Print
GA/12308
5 January 2021
Seventy-fifth Session HIGHLIGHTS

Heeding COVID-19 ‘Wake-Up Call’, General Assembly Urges Collective Action to Tackle Global Crises, Marks Seventy-Fifth Year of United Nations

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a long shadow over what should have been a celebratory seventy-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly, forcing Member States to adopt unprecedented working methods as world leaders grappled with the far-reaching consequences of the worst global health crisis in a century on top of long-standing issues ranging from climate change and poverty eradication to human rights and arms control.

In lieu of travelling to Headquarters in person, Heads of State and Government addressed the 193-member Assembly through pre-recorded statements during the annual General Debate on 22 to 29 September.  A similar virtual format was used for a special session dedicated to the pandemic, held on 3, 4 and 14 December.

The main session focused on the theme “The Future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism — confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”.  It began in earnest on 21 September with the adoption by Member States of the resolution “Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations”.

Through that succinct five-page Declaration, Heads of State and Government pledged to leave no one behind, protect the planet, promote peace, abide by international law, place women and girls at the centre, build trust, improve digital cooperation, upgrade the United Nations, ensure sustainable financing, boost partnerships, work with youth, and, finally, be prepared.

“We have come far in 75 years, but much more remains to be done,” stated the Declaration, which emphasized that implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — adopted at the Assembly’s seventieth session — is a necessity for the survival of humanity.  The Declaration stressed:  “We have the tools and now we need to use them.  Urgent efforts are required.  Therefore, we are not here to celebrate.  We are here to take action.”

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, addressing the start of the general debate, said COVID-19 is both a wake-up call to a struggling world and a dress rehearsal for future global challenges that must be tackled through multilateral action.  “We cannot respond to this crisis by going back to what was, or withdrawing into national shells,” he said, emphasizing that “solidarity is self-interest” and that everyone loses if nations fail to grasp that fact.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the Assembly’s seventy-fifth session, echoed that view, saying that it is in the interest of the world — and its economies and peoples — that tensions are managed and do not spiral out of control.  “Let us draw strength from those who have persevered in the past,” he said, recalling how in 1945, the founders of the United Nations chose to trust one another in a time of crisis.

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, said that until a cure is found, the world must learn to live with COVID-19 and a new reality that reveals a dizzying level of global vulnerability.  “We do not have the right to close our eyes,” he said, emphasizing that for the United Nations, the pandemic should serve as an electric shock.  “We need to count on the strength of goodwill,” he said, “because today’s world cannot be left to the rivalry between China and the United States.”

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, highlighted the peace agreement that his country, together with the United Arab Emirates, signed this year with Israel, saying it would preserve security and stability in the Middle East.  That agreement — signed in exchange for a halt to Israel’s annexation of Palestinian lands — represents an opportunity for peace and reduced tension while preserving the two Gulf nations’ firm position on the Palestinian issue, he said.

Josaia Voreque Bainimarama, Prime Minister and Minister for iTaukei Affairs, Sugar Industry and Foreign Affairs of Fiji, put the pandemic in the context of the ongoing climate emergency, a significant issue for small-island nations like his.  “Climate change and the coronavirus may be very different beasts”, but if global climate action mirrors the incoherent international response to this pandemic, “we will not prevent a sixth mass extinction event,” he warned.

Iván Duque Márquez, President of Colombia, said that after decades of conflict, his country is moving forward “whether the wind is behind us or not”.  That said, he added that the myriad impacts of COVID-19 have created a situation that heightens social inequality, demonstrating that the international community still needs to define better mechanisms for cooperation in crises.

Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria, said that if the United Nations system cannot mobilize the world to marshal an effective and inclusive response to the pandemic, it will have failed in its core mission to give expression, direction and solution to the international community.  “The future we want must guarantee human rights, human dignity, human prospects and prosperity,” he said.

Xi Jinping, President of China, said full play should be given to the World Health Organization (WHO) and all resources mobilized for a science-based response to COVID-19.  “Beggar thy neighbour” policies and “burying one’s head in the sand” will do no good, he said, urging major countries to “act like major countries” by assuming their responsibilities.

Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, advocating a “peace through strength” approach, said that China must be held accountable for “unleashing the plague on the world”.  He went to say that to be effective, the United Nations must focus on the real problems of the world, including terrorism and the oppression of women.

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, defending the veto power of the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States), said the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need for innovative solutions.  Broad global cooperation is the only way forward, he said, calling on all nations to demonstrate political will, wisdom and foresight, and for the Council’s five permanent members to take the lead with a summit that would reaffirm the principles of behaviour in international affairs.

In the days immediately after the general debate, the Assembly convened a triplet of high-level meetings, including a summit on biodiversity, a high-level meeting to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and a high-level plenary to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Despite working under unprecedented constraints imposed by the pandemic, the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) sent its highest number of drafts to the Assembly in more than two decades, 72 in total, highlighting the complexity of the contemporary global arms control landscape.  The session unfolded as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons received its fiftieth ratification, heralding its entry into force in January and leading to disagreements regarding its efficacy.  Amid that development, schisms between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon States remained clear, and concerns over crumbling norms centred on talks between the United States and the Russian Federation to reduce strategic stockpiles.  Amid new arms races and regional tensions, Member States must look at the United Nations Charter and its appeal to universal disarmament, said First Committee Chair Agustin Santos Maraver (Spain), emphasizing that:  “We need to convey to the victims of weapons of mass destruction that we have fulfilled our mandate to the best of our abilities.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages economies, reverses poverty eradication, ratchets up debt, blocks trade and hinders sustainable development, it comes as no surprise that recovering from the crisis dominated many of this year’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial) debates, alongside its traditional topics.  Under the theme “Building back better after COVID-19:  ensuring a more equitable global economy, inclusive societies and sustainable recovery”, speakers repeatedly underscored the lack of global preparedness in tackling the biggest challenge since the United Nations opened its doors 75 years ago.  The international community must use this opportunity to reinvent itself, they said, bolstering health systems, combating climate change and filling in development gaps.  Nations urged the international community to focus on long‑term global pacts like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as key frameworks for building back after the coronavirus.  “We have the necessary tools,” they said, adding that the 2030 Agenda, created in 2015, should not remain wishful thinking.

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) recommended 50 draft resolutions to the General Assembly during a busy seven-week session, held virtually and in-person, animated by debates around broad human rights questions.  While more than half of these texts were approved without a vote, an atmosphere of friction hung over the session, as the Committee considered a wide swathe of issues, from racism, self-determination and the advancement of women to the rights to food and privacy.  Echoing the events of 2019, the discord reached a pitch on drafts involving country-specific mandates.  In other substantive action, the General Assembly proclaimed 31 August as the International Day for People of African Descent and adopted, by consensus, a draft resolution on indigenous peoples, which had the General Assembly convene a high-level event in 2022 for the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages.  A recurrent theme was the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, through lockdown measures and economic distress, amplified pre-existing precarities and the risk of violence to women, children and other vulnerable groups.

Delegates urged the United Nations to fulfil its commitment to decolonization at the close of the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism, as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) began its work.  They also expressed concern over the worsening financial situation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), emphasizing that its role is more urgent than ever amid the spreading coronavirus pandemic.  Some representatives called upon United Nations peace operations to learn from COVID‑19 in terms of planning future mandates and called upon the Department of Global Communications to counter the spread of misinformation and discrimination associated with the pandemic.  Holding 10 formal and two informal virtual meetings, the Committee also took up agenda items relating to Middle East issues, peacekeeping operations, special political missions, atomic radiation and questions relating to information.  It also held numerous interactive dialogues.  The session culminated in the approval of 34 draft resolutions and three draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.

After intense debate that stretched beyond the Christmas holiday, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved a $3.21 billion programme budget for 2021.  Up from the $3.07 billion appropriation for 2020, the funds will keep the United Nations doors open and its staff working amid an ongoing liquidity crisis which Secretary-General António Guterres warned has severely hindered the Organization’s ability to pursue strategic direction and fulfil its mandate.  Many delegations blamed the cash crunch on the United States, the largest financial contributor, for not paying its assessed contributions on time.  Another point of contention was funding for the 40 special political missions, with several delegates repeating calls for a separate account as the missions’ share of the regular budget reaches almost 25 per cent.  The Committee also approved authority for the Secretary-General to use derivative instruments for the first time to better manage the vast staff pension system’s expanding investment portfolio, as well as resources to continue the flexible workplace strategy at New York Headquarters, among other things.  It sent a total of 16 draft resolutions and one draft decision to the Assembly for adoption.

Despite the limitations of holding debates during a pandemic, the Sixth Committee (Legal) saw creative solutions emerge on many fronts during its seventy-fifth session.  Throughout weeks of deliberations, marked by socially distanced meetings and masked delegates, the Committee took note of how the current online landscape lent itself to increased access to legal education initiatives, be they regional international law courses or trade law webinars.  Still, while delegates acknowledged the Internet’s potential in the progressive development of international law, they also highlighted challenges, including the pandemic’s adverse effects on the battle against terrorism and how it has become a pretext for authoritarianism.  Yet, despite some substantive discussions being postponed to the seventy-sixth session, including the spirited International Law Week debates, the Committee upheld its tradition of consensus, sending 19 resolutions and 10 decisions to the General Assembly for adoption without a vote, earning praise from the Assembly’s President who held up the Committee’s work ethic as an example of how to move forward for the entire Organization.

Plenary

As the Assembly moved through its main session, with delegates donning face masks and practicing social distancing for in-person meetings, it first paid tribute on 13 October to the memory of Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Amir of Kuwait, who died on 29 September at the age of 91.  Delegates also elected 15 States to the Human Rights Council for terms beginning 1 January 2021.  On 21 October, Carmel Agius, President of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, appealed to Member States for their continued support as it adapts its working methods to pandemic restrictions and strives to conclude outstanding cases from the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

After concluding on 26 October its high-level meeting to commemorate the Organization’s seventy-fifth anniversary, the Assembly remained focused on international judicial institutions.  Through a resolution adopted on 2 November, it called upon States to cooperate with the International Criminal Court to arrest fugitives.  On 3 November, delegates took up the report of the International Court of Justice, with speakers describing its growing docket as a sign of rising confidence among Member States in the authority and legitimacy of its judgements and advisory opinions.

Endorsing the annual report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Assembly adopted on 11 November a resolution reaffirming its strong support for the Vienna-based organization, as its new Director-General, Rafael Mariano Grossi, outlined a major initiative, the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action project, or ZODIAC, to help Member States confront pandemics, even as the Agency continues to actively monitor ongoing non-proliferation concerns in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Iran.

Meeting concurrently with the Security Council, the Assembly on 12 November elected five judges, including four incumbents, out of a pool of eight candidates to the International Court of Justice to serve nine-year terms beginning 6 February 2021.  Then on 13 November, the Assembly adopted a special decision‑making procedure, including the use of electronic voting, for adopting draft resolutions and decisions when it cannot hold in-person meetings under “the most exceptional circumstances”, such as a COVID-19-induced lockdown.

Prospects for Security Council reform came up for debate on 16 and 17 November, with several delegates calling for the 15-member organ to be expanded.  Italy’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Uniting for Consensus Group, envisioned a 26-seat Council, with 9 long-term permanent seats distributed among regional groups.  Sierra Leone’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said current geopolitical realities and the global health crisis make a compelling argument for Africa to have two permanent and two non-permanent seats.

On 23 November, the Assembly adopted 10 resolutions promoting cooperation between the United Nations and a host of regional and international organizations from around the world.  It also re-elected Filippo Grandi (Italy) as High Commissioner for Refugees until 30 June 2023, a reduced period, which he requested for personal reasons, and filled vacancies in subsidiary bodies.

During two meetings on 1 December, the Assembly adopted a resolution, introduced by Indonesia, urging Member States to designate the world’s 2 million seafarers and other maritime personnel as key workers in the context of the pandemic.  “The crisis being endured by seafarers and others at sea cannot be permitted to continue,” said the United Kingdom’s delegate, who called for States to act immediately for the sake of seafarers’ physical and mental welfare, the marine environment and the global economy and supply chains.  The Assembly also adopted its annual resolution “Sport as an enabler of sustainable development” — incorporating new elements on COVID-19’s impact on amateur and professional sport — and a text bearing the report of the Credentials Committee.

Also on 1 December, the Assembly commemorated the 75 million people, most of them civilians, who died during the Second World War.  The Secretary-General reiterated his call for a global humanitarian ceasefire to combat the pandemic.  Millions look to the United Nations to deliver on peace, human rights and equality, he said, and “we cannot let them down”.  The Russian Federation’s representative said the commemoration was not about perpetuating hatred, but rather to draw a lesson from history, look to the future and jointly cherish and safeguard peace.  Israel’s representative said it is important to mourn the victims of “history’s darkest hour”, which is synonymous with the Holocaust, and that the international community cannot allow the sacrifices of so many to be in vain.

Delegates adopted five resolutions on Palestine and the Middle East on 2 December, including one on the peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine, by a recorded vote of 145 in favour to 7 against (Australia, Canada, Federated States of Micronesia, Israel, Marshall Islands, Nauru, United States), with 9 abstentions (Brazil, Cameroon, Guatemala, Honduras, Madagascar, Malawi, Palau, Rwanda, South Africa).  Among other things, the resolution called on all Member States to not recognize any changes to pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.  As such, agreements with Israel must not imply recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the territories it occupied in 1967.

As the floor opened for debate, the Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said that without action, accountability and consequences, Israel will continue to trample international law.  Israel’s representative said that this year’s suite of resolutions failed to refer to his country’s peace accords with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.  The United States representative said the texts recycled tired rhetoric that did nothing to advance peace.  Several speakers expressed support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) as it weathers a funding crisis.

Also adopted on 2 December were the draft resolutions “Follow-up to the Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace” and “Promotion of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation for peace”, the former without a vote, and the later by a recorded vote of 90 in favour to none against, with 52 abstentions.

Opening the special session on COVID-19 on 3 December, the Secretary-General said that factual information and scientific guidance from WHO should have been the basis for a coordinated global response.  However, its recommendations were not followed, and today, some countries are still rejecting facts and ignoring guidance.  “When countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction,” he said.  The President of the Assembly said that the special session marked a much-needed moment of reckoning.  “This crisis compels us to shake up how things are done, to be bold and to restore trust in the United Nations,” he said, urging the international community to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines, ease debt burdens, ensure universal health coverage, safeguard the environment and biodiversity and jumpstart the Sustainable Development Goals.

During the special session, which featured expert panel discussions on 4 December and concluded on 14 December, Heads of State and Government, ministers and senior officials appealed, through pre-recorded video statements, for COVID-19 vaccines to be both affordable and widely available.  Prime Minister Bainimarama of Fiji said that:  “It was with a sick sense of irony that in the year the United Nations marked its seventy-fifth anniversary, countries hoarded critical health supplies […] leaving many brave front-line health workers vulnerable”.  Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, said:  “The pandemic has taught us difficult lessons about inequality both at home and between countries”, highlighting the yawning gap between what rich and poor countries could commit in gross domestic product (GDP) terms to pandemic relief.

The Assembly met on 7 December to adopt texts related to several items on its agenda.  By a vote of 63 in favour to 17 against, with 62 abstentions, the Assembly adopted the resolution “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”.  In doing so, it urged the Russian Federation, as the occupying Power, to immediately withdraw its military forces from Crimea and end its temporary occupation of Ukrainian territory.  Ukraine’s representative, who introduced the text, said Moscow has turned Crimea into a powerful military outpost, representing a threat to peace and security well beyond the Black Sea region.  In response, the Russian Federation’s delegate underscored the politicized nature of the text.  She added that for a third year, the Assembly was being distracted by a text put forth by Ukraine, even though the people of Crimea have already decided its future through a referendum.

During the same meeting, and acting without a vote, the Assembly proclaimed 27 December as the International Day of Epidemic Preparedness.  Introducing that text, Viet Nam’s representative said COVID-19 was neither the first nor the last global pandemic. “The pandemic caught us off guard, but it also has served as a wake-up call for improving our preparedness,” he said.  Also by consensus, delegates adopted a resolution underscoring the role of neutrality in strengthening peace, security and development, ahead of the International Day of Neutrality, observed on 12 December.

The Assembly turned its attention to the oceans and the law of the sea on 8 December, adopting without a vote a 43-page text on sustainable fisheries, which due to the pandemic, comprised technical updates to the version adopted during the seventy-fourth session.  By a recorded vote of 130 in favour to 1 against (Russian Federation) with 3 abstentions (Belarus, China, Pakistan), delegates on 9 December adopted the Assembly’s annual resolution on the situation in Afghanistan, against the backdrop of both chronic violence and fresh progress in peace talks.  Afghanistan’s delegate said the resolution reflects the hopes and longings of the Afghan people, adding that Kabul has not lowered its guard or diminished efforts to fend off terrorist attacks.  The United States representative said the resolution overlooks the progress achieved during negotiations between Washington, D.C., and the Taliban.

The Assembly adopted four humanitarian-focused resolutions on 11 December, with delegates warning of ever-growing challenges in 2021 as the broader effects of the COVID‑19 pandemic begin to take hold, from prolonged economic hardship to the threat of major famine.  All four, respectively addressing natural disasters, safety and security of humanitarian personnel, assistance to Palestinians and strengthening the coordination of United Nations emergency humanitarian aid, were technical updates adopted without a vote.  Through a pair of recorded votes, the Assembly decided to retain paragraphs in two of the resolutions that referred to sexual and reproductive health.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the Assembly on 14 December adopted two health-related resolutions.  One, by a recorded vote of 181 in favour to 1 (United States), with no abstentions, underscored the importance of affordable health care for all and of monitoring the impact of COVID-19.  The other resolution, adopted by consensus, declared 2021 to 2030 as the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing.  During the same meeting, Member States also adopted resolutions that established a trust fund to enable eligible nationals from developing countries to participate in the Judicial Fellowship Programme at the International Court of Justice, commended Vanuatu’s graduation from least developed country status, and elected members of the Organizational Committee of the Peacebuilding Commission for two-year terms beginning 1 January 2021.

Acting without a vote, the Assembly on 21 December adopted three resolutions, including one calling for a further comprehensive review of United Nations peacebuilding in 2025 and another proclaiming 4 February as the International Day of Human Fraternity.  Through another resolution, the Assembly strongly encouraged Member States and relevant authorities to integrate the concept of education for democracy into school curricula and to do more to empower young people in the aftermath of the pandemic to shape societies anchored in respect for human rights and the rule of law.

During the same meeting, the Assembly decided, again without a vote, to extend the investigation into the tragic death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Organization’s second Secretary-General, in a 1961 airplane crash during a peace mission in Africa.  That decision followed a request from Mohamed Chande Othman, the Eminent Person leading the investigation, for a one‑year extension due to the pandemic.

The main part of the Assembly session ended on 31 December with the adoption — by a vote of 168 in favour to 2 against (Israel, United States), with no abstentions — of a $3.21 billion budget to fund the Organization through 2021.  In casting their dissenting votes, the representatives of Israel and the United States spoke out against the Assembly convening, in September 2021, a high-level meeting to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.  Israel’s delegate recalled that the 2001 World Conference on Racism had morphed into a “hate fest” against his country.

The same New Year’s Eve meeting also saw the adoption of a 56-page omnibus resolution on the world’s oceans, by a vote of 152 in favour to 1 against (Turkey), with 4 abstentions (Colombia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Venezuela).  Without a vote, the Assembly also adopted a resolution to request the Secretary-General to finalize, with the Government of Cambodia, a proposal for completing the work of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, established in 1997 to try senior members of the Khmer Rouge.

First Committee

Amid fears of crumbling international arms control norms and agreements, delegates in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) adapted to unprecedented modalities imposed by the pandemic to handle a range of efforts, including ridding the world of nuclear weapons and addressing the resurgent use of chemical and biological weapons, the militarization of outer space and the link between disarmament and sustainable development.  The pandemic’s impact would see the Committee do away with its traditional thematic discussions and hold three virtual informal meetings in their place.  More broadly, as the economic burden of the pandemic continues to grow, many Member States called for a systemic shift in funding priorities to redirect resources from weapons programmes to implementing the 2030 Agenda.

General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) stressed that conflicts disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations, hampering the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals while demonstrating the inextricable links among the three pillars of the United Nations — development, human rights, and peace and security.  Nicaragua’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Central American Integration System, said a record $1.9 trillion was spent on weapons in the last year, funding that should be funneled towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in the face of the current pandemic.  In the same vein, Mexico’s delegate said nuclear-weapon States spent $73 billion on maintaining atomic arsenals, overshadowing resources allocated towards peace and development objectives.

Contention flared over a range of security concerns, with the Committee holding 120 separate recorded votes on drafts alongside dozens of provisions contained therein.  Deliberations on nuclear weapons unfolded against news that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will enter into force in January, representing a non‑proliferation milestone largely supported by atomic-bomb-free nations.  Flávio Roberto Bonzanini, Secretary‑General of the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, told the Committee during a 26 October virtual informal interactive dialogue that the landmark development places the international community on the path towards the total elimination of atomic bombs.  Nuclear-weapon States voiced their opposition to that instrument and would call for recorded votes on provisions in draft resolutions and decisions that made references to it.

Throughout the general debate, several delegates voiced concerns that the behaviour of certain Member States is chipping away at non-proliferation efforts and ambitions, with rising fears about a new arms race.  Sweden’s representative said nuclear capabilities are being developed in parallel with the endangering of landmark treaties that have regulated weapons of mass destruction for decades.  China’s representative urged the United States, “the biggest threat to global strategic security and stability”, to fulfil its special responsibilities for nuclear disarmament.  To advance total denuclearization, the Committee approved the draft resolution “Joint courses of action and future-oriented dialogue towards a world without nuclear weapons” by a recorded vote of 139 in favour to 5 against (China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Syria, Zimbabwe), with 33 abstentions, having first held separate recorded votes on 15 of its paragraphs.

Concerns over deteriorating nuclear norms and obligations included the soon expiring Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START Treaty).  The United States representative warned that Moscow has developed nuclear weapons unconstrained by the New START Treaty and continues to undermine the international security frameworks to which it has committed.  The Russian Federation’s delegate said Moscow is ready to extend the New START Treaty without preconditions and invited the United States to do likewise “without artificial delays”.  Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu expressed hope that discussions would advance regarding the agreement’s extension, with Member States likewise hoping that talks would create plausible conditions for negotiations on broader arms control arrangements.

Despite the absence of thematic discussions, the Committee addressed issues related to various classes of weaponry.  While Member States stressed that the use of chemical weapons is reprehensible, they disagreed on the best approach to implement relevant regulations.  Several delegates highlighted the recent rise in incidents, including allegations of the use of chemical agents in the poisoning of Russian national Alexei Navalny in August.  At the same time, some Member States requested six separate recorded votes on paragraphs contained in the draft resolution “Implementation of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction”.  The Committee approved it by a recorded vote of 146 in favour to 8 against (Cambodia, China, Iran, Nicaragua, Russian Federation, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe), with 26 abstentions, with some delegates saying the draft resolution accurately reflected the instrument’s objectives and those voting against it as a whole stating that Western Powers were undermining both the convention and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  Expressing support for the draft, Turkey’s representative condemned the re-emergence of the use of chemical weapons, particularly in Syria.  Syria’s delegate, regretting to note Ankara’s unsubstantiated accusations, said it is widely known that Turkey uses weapons of mass destruction.

Such divergence spilled into the realm of maintaining security in outer space.  The First Committee approved the draft resolution “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours” by a recorded vote of 150 in favour to 12 against, with 8 abstentions (Angola, Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, India, Israel, Nigeria, Palau) after approving the retention of several paragraphs by holding separate recorded votes.  But, prior to its approval, the Committee rejected a motion proposed by the Russian Federation by which the Assembly would have recognized that the First Committee has no competence to approve the draft resolution.  The motion was defeated by a recorded vote of 15 in favour to 102 against, with 33 abstentions.  Several delegates, including Cuba’s representative, echoed Moscow’s concern that such issues were better suited for consideration in the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization). 

The Committee held multiple votes on provisions of several other texts, including the draft resolution “No first placement of weapons in outer space”, approving it as a whole by a recorded vote of 122 in favour to 32 against, with 21 abstentions, after voting to retain three of its paragraphs.  Several delegations saw the draft as a viable effort, with China’s representative regretting to note that the United States doctrine identifies outer space as a “fighting domain”.  Zimbabwe’s representative, echoing the position of many other delegates, said outer space must remain a zone of peace and stability.  Germany’s representative, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said the Russian Federation has failed to reconcile its approach with the fact that it already possesses and continues to develop capabilities that can be regarded as weapons.

Frustrations re-emerged over the non-issuance of visas for disarmament experts by the United States in its role as the United Nations host country.  Speaking on behalf of Cuba, Russian Federation, Syria and Venezuela, Iran’s representative said:  “We reject the abuse of the United States of its status as host country; this practice is a deliberate attempt to disrupt the full discharge of our abilities at the United Nations.”  Prior to approving the draft “Disarmament Commission” without a vote, the Committee rejected an amendment proposed by the Russian Federation, by a recorded vote of 16 in favour to 56 against, with 70 abstentions, that would have had the General Assembly take action to ensure the issuance of visas by the United Nations host country.  The United States representative emphasized that it is entirely inappropriate to raise visa issues within the First Committee.

The First Committee Bureau comprised Agustin Santos Maraver (Spain) as Chair, with Bassem Hassan (Egypt), Ariel Rodelas Penaranda (Philippines) and Corina-Cristina Lefter (Romania) serving as Vice-Chairs and María del Rosario Estrada Girón (Guatemala) as Rapporteur.

Second Committee

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages economies, reverses poverty eradication, ratchets up debt, blocks trade and hinders sustainable development, it comes as no surprise that recovering from the crisis dominated many of this year’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial) debates, alongside its traditional topics.

Under the theme “Building back better after COVID-19:  ensuring a more equitable global economy, inclusive societies and sustainable recovery”, speakers repeatedly underscored the lack of global preparedness in tackling the biggest challenge since the United Nations opened its doors 75 years ago.  The international community must use this opportunity to reinvent itself, they said, bolstering health systems, combating climate change and filling in development gaps.

Addressing the general debate on 5 October, Nobel laureate in economics and Colombia University Professor Joseph Stiglitz said the crisis has exposed weaknesses in economies, Governments and societies, with developed countries unable even to produce basic treatment and protection like masks and ventilators.  He pointed to the particular plight of developing countries dependent on exports, as markets collapse and a potential new debt crisis as incomes plummet.  Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, noted that the pandemic and mitigation measures have overwhelmed global health systems, keeping up to 90 per cent of students out of school and shutting down businesses and factories.  The pandemic is expected to push over 70 million people back into extreme poverty and cause 132 million more to suffer from undernourishment in 2020.

Throughout the session, speakers emphasized that COVID-19 threatens to unravel decades of progress in eradicating poverty and hunger, with the number of people suffering from acute food insecurity set to double in 2020 to over 265 million.  Prior to the pandemic, nearly 690 million people — about 9 per cent of the world’s population — suffered from hunger, which could surpass 840 million by 2030.  Speaking for the Group of Least Developed Countries, Malawi’s delegate said global growth could drop by 4.9 per cent due to the pandemic, with hard-won social and environmental gains in his bloc reversed.  Moreover, least developed countries face indebtedness of $358 billion and debt servicing has tripled to 14.4 per cent, with a 1.6 per cent decline in value of exports in 2019, leaving them severely hit in the long term.

Compounding rising debt, speakers noted that developing countries are facing potential trade cuts of up to 30 per cent for 2020, with China´s delegate urging Governments to support the World Trade Organization and full functioning of the global supply chain.  Kyrgyzstan’s representative stressed the need to restore trade disrupted by the pandemic, particularly for developing countries whose economies depend on exports as well as imports of essential goods, including medicines.  Middle-income countries have also been hit hard by the pandemic, delegates noted, as the global economic shockwave derails their development gains.  Speaking for the Like-Minded Group of Supporters of Middle-Income Countries, the delegate of the Philippines said his bloc faces a rise in debt risks, with forecasts of 14 per cent global work-hour losses in 2020 and remittances down by $109 billion in developing States.

Speakers also highlighted the special needs of small island developing States with unique biodiversity and highly fragile ecosystems vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events.  The representative of the Bahamas, speaking for the Caribbean Community, said her group is under constant assault from climatic events, underscoring the importance of the international community’s pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually to combat the phenomenon.  Similarly, the representative of Maldives noted that tidal waves, sea swells and flooding “have become the new norm”, requiring immediate action.  His country aims to rely on 70 per cent renewable energy by 2030, he said, stressing that small island developing States need equitable and predictable finance, while middle-income countries need unique concessional financing outside the paradigm of gross domestic product–based measurements.

The pandemic has particularly crippled the tourism sector, speakers noted, affecting 53 per cent of tourist destinations and closing down 93 holiday places worldwide.  Costa Rica’s delegate said tourism in his country has almost completely shut down, affecting 12 per cent of economic activity and hampering achievement of sustainable development.  Nations urged the international community to focus on long-term global pacts like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda as key frameworks for building back after COVID‑19.  “We have the necessary tools,” Togo’s delegate said, adding that the 2030 Agenda, created in 2015, should not remain wishful thinking.

In a meeting with the regional commissions, delegates emphasized the importance of multilateralism through those bodies in recovering from the coronavirus.  Extending the debt servicing suspension initiative into 2021 will be particularly important, as will reducing the cost of capital and lower fees for overseas remittances.  Going forward, Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, said recovery proposals include extending basic emergency income for 12 months, guaranteed universal digital access, and expansive fiscal and monetary policies.  Peru’s delegate highlighted inequality among countries fighting the pandemic, calling on the international community to consider vaccines and therapeutic treatments as “global public goods”.

The Committee also took up the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and the New Urban Agenda, dubbing it an engine for economic growth, poverty reduction and environmental protection, but lamenting insufficient funding to keep its wheels turning.  As in prior years, speakers also stressed that occupation and natural resource exploitation continue to hamper social and economic development in the occupied Palestinian territory and occupied Syrian Golan.  In overcoming COVID-19 and other setbacks, the Committee approved 35 draft resolutions and two draft decisions, including a contentious text on improving field action through the quadrennial comprehensive policy review of operational activities for development of the United Nations system.  Other drafts sought to liberalize trade, tackle unsustainable debt, combat illicit financial flows and stabilize the global economic environment.  Further drafts focused on decreasing the digital divide, addressing climate change, bolstering transport links and modernizing agriculture.

Chairing the Second Committee bureau was Amrit Rai (Nepal), Rosemary O’Hehir (Australia), Christine Bailey (Jamaica) and Mária Danielčáková (Slovakia) serving as Vice-Chairs, with Diamane Diome (Senegal) as Rapporteur.

Third Committee

Members of the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) contended with a wide swathe of issues, from the impact of the pandemic on social development to the rights of women, children and indigenous people, in an atmosphere intermittently charged with factionalism and disharmony, before sending 50 draft resolutions and one decision to the General Assembly.

Briefing delegates for the third year in a row, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, cautioned that COVID-19 has dealt “profound, multi-faceted blows” to fundamental freedoms and civil liberties worldwide.  She stressed that human rights-based policy could form a bedrock of protection, preventing the worst outcomes.  Also addressing delegates during the session was Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who warned that 175 million people could be thrust into extreme poverty due to the pandemic, which is the worst crisis the world has faced since the Great Depression in 1929.  In charting a recovery, he said countries must rethink the current development model, and replace it with one that foregrounds environmental sustainability and social justice.  The Committee also heard from President of the Human Rights Council, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, and High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

Among the 81 Special Procedure mandate holders briefing the Committee was Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, who said his mandate has been overwhelmed with requests for urgent interventions, only a fraction of which can be considered due to a “persistent lack of resources and capacity”.  The pandemic has led to a sharp deterioration in conditions of detention in many parts of the world, with detainees unable to protect themselves due to overcrowded cells and inadequate access to masks, sterilizing agents and medical care.  He also recalled numerous reports of lethal force, as well as torture being used to enforce lockdown measures.

Even during the COVID‑19 pandemic, the climate emergency is the leading global threat to cultural rights, said Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur on that topic.  Centuries of human cultural achievement — heritage sites, practices and entire ways of life — are at risk of being “simply wiped out”, she said, a reality that has not been sufficiently acknowledged in climate change initiatives.  Meanwhile, Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, described the ways in which an uptick in discriminatory laws and repressive State policies and practices made individuals and groups of people deeply vulnerable because of their religious or belief identity.  He expressed concern over the sharp, disquieting rise of scapegoating since the advent of the pandemic, leading to intensified anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Christian and anti-Hindu sentiments.

In a striking trend, several draft resolutions were targeted by a slew of amendments, which some delegates characterized as hostile.  A number of anodyne drafts on the rights of women and children — including one on child, early and forced marriage — attracted a profusion of amendments from the Russian Federation and the United States, whose delegates sought to change language around human rights and reproductive rights.  Their proposed changes were roundly rejected, upon which the resolution was approved without a vote.  Similarly, a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, introduced by Switzerland’s delegate, who said it would enhance the protection of human rights, including the right to life, was countered by a proposed amendment brought forth by a group of 33 countries.  The representative of Singapore, speaking for the bloc, objected to the text’s attempt to impose a particular worldview on States, which overrode their sovereign right to determine appropriate legal penalties according to their own legal systems.  A proposed additional operative paragraph reaffirming this right was subsequently approved by a recorded vote of 95 in favour to 69 against, with 17 abstentions, much to the chagrin of some delegates, including the United Kingdom, who subsequently withdrew his co-sponsorship of the draft.

Country-specific resolutions were likewise the subject of heated debate, as the Committee considered drafts on the situations in Syria, Iran, Myanmar, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine).  Numerous delegates supporting these drafts called on the countries in question to grant unhindered access to the Special Rapporteurs and the Independent Investigative Mechanisms, underscoring the need for reparations for victims and accountability for perpetrators of crimes.  However, such demands were met with a countervailing set of objections by other delegates, notably from the countries under discussion, who denounced the resolutions as “selective” and politically motivated and pointed out that they were used exclusively against developing countries.  Many criticized the hypocrisy of countries tabling or co-sponsoring the resolutions, including Iran’s representative, who decried the United States’ “unlawful” unilateral coercive measures as economic terrorism.  In a similar vein, Syria’s delegate also condemned the United States for taking coercive measures, such as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, that deprive Syrians of food and medicine, adding that Washington, D.C., “has neither the legal nor moral authority” to put forward a draft that purports to address human rights in his country while it spends billions of dollars training and sheltering extremist groups.

The Third Committee Bureau comprised Chair Katalin Bogyay (Hungary), Vice-Chairs Ahlem Sara Charikhi (Algeria), Pilar Eugenio (Argentina) and Khaled Mohammed Almanzlawiy (Saudi Arabia), and Rapporteur Myriam Oehri (Liechtenstein).

Fourth Committee

In a session marked by constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fourth Committee held a joint general debate on 11 substantive agenda items in the course of 10 formal meetings and two virtual informal meetings.

Throughout the joint general debate, speakers called upon United Nations peace operations to learn from the COVID‑19 pandemic in terms of planning future mandates.  They also expressed concerns about the impact of the worsening United Nations liquidity crisis on those operations and missions supporting transitions.  Australia’s representative noted that the liquidity situation is affecting both the Organization’s regular and peacekeeping budgets.  Norway’s delegate said the upcoming transition in Darfur highlights the need to look at peace operations as a “spectrum, rather than as distinct, separate activities”.  Greater predictability is needed to finance special political missions as well as peacebuilding activities following the withdrawal of peace operations, she said, warning:  “We all stand to lose if there is a relapse into conflict.”  India’s representative stressed the need to address the fragmented manner in which special political missions are funded.  A separate account assessed at peacekeeping scales and in line with the peacekeeping budget cycle would enhance transparency, she said.  However, she also expressed concern over the growing attacks on peacekeepers, describing them as the result of anti-United Nations propaganda.

Delegates also expressed concern over UNRWA’s worsening financial situation, emphasizing the increasingly urgent need for its services amid the pandemic.  Brazil’s representative noted that UNRWA is helping a vulnerable population combat an unprecedented health crisis, and the situation has introduced unforeseen costs to the Agency’s already strained budget.  Jordan’s representative stressed that UNRWA must continue providing services until a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict is found.  Noting that the Palestinian question remains the main driver of crises in the Middle East, he underlined that a two-State solution cannot be achieved while Israel announces its intention to annex the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea.  Turkey’s representative warned that even if annexation is postponed, it is not off the table because illegal settlement activity continues in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and will form the basis for future annexation plans.

The observer for the State of Palestine declared: “Allowing Israel to continue getting away with its crimes without consequence will never lead to change.”  Those who believe that Israel has actually suspended or ceased its annexation plans are ignoring the reality of what is actually happening on the ground, she warned.  Israel’s representative said the recent agreement reached between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has opened new opportunities for the region.

Many speakers also called upon the Department of Global Communications to counter the spread of misinformation and discrimination associated with COVID‑19.  China’s representative, noting the effective United Nations communications strategy around the rampant rhetoric of hatred around the pandemic, expressed hope that the Department will continue to use its multilingual platforms to spread the values of “people first and life first” through concrete actions.

Delegates also stressed the enduring importance of the Committee’s decolonization agenda.  However, Eritrea’s representative noted that the economic, political and cultural structures of the colonial era remain largely intact in many parts of the Global South.  “Decolonized nations in Africa are still chained by the predatory global economic structures that keep them poor while enriching others,” he said, emphasizing that the task of decolonization will not be fulfilled without addressing the conditions that keep developing nations on the periphery, infringe upon their sovereign right to chart their own path and stifle their views in multilateral forums.

In addition to those agenda items, the Committee considered its other regular topics — peaceful uses of outer space, special political missions, and atomic radiation.  By the session’s conclusion on 6 November, it recommended 34 draft resolutions and three draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.

Alongside Committee Chair Collen Vixen Kelapile (Botswana), the Fourth Committee Bureau comprised Vice-Chairs Paul Hussar (Romania), José Osvaldo Sanabria Rivarola (Paraguay), Darren Camilleri (Malta) and Jassim Sayar A. J. al-Maawda (Qatar), Rapporteur.

Fifth Committee

After protracted negotiations that led to the first recorded vote on the United Nations regular budget in 13 years, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved resources of $3.21 billion for 2021.  In calling for the vote, the United States representative said he could not support a budget that refuses to recognize the rightful imposition of sanctions on Iran and perpetuates anti-Semitism, a view echoed by Israel’s speaker.  As they had in 2007, both delegations objected to follow up activities related to the 2001 Durban Conference, whose outcome they believe has promoted anti-Israel bias and set back cooperation for combating racism and racial discrimination.

The approved 2021 budget was greater than the $2.99 billion proposal unveiled by the Secretary-General in mid-October, who warned that the ongoing liquidity crisis was severely hampering the Organization’s ability to fulfil its obligations.  “We are being forced to operate not on the basis of strategic direction, but rather on the availability of cash, which undermines mandate implementation,” he told the Committee.  Many delegates laid the blame on the United States, the largest financial contributor, for withholding its assessed contributions despite having the ability to pay.  Up slightly from last year’s $3.07 billion appropriation, the 2021 outlay will keep the Organization’s doors open and its staff working — many from their homes around the globe — amid the COVID-19 pandemic and cash crunch.

The decision to include financing in the regular budget for 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 again drew opposition from some Member States, as it did in 2019.  The Russian Federation and Syria, among others, 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.

Delegates laid out the urgency of financing special political missions, which form a crucial part of the global peace and security pillar, earmarking $782.21 million for the 40 continuing missions, $1.41 million for the share of those missions in the budget of the Regional Service Centre in Entebbe, Uganda, and $34.07 million for the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan.  With the missions’ share of the regular budget steadily increasing to nearly one quarter this year, some Member States repeated calls for a separate account to fund them.

The Committee also considered the state of the vast system governing staff pensions, valued at more than $80 billion.  Delegates asked the Assembly to grant the Secretary-General for the first time the authority to use derivative instruments — such as exchange-traded futures, swaps and foreign exchange forwards — on a trial basis for two years to effectively manage the Fund’s growing investments portfolio.

The Committee also requested more than $25 million to finance Umoja, the Organization’s enterprise resource planning project, and set deadlines and funding for renovations to keep historic United Nations structures in Geneva and Addis Ababa open and operating safely, as well as for implementing the flexible workplace strategy at New York Headquarters.  In addition, it sent the Assembly texts on the activities of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the administration of justice system, and financing of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, among other things.

One of the Committee’s eight formal meetings during the session was devoted to discussing the ongoing restructuring of the Organization’s peace and security architecture into two main departments.  Delegates asked for more tracking of the efficiency and cost benefits of the reform which began in 2019, yet they did not present a draft resolution for action.

Comprising the Committee’s Bureau were Carlos Amorín (Uruguay) as Chair, with Katlego Boase Mmalane (Botswana), Jakub Krzysztof Chmielewski (Poland) and Armağan Ayşe Can Crabtree (Turkey) serving as Vice-Chairs.  Tsu Tang Terrence Teo (Singapore) was the Rapporteur.

Sixth Committee

As the COVID-19 pandemic forced work around the world onto online platforms, so too did it drive the Sixth Committee (Legal) to use virtual and unconventional means to fulfil their duties in the seventy-fifth General Assembly.  The pandemic’s fallout had delegates — who normally achieve consensus through extensive in-person negotiations — spread out across multiple conference rooms throughout United Nations Headquarters.  Further separated by masks, empty chairs and staggered exits, they nevertheless fully discussed the topics on their agenda, aided by technology and the Secretariat.  While some resolutions approved by the Committee represent technical rollovers due to the constraints that a health crisis places on substantive legal debate, the progressive development of international law — much like the delegates themselves — benefitted from a number of innovative, digital solutions.

Although COVID‑19 rendered International Law Week impossible, the Sixth Committee (Legal) heard oral reports from the Chair‑Designate of the International Law Commission, who reported on informal intersession work where members exchanged ideas via multiple virtual meetings.  Amidst praise for the Commission’s adaptation of work methods, many delegates, particularly from small island developing States, spotlighted the recently issued first issues paper on sea-level rise in relation to international law.  Belize’s representative, speaking for the Alliance of Small Island States, pointed out that the radical, relentless change to oceans had not been contemplated when the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas was being drafted in the 1970s and 1980s.  The representative of Tuvalu, speaking for the Pacific Islands Forum, underscored the urgent need for international law to develop on this issue, emphasizing that “maritime boundaries enjoy the same stability as any other boundaries.”

The Chair of the fifty-third session of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) also reported on how the Commission organized webinars so that it could continue working with States to modernize legal systems despite restrictions imposed by the virus.  The representative of Chile, affirming the leading role UNCITRAL must play in facilitating global post-pandemic economic recovery through legal development, pointed out that the most important lesson learned from this session was the need for transparency and inclusion.  The importance of flexible legal regimes in times of uncertainty was also emphasized, with Israel’s representative spotlighting adjustable international dispute settlement mechanisms such as mediation.  Other speakers — including representatives of the Russian Federation and Belarus — acknowledged the Commission’s necessary transition to online work, given the realities of 2020, but stressed that such work needed to be returned to the more-inclusive format of in-person meetings as soon as possible.  Nonetheless, crises drive innovation, noted Zambia’s delegate, who underscored that the pandemic presents an opportunity to implement novel approaches as States address the economic shocks resulting from COVID-19.

The Secretary of the Advisory Committee for the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciate of International Law also reported on its pandemic-response measures, including online training programs created by the Codification Division of the Office of Legal Affairs.  While delegates praised the Division’s innovative digital solutions, the representatives of the Republic of Moldova and Thailand also underlined the importance of enhancing the Division’s websites with research and writing from different legal systems and geographic regions.  As well, Argentina’s representative urged such electronic materials be in all official United Nations languages.  Other delegates, such as Cambodia’s, stressed that remote learning cannot replace in-person programmes where bonds between participants are encouraged and cooperation between nations are forged.  Nonetheless, delegates agreed that the Programme’s activities were crucial to advancing Member States’ equal participation in the international order.  In particular, Eswatini’s representative highlighted the Programme’s importance to Africa by pointing out that 347 of out 433 applicants for the 2020 International Law Fellowship Programme came from the continent.

This session also saw a spirited debate on whether the International Law Commission’s draft articles on crimes against humanity should be elaborated into a convention.  Several delegates, including Portugal’s, urged the international community to heed the Commission’s recommendation and convene a diplomatic conference to negotiate a convention based on the draft texts.  However, the representatives of Singapore and Sudan struck a cautionary note, with the former calling for further clarifications from the Commission based on States’ comments, while the latter said that many of the texts were copied from other treaties and conventions that remain controversial.  South Africa’s representative, speaking for the African Group, stressed that it was important not to impose legal theories or definitions derived from international agreements that are not universally accepted.  As the Committee approved the topic’s draft resolution at the end of the session, Mexico’s representative pointed out that a failure to memorialize the limitations imposed by the pandemic in the draft text would create the false impression that the topic had been discussed for a second year running with no concrete result. 

The Sixth Committee also considered the agenda item on effective measures to enhance the protection, security and safety of diplomatic and consular missions and representatives, with delegations sharing their specific experiences.  The representative of China voiced concern about the safety of his country’s diplomatic and consular personnel in several countries, pointing to burglaries, vandalizing of diplomatic premises and bomb threats.  Noting that his country provides other missions with all-year-round protection by armed police, he called on all States to take proactive, preventive measures to shield missions.  Iran’s delegate called attention to the 2018 and 2019 attacks against his country’s consulates in Iraq, stressing that the response by local authorities was inadequate.  Responding, Iraq’s delegate detailed the steps taken by his Government to ensure the ensure the safety of diplomatic and consular staff on Iraqi soil.  The representative of Cameroon, urging stronger adherence of the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations, added that such measures “aim at protecting States, not individuals”.

The Committee also took note of how the COVID-19 pandemic compelled innovation in international treaty registrations, as the crisis exacerbated ordinary obstacles to the process by limiting in-person meetings and access to physical resources.  Thus, the representative of Italy pointed out, provisions allowing for electronic registration proved essential.  Concurring, Finland’s representative stressed that easily accessible registration and publication of treaties was an important element of the rules-based international order.  Therefore, translation of these instruments into English and French — though a heavy burden on the Secretariat — was necessary for the transparency of international law.  However, other delegations pointed out that such translation, which aligns with the Organization’s core value of multilateralism, inevitably caused delays.  To that point, El Salvador’s representative illustrated how such lapses have become a pressing issue during the pandemic; while many States issued unilateral notifications during the crisis, delayed registration hindered access to their highly relevant content.  Because treaties are an indispensable tool in international relations, delegations noted that this agenda item was providing an opportunity for the General Assembly to update relevant regulations to make effective use of information technology.

Chairing the Sixth Committee Bureau was Milenko E. Skoknic (Chile), alongside Vice-Chairs Ghanshyam Bhandari (Nepal), Kristina Pelkiö (Czech Republic), Sarah Weiss Ma’udi (Israel) and Rapporteur Solomon Korbieh (Ghana).

For information media. Not an official record.