixth Committee (Legal), to which it reports. The First Committee also rejected a proposal to suspend the work of the Disarmament Commission until the host country visa issues are resolved. Overall, the Committee approved 60 draft resolutions and decisions during its five-week session, amid an increased number of recorded votes and a high level of participation among Member States.
Comprising the First Committee Bureau were Sacha Sergio Llorenty Soliz (Bolivia) as Chair, with Honorine Bonkoungou (Burkina Faso), Amal Mudallali (Lebanon) and Peter Horne (Australia) serving as Vice Chairs, and Szilvia Balázs (Hungary) as Rapporteur.
Second Committee (Economic and Financial) delegates urged the international community to boost financing, open up trade, eliminate poverty and combat climate change, against a backdrop of waning multilateralism, growing protectionism and unequal wealth thwarting nations’ efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Noting the “alarming” decline in official development assistance (ODA) over the years, speakers emphasized the need to scale up commitments beyond the current 0.7 per cent of gross national income. Stressing that ODA remains a key source of financing for least developed countries, they urged States to fulfil pledges to these nations of 0.15 to 0.20 per cent of their income. Belize’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, noted that debt stocks in her bloc have doubled between 2008 and 2017, with the ratio of external debt to export ratio reaching 163 per cent, far beyond the 60 per cent sustainability threshold. Expressing concern about rising debt ratios in least developed countries, other speakers noted that 12 have been pushed into distress and 5 more into crisis.
Compounding financial constraints to development is unequal and unfair access to international trade, speakers emphasized, as increasing unilateral and protectionist measures threaten multilateralism. Many noted that developing countries continue to face low productive capacity, commodity export dependence, limited market access and high vulnerability to external shocks. Several speakers called for safeguarding World Trade Organization policies, strengthening open, non‑discriminatory trade and expanding non‑differential treatment for developing countries. Paraguay´s representative, speaking for the Group of Landlocked Developing Countries, emphasized the importance of trade and transit investments for his bloc, as its combined output accounts for less than 1 per cent of global exports.
Limited markets and rising protectionism are also casting a shadow on globalization, which has failed to shower full benefits on the poorest countries, delegates stated. Globalization has kickstarted development by reducing poverty, increasing connectivity, spreading technology and decreasing goods as well as services costs, they conceded, but unilateralism is now threatening its fruits. Highlighting the negative consequences of globalization, Saint Lucia’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community, pointed to slow and volatile economic growth, rising unemployment, growing poverty and income inequalities. Noting that increasing trade tensions among large economies are sparking further uncertainties, Nepal’s representative said the unilateral tendency to redefine globalization’s rules is concerning for all. “This comes with several spillovers in almost every part of the world,” he said.
One apparent benefit of globalization is the reduced digital divide between developed and developing countries, speakers noted, but the gap in use of Internet and information communications technology is still wide. The number of people using the Internet exceeded half of the world’s population in 2018, with 80 per cent of Europeans having access compared to less than 25 per cent in Sub‑Saharan Africa. With globalization fading and financial as well as trade obstacles mounting, poverty eradication has slowed in developing and middle-income countries, delegates observed, despite a reduction in worldwide extreme poverty. Some 1.3 billion people worldwide remain in poverty, they emphasized, half of them children and most in rural areas of countries in special situations or facing conflict.
As a consequence of sluggish poverty eradication, delegates noted that world hunger has risen for the third year after decades of decline, with over 2 billion people worldwide lacking access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Of the 820 million people undernourished worldwide in 2018, more than 256 million were in Africa, which remains the most severely affected continent. Global warming is expected to ratchet up the pace of extreme climate, said Malawi’s delegate, speaking for least developed countries, putting new pressure on agriculture and food production. With the least developed population set to double by 2050, agricultural must become vastly more resilient and adapt to climate change, while increasing production and cutting emissions. Guyana’s delegate, speaking for the Caribbean Community, expressed grave concern for decimated agriculture in countries like Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada. “The picture of a declining agricultural sector is symptomatic of the vulnerability of small economies at the mercy each year to increasingly ferocious hurricanes and of the other impacts of climate change, such as droughts and flooding.”
Addressing further impacts of climate change, the observer for the State of Palestine, speaking for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, emphasized that “disasters can wipe out hard-fought development gains”, with the poorest countries continuing to bear the brunt. Pointing to a “closing window of opportunity”, he urged developed countries to honour commitments of $100 billion in climate financing for developing nations by 2020. In tackling the adverse effects of climate change, delegates urged the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve forests, monitor water sources and honour pledges made in the Paris Agreement. Several nations focused on national efforts to combat the phenomenon, with Ethiopia’s delegate highlighting his Government’s “40 Trees Per Head for New Ethiopia” project, which has resulted in 4 billion trees being planted within 18 months, including over 350 million in a single day.
As in prior years, speakers also stressed that Israeli occupation and natural resource exploitation continues to hamper social and economic development in the occupied Palestinian territory and occupied Syrian Golan. In overcoming 2030 Agenda obstacles, the Committee approved 47 resolutions, holding recorded votes for 13 of them as a whole, including texts focused on liberalizing trade, tackling unsustainable debt, bolstering globalization, combating illicit financial flows and stabilizing the global economic environment. Other drafts sought to tackle climate change, rural poverty, food insecurity, the digital gap, insufficient energy access and outdated agricultural techniques.
The Second Committee was chaired by Cheikh Niang (Senegal), with Ahmad Saif Al-Kuwari (Qatar), Yuliana Angelova (Bulgaria) and Anat Fisher-Tsin (Israel) serving as Vice-Chairs, and David Mulet (Guatemala) as Rapporteur.
An undercurrent of dissension ran through the proceedings of the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), as members grappled with a range of issues, from the advancement of women to racism and the rights of indigenous people, before sending the Assembly 62 draft resolutions and decisions. Setting an early tone for discussions, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned delegates of “an increase in xenophobia, hate speech, pushbacks on women’s equality and the rights of minorities”, as she briefed the Committee for the second year running. Also addressing delegates during the session was Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who painted a bleak picture of growing inequality, conflict, persecution and other push factors leading to displacement. When refugees emerge from the fault line of these factors, he said, this is “a sign of things gone wrong”. The Committee also heard from Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin; the President of the Human Rights Council, Coly Seck; and more than 70 Special Procedure mandate holders and other United Nations experts.
Among the Special Procedure mandate holders briefing the Committee was Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who raised concerns about a global pattern of “terminal silencing” of activists and journalists, such as Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and called for the United Nations to put in place independent accountability mechanisms to ensure the “masterminds” behind such slayings are brought to book. Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non‑recurrence, highlighted the requirement for Member States to apologize for gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law. He noted that such apologies are not only a duty but also a precondition for reparations, as well as for ensuring that the offending acts are never repeated. Meanwhile, Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, who made an impassioned address about the plight of people living with the inherited condition around the world, who are hunted like animals in Africa, and experience a state of “in-betweenness” elsewhere, in which they are perceived as “not black enough, not white enough, too white, facing racial discrimination yet allegedly having ‘white privilege’”.
Ahead of the first Global Refugee Forum in December, the Committee approved a draft resolution on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) to foster a more effective international response to enforced displacement. Although the co-sponsor of the draft emphasized its “humanitarian, non-political nature”, in keeping with UNHCR, Syria’s representative rejected the text and requested a vote, stressing that it failed to tackle the root causes behind refugee flows, including terrorism. The representative of the United States, while voting in favour of the draft resolution, disassociated from a part of it, stating that the detention of migrants is lawful in certain cases. The draft was nonetheless approved by a recorded vote of 169 in favour to 2 against (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria), with 5 abstentions (Eritrea, Hungary, Iran, Libya, Poland).
In other notable action, the Committee passed by consensus a draft that proposes to establish 18 September as International Equal Pay Day, beginning in 2020. Iceland’s representative, who introduced the text, said the Day was intended to celebrate progress and to support the fight for equal pay, given that the gender pay gap remained at 20 per cent. A draft on countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes — introduced by the representative of the Russian Federation — sparked intense debate, with several delegates, including from the United States and the European Union, criticizing the measure as divisive and duplicative of the far better researched and reasoned efforts of a Vienna-based open-ended intergovernmental group of experts. Despite their stern objections, the draft passed by a recorded vote of 88 in favour to 58 against, with 34 abstentions.
In an echo of events in 2018, country-specific resolutions again provoked fiery debate and dissension, as the Committee considered drafts on the situations in Myanmar, Somalia, Burundi, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the occupied Palestine territories, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine), and Syria. Numerous delegates, including from the countries under discussion, decried what they viewed as the selective and confrontational “politicization” of human rights, and underscored their preference for the use of the Human Rights Council universal periodic review to ensure compliance with human rights standards. Other countries stressed the need for evidence-gathering to ensure accountability for victims, calling on countries to grant unhindered access to special rapporteurs and independent experts. In an episode of pitched procedural drama, Syria’s representative objected to the late submission — by a few hours — of the draft concerning his country. When the draft resolution was approved, he said it had violated the rules of procedure and threatened to “turn the United Nations into the non-united Nations”.
The Committee also heard from experts on the perilous situation of women’s rights worldwide. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN‑Women), described a “renewed pushback” against gender equality. Dubravka Šimonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, said that violence during such moments as childbirth is rooted in structural inequality and discrimination. The Committee approved a draft resolution focused on improving the situation of women and girls in rural areas, which focuses on ending all forms of violence against them. It also approved a draft on the rights of the girl child and another on the rights of the child, the latter of which highlights the need for States to provide scientifically accurate information on sexual and reproductive health, gender equality and the empowerment of women. The text’s references to reproductive health and rights provoked debate, with one delegation disassociating itself from several paragraphs in the text, while others continued to stress the importance of their inclusion.
The Third Committee Bureau comprised Chair Christian Braun (Luxembourg), Vice-Chairs Gail Farngalo (Liberia), Ihor Yaremenko (Ukraine) and María Emilia Eyheralde (Uruguay), and Rapporteur Firas Hassan Jabbar (Iraq).
Amidst an investigation of misconduct allegations, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is working to address management issues and continues to provide vital services despite facing a funding crisis, its Officer in Charge told the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization). As the Committee began its consideration of the Agency’s work, Christian Saunders reported that with the unexpected departure of UNRWA’s senior leadership, its priorities are to ensure the continuity of operations. Noting that the complex investigation by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) is now ending and that Member States have been briefed, he emphasized, however, that UNRWA’s financial situation is even more critical than it was in 2018, with the Agency facing a funding gap of $89 million.
The observer for the State of Palestine pointed out that the OIOS investigation found no fraud, corruption or misuse of funds. The alleged misconduct did not impair UNRWA’s operations and the Secretary‑General’s management plan to address oversights in accountability also ensure continuity, she added. Israel’s representative, however, described supporting the Agency as a misuse of international funds. UNRWA is “corrupted and ineffective” and the recent scandal is just the tip of the iceberg, she added. She called for an end to UNRWA’s mandate, the gradual reorganization of its humanitarian services and for better channels through which to finance humanitarian assistance.
During the Committee’s annual debate on decolonization, delegates called upon the United Kingdom to withdraw from the territory of Mauritius in accordance with the recent ruling by the International Court of Justice. The latter’s representative recalled that the General Assembly adopted a resolution on 22 May demanding that the United Kingdom unconditionally withdraw its administration from the Chagos Islands. However, the United Kingdom’s representative said her country is clear about its sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory, emphasizing that the strategic location of the joint United Kingdom-United States defence facility on the archipelago makes a significant contribution to security.
On another self-determination issue, petitioners on the decades-old question of Western Sahara addressed the Committee, with some applauding Morocco’s economic and social revitalization of the Territory and describing it as one of that country’s most prosperous economic regions. However, others said Morocco’s presence in the Territory is a colonial one, with one petitioner stressing that the kingdom has continued its economic plundering of the Territory with support from the European Union.
During its special joint meeting with the First Committee, delegates called for a legally binding instrument to prevent the militarization of outer space. Thomas Markram, Deputy High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said that in the absence of agreed norms, the expansion and significance of military activities in outer space may encourage more countries to use outer-space capabilities in protecting their own assets. Delegates called for the development of a better framework for “intrinsically problematic” new systems through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
In addition to those agenda items, the Committee also considered its other regular topics: questions relating to information; assistance in mine action; peaceful uses of outer space; comprehensive review of peacekeeping operations in all their aspects; special political missions; and atomic radiation. By the session’s conclusion on 15 November, the Committee recommended 35 draft resolutions and three draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly. It held 25 formal meetings instead of the usual 28 due to financial constraints.
Alongside Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom (Iraq), Committee Chair, the Fourth Committee Bureau comprised Vice-Chairs Mr. Ahidjo (Cameroon), Peter Pindják (Slovakia), Andrea Bacher (Austria) and Juan Antonio Benard Estrada (Guatemala), Rapporteur.
Amid the ongoing cash shortages at the United Nations Secretariat and the shift from a biennial to annual budget cycle, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved a $3.07 billion regular budget for 2020 during a prolonged session characterized by divisive political narratives.
Appearing before the Committee on 8 October, Secretary-General António Guterres described the move to the one-year budget cycle as “a huge step forward to more realistic budgeting and a greater focus on results” and emphasized that it will improve the accuracy of resource estimates and enable quicker adaptation to changes in mandates. From 1974 to 2019, budgets were prepared every two years.
Throughout the 12-week session, the Committee heard concerns aired by Secretariat officials and delegates alike about the ongoing liquidity crisis, which has hamstrung the Organization’s ability to carry out mandated activities. Many expressed regret that the Working Capital Fund and Special Account have been depleted for the second consecutive year and the Organization has had to borrow from the accounts of closed peacekeeping missions again.
Chandramouli Ramanathan, United Nations Controller and Assistant Secretary‑General for Programme Planning, Finance and Budget in the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, said that the regular budget operations are facing the worst liquidity crisis in recent years. Structural rigidities — such as the use of average vacancy rates and limitations on transfers of funds across budget sections and budget classes — have impeded resource management, making it more difficult to mitigate the negative effect of cash shortages on mandate delivery.
He warned that for the 2018-2019 biennium, budget implementation is no longer being driven by programme planning but by the availability of cash at hand, with managers instructed to adjust their hiring and non-post expenditures. Member States were repeatedly asked to pay their assessed contributions on time and in full.
At the start of the session, the Secretary-General presented his proposed programme budget for 2020 totaling $2.87 billion, explaining that the amount represents no real-term growth from 2019 but reflects the Organization’s strategic priorities and reforms in peace and security, development and management. Budget negotiations, however, hit some roadblocks, preventing the Committee from concluding its work before the Christmas holiday.
The unprecedented number of questions the Secretariat received during the session, exceeding 1,300, speaks volumes about the challenges the Committee faced. On 27 December, the Committee finally approved $3.07 billion for the 2020 regular budget. However, the Committee’s consensus-based work was undermined by divisive political narratives on some of the 39 special political missions, with several decisions made through recorded votes.
Among the most contentious issues was whether Member States’ assessed contributions to the regular budget should be used to fund the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 — the body established by the General Assembly.
Rejecting regular budget funding for the Mechanism, Syria, the Russian Federation and several other delegations argued that under the United Nations Charter, the Assembly did not have powers to create such an investigative mechanism in the first place. By a recorded vote, however, resources for the Mechanism were approved.
Some delegates also expressed concern about the continual increase of charges against the contingency fund, with Japan’s representative pointing out that since the 2012-2013 biennium, the total amount of programme budget implications and revised estimates has exceeded the approved level of each respective biennium’s contingency fund. This shows that budgetary discipline at the United Nations is weakening, she warned.
Several delegations also expressed regret that the Umoja enterprise resource planning project has not been completed. The Russian Federation’s delegate said that the total project cost of $248 million has turned into more than $1 billion, with no clear indication that the promised benefits will be realized.
Delegates also aired concerns about delays across the United Nations system in carrying out compliance and performance recommendations. While pleased with the Board of Auditor’s precise review of the overall healthy financial statements of 18 United Nations entities, several delegates were troubled by what they viewed as some of these same entities’ lax attitude in carrying out the auditing watchdog’s recommendations.
Several of the Committee’s 21 formal meetings were also devoted to reviewing construction projects at United Nations headquarters and regional commission locations. Member States called for completion of these projects on time and within the approved budget, while stressing the need to bring facilities to standards. Delegates from Africa called for more investment in state-of-the-art technology and more seating capacity at the conference centre in Nairobi, Kenya.
Among other business, delegates also examined progress in improving conference management and supported proposals to make the United Nations more accessible for disabled people. They also reviewed the existence of two different pay scales in Geneva, with Switzerland’s delegate recalling that when the United Nations formed the common system, it aimed to provide “a level playing field” for employees across all entities. He expressed concern about the fragmentation of the common system created by the recent judgments by the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which revoked the decision of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) to cut post adjustment in Geneva by 5.2 per cent.
Comprising the Committee’s Bureau were Andreas D. Mavroyiannis (Cyprus) as Chair, with Mohamed Fouad Ahmed (Egypt), Giorgi Mikeladze (Georgia) and Thiago Poggio Pádua (Brazil) serving as Vice-Chairs. Yaron Wax (Israel) was the Rapporteur.
Relations with the host country were front and centre throughout the Sixth Committee (Legal) session, with delegations, including Cuba and the Russian Federation, stressing that visa issuance delays and movement restrictions were preventing Member States from fully participating in General Assembly meetings. Such matters prevented the programme of work from initially being adopted, as the Secretary-General, United Nations legal counsel and host country representatives held emergency meetings to find solutions for affected countries. When the Committee took up the “Report of the Committee on Relations with the Host Country”, Iran’s delegate described how restrictions were affecting his delegation’s staff and families. The European Union’s delegate underlined the need to safeguard the integrity of the Headquarters Agreement and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. However, the United States was doing everything it could to fulfil Headquarters Agreement obligations, that country’s representative said, adding: “We do not take our responsibilities lightly.”
During consideration of the annual report of the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law, the Secretary of its Advisory Committee said requests for the Programme’s regional courses had doubled, surpassing funding capacity. That illustrated the importance of continued regular funding and voluntary contributions in order to expand workshop capacity, a point echoed by Cameroon’s delegate. Many speakers acknowledged the Programme’s continued success on making materials and trainings more available, including the Audiovisual Library of International Law, which offers free online training and, for those without a high-speed internet connection, podcasts of lectures, which were downloaded more than 90,000 times this past year. An observer for the State of Palestine pointed out that the Programme benefits jurists, academics, diplomats and other public officials from developing countries and is an indispensable part of United Nations efforts to promote international law. Thus, it was important to ensure appropriate funding from the regular budget in 2020 and beyond.
The Chair of the fifty-second session of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) briefed the Committee on the adoption of several model laws and legislative provisions on enterprise group insolvency and public-private partnerships. Along with other speakers, Honduras’ delegate welcomed the Commission’s work on the Model Law on Enterprise Group Insolvency, as it allows insolvency regimes to keep pace with developments in the increasingly borderless nature of business. The representative of Singapore spotlighted the Convention on International Settlement Agreements Resulting from Mediation (Singapore Convention), which was signed by 46 countries in August. The Convention is a milestone for international trade, allowing agreements resulting from mediation to be enforced and invoked across borders.
Last debated in the Committee in 2016, delegates discussed codifying a convention on the draft articles on transboundary harm from hazardous activities and the allocation of loss in the case of such harm. China’s representative said that, because certain provisions seek to develop international law in an area where national practices vary, he did not support turning the draft articles into a convention. The United Kingdom’s delegate questioned the benefit of a convention that treats all categories of transboundary harm the same way. Sudan’s representative disagreed, emphasizing that environmental problems cannot be resolved by individual States acting alone. Polluter States and nations experiencing pollution must cooperate, she said. Taking up the draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers, also last considered in 2016, delegates were again split on the issue of codification. Turkey’s delegate said each transboundary aquifer is unique and it would not be appropriate to apply a single framework to all of them. Eschewing a convention in favour of regional agreements but sensitive to the potential synergy between foreign and environmental policy, Mauritius’ delegate suggested the possibility of “hydro-diplomacy”, emphasizing that water can be a catalyst towards dialogue in otherwise confrontational relationships.
The Committee’s review of the International Law Commission’s almost 400-page annual report saw fierce debates during its seven days of intense meetings on nine chapters. Among the topics discussed was “Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflict”, with the delegate of Cyprus citing a recent International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report that said that more than 80 per cent of all major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred in biodiversity hotspots that sustain around half the world’s plants and many rare animal species. War is an enemy of sustainable development, said Colombia’s representative, joining other speakers in calling for non-State armed groups to be included in the draft principles and, thus, be held responsible to protecting the environment.
Upholding its annual tradition of hosting the President of the International Court of Justice, the Committee welcomed Justice Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, who said “the question of coherence in international law is an existential one”. In that regard, two words — creativity and rigour — seemed to best define the Court’s engagement with so-called unwritten sources of international law. He described how the Court adapted and updated the sources of international law described in article 38 of its Statute to reflect the evolution of international law. Unfortunately, widespread appreciation for its work has not fully translated into a universal acceptance of the Court, he said, expressing hope that more States will consider accepting its jurisdiction.
Concluding its session by approving without a vote 17 resolutions and nine decisions, several delegates highlighted their reservations about terminology in the drafts and with efforts to proceed ahead on certain issues. Syria’s representative protested the inclusion, in the draft resolution on the rule of law at the national and international levels, of references to the mechanism investigating crimes in his country, which was being done without his Government’s consent. Austria’s delegate, also speaking for 37 other delegations, expressed regret that the Committee had been unable to agree on the structure of future deliberations regarding draft texts on crimes against humanity and the International Law Commission’s recommendation that they be elaborated into a convention. The Chair, Michal Mlynár (Slovakia), said preserving the consensus-based decision making of the Committee, while more difficult at some points than in previous years, was worth going the extra mile. He also reminded members that consensus is an important element in ensuring that the results achieve the support of all States, which is the basic prerequisite for the broad acceptance of and adherence to international law.
Chairing the Sixth Committee Bureau was Michal Mlynár (Slovakia), alongside Vice-Chairs Cecilia Anderberg (Sweden), Amadou Jaiteh (Gambia) and Pablo Arrocha Olabuenaga (Mexico), and Rapporteur Mohamed Hamad Al-Thani (Qatar).