17 August 2021
Seventy-fifth Session, 98th Meeting (AM)

General Assembly Adopts Texts on Role of Rapid Technological Change in Achieving Sustainable Development, High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage

Divergent Views on Process for Screening, Selecting Civil Society Groups to Participate in Upcoming Health Summit Force Votes on Two Proposed Amendments

The General Assembly adopted two resolutions today, one on the impact of rapid technological change on realizing the Sustainable Development Goals and another endorsing details for a forthcoming high-level meeting on universal health coverage, following an exchange of views among delegates over the screening process for civil society participation in the latter.

The need to accelerate action on universal health coverage has become extremely evident in recent years, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said Guyana’s representative, speaking also for Japan, as co-facilitators of discussions on the resolution “Scope, modalities, format and organization of the high-level meeting on universal health coverage” (document A/75/L.120).  Recalling that talks held on the screening process for non-governmental organizations are reflected in the resolution, she said “L.120” seeks to bring together a wide range of partners at the planned high-level meeting, including the critical inclusion of civil society groups.

In adopting “L.120” without a vote, the 193-member organ decided that the one-day meeting shall be held at United Nations Headquarters in New York on the third day of the Assembly’s general debate at its seventy-eighth session.  Regarding the event’s details, the Assembly decided that the meeting will, among other things, convene multi-stakeholder panels and approve an action-oriented political declaration. 

By the terms of operative paragraph 10, it requested the General Assembly President to draw up a list of representatives of relevant non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, academic institutions and the private sector — besides those already in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council — who may participate, taking into account the principles of transparency and equitable geographical representation, with due regard for gender parity.  It further requested the President to submit the list to Member States for their consideration on a non-objection basis and to bring it to the Assembly’s attention for its final decision on participation in the meeting.

Prior to the resolution’s adoption, delegates exchanged divergent views on the process, laid out in operative paragraphs 10 and 11, for screening non-governmental organizations.  Separate recorded votes were called on two proposed amendments, each suggesting the deletion of elements in operative paragraphs 10 and 11.

By a recorded vote of 64 in favour to 43 against, with 33 abstentions, the Assembly adopted an amendment (document A/75/L.124) introduced by the United Kingdom’s delegate.  In doing so, it decided to delete operative paragraph 11, by which the Assembly would have requested the Secretariat to assist its President, “with the support of other relevant entities of the United Nations system, as appropriate, particularly the World Health Organization (WHO), in drawing up the list referred to in paragraph 10 above, through screening and evaluation of the requests to ensure relevance to attend the high-level meeting”.

By a recorded vote of 23 in favour to 82 against, with 28 abstentions, it rejected an oral amendment put forward by China, also on behalf of Belarus, Iran, Russian Federation, Syria and Venezuela, that proposed the deletion in operative paragraph 10 of the phrase:  “and to bring the list to the Assembly’s attention for its final decision on participation in the high-level meeting”.

The United Kingdom’s representative, in introducing the proposed amendment in “L.124”, underlined the importance of the Assembly’s process of approving the involvement of non-governmental organizations, as outlined in operative paragraph 10.  However, operative paragraph 11 would remove the Assembly’s decision-making power and attempts to degrade operative paragraph 10, he said, wondering who exactly would be making judgments on the Assembly’s behalf.

The representative of the Russian Federation, speaking also for Belarus, China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela, said operative paragraph 11 cannot “cause any restrictions” on the involvement of specialized non-governmental organizations in the high-level meeting, since it does not introduce any additional procedures or selection criteria.  The review of applications for the initial list of organizations is “in the hands” of the Secretariat and the Assembly President’s Office, which are expected to ensure alignment with United Nations principles.  “Operational paragraph 11 is already a compromise,” he said, yet still fosters transparency in the process.  Thanking the co-facilitators for their efforts to find mutually acceptable solutions, he expressed regret that the amendment’s sponsors chose not to favour such solutions.  “We consider this a missed opportunity to settle contradictions on this issue,” he said, requesting a vote on amendment “L.124”.

Slovenia’s representative, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said civil society groups’ participation is essential, as they represent the voice of those who need to be heard on such a crucial issue as universal health coverage.  However, the language in operative paragraph 11 is inconsistent with previous practice, creating many unanswered questions on screening and evaluation.

China’s delegate, introducing the oral amendment on behalf of a group of States, regretted to note that consensus has been broken on the matter.

The United Kingdom’s representative said language in operative paragraph 10 reflects the Assembly’s practice, as decided in 2012, and enjoys consensus support.  While States have challenged such language in the past, the majority of the Assembly supports it.  The biggest ambition behind the proposed oral amendment is to delete text that guarantees the Assembly’s role in the participation of civil society groups in the Organization’s meetings, he said, adding that China wants veto power over certain groups and wants to exclude them and limit civil society participation.

The representative of the United States, in explanation of vote after the vote on “L.120”, said his delegation engaged constructively in negotiations, emphasizing that COVID-19 has reinforced the critical importance of a global pandemic preparedness architecture.  To achieve universal health coverage, all stakeholders, including civil society, must be included in the high-level meeting, as they serve as the “eyes and ears” on the ground, providing critical perspectives which add great value to Government efforts.  “They push each of us to do better as Governments,” he said.  Without such voices at the table, efforts towards universal health coverage will be less effective and incomplete.  He welcomed that operative paragraph 10 remains in the resolution, noting that it appears in five recent modalities resolutions and recognizes the importance of an inclusive dialogue.  

He went on to say that when objections to an organization’s participation do arise, the Assembly — rather than a single State or group of States — must take a decision.  Doing so increases transparency and accountability, as outcomes on those discussions should not be determined behind closed doors.  The “no-objection basis” process, introduced in 2012, has since been abused, which is why changes have been made in the five recent modalities resolution adoptions.  He welcomed that operative paragraph 11 has been deleted, as its language was brought late into the negotiation process with little transparency and has not appeared in any prior modalities resolutions.  United Nations agencies are already involved in crafting the list of civil society organizations that will participate in high-level meetings, he said, adding that the paragraph in question risked changing existing good practice in selecting organizations to participate in high-level meetings.

The representative of China expressed regret that the Assembly adopted the resolution without consensus and that existing rules and institutional arrangements for the participation of non-governmental organizations in high-level meetings were once again ignored.  As such, her delegation disassociated from consensus on operative paragraph 10, she said, stressing that China has always supported the participation of non-governmental organizations in an orderly manner.  Recalling that the United Nations is composed of sovereign Member States, she said the “no-objection basis” is an established practice of the Assembly.  Claims that it prevents non-governmental organizations from participating is an “intentional twist” of the practice.  China stands ready to continue its constructive consultations on the matter to ensure the active participation of non-governmental organizations in the work of the United Nations.

The representative of Syria, noting that her delegation participated transparently in negotiations, said that “every step of the way” it stressed the need to adopt the text by consensus, respecting the Assembly’s rules.  However, controversial language was introduced, related to the “no-objection basis”, a rule that had been successful in the past.  Syria’s concerns were paid no heed.  She clarified that its concerns do not represent an objection to the participation of civil society members in the meeting.  However, participation by those that do not have consultative status with the Economic and Social Council “cannot happen”, given the intergovernmental nature of the United Nations.  “The opinion of one or two countries is enough in making such decisions,” she stressed.  When there is no consensus among States, the best solution is to revert to previously agreed language, which did not happen today.  “This jeopardized our unity,” she warned, dissociating herself from operative paragraph 10.

The representative of Belarus, noting that her delegation supported the resolution, expressed surprise over the negative attitudes expressed by some over the need to ensure non-governmental participation in high-level meetings.  She fully supported the procedures proposed in operative paragraph 11, “which record what is taking place in practice”.  Noting that Belarus voted against “L.124”, the amendment put forward by the United Kingdom, she said it nevertheless supported the oral amendment to operative paragraph 10 and has concerns over attempts to push non-consensual provisions and counter established practice.  She called for maintaining existing practice, underscoring the right of Member States to determine which organizations participate in intergovernmental processes, while disassociating herself from operative paragraph 10.

The representative of Namibia, noting that her delegation abstained in the vote on the proposed amendment, said it has consistently supported civil society participation in the Assembly’s work, as non-governmental organizations are often on the frontlines of initiatives.  Yet, she expressed concern over language in operative paragraph 11, which lacked clarity and sought a role for the Secretariat that was new and required consideration.  It is imperative that the Assembly be able to speak with one voice on critical matters such as that being considered today, she added.

The Assembly then adopted a resolution titled “Impact of Rapid Technological Change on the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and Targets” (document A/75/L.123), without a vote.  It was introduced by the representative of Mexico, who stressed that 57 per cent of the global population lacks Internet access.  Clarifying that rapid technological change refers not only to science, technology and innovation, but also to the human and institutional capacities needed to adapt to change, she said harnessing technology implies that challenges must be tackled in the framework of international cooperation. 

As such, she said the text before the Assembly today identifies ways to bridge digital divides and increase Internet access, highlighting the contributions of rapid technological change on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in such areas as health care, energy, education, employment and gender equality.  The Technology Facilitation Mechanism is vital, as is the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy for Technology.  “Together, we have achieved a comprehensive draft” that reflects international priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, adding:  “Multilateralism is the best way to move forward and bridge digital divides.”

By the terms of “L.123”, the Assembly urged Member States and other stakeholders to bridge the digital and knowledge divides, acknowledging technological accessibility for persons with disabilities as one of the core elements of Sustainable Development Goals.  It reaffirmed the protection of certain rights, including the right to privacy, with special regard to children, and urged Member States to adopt or maintain data protection legislation and policies in line with their international human rights obligations, to monitor data privacy practices, investigate violations and abuses and to provide appropriate remedies.  By other terms of the text, it urged Member States to promote digital inclusion and close the gender digital divide while harnessing technology to mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19.  It also stressed the importance of rapid technological change in ensuring food security by 2030 and encouraged the adoption of the most advanced and appropriate information technology in agriculture systems.

The United Kingdom’s representative, noting that her delegation joined consensus on that resolution, spotlighted its focus on the impact of rapid technological change on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  Noting that there is no value in duplicating language on existing initiatives, she underscored the importance of multi-stakeholder cooperation, as more must be done to harness the strengths of Governments, international organizations, the private sector and technology and academic communities.  She expressed full support for language recognizing the need to close the gender digital divide and reaffirmed the role of digital technologies in enabling women and girls to fully participate in economic and cultural life.  She also voiced strong support for language emphasizing that technological adaptation should be realized with respect to human rights.  However, the United Kingdom would have preferred to see greater recognition of other rights, including those to freedom of opinion and expression, and to peaceful assembly and association.  Her delegation understands that efforts to protect children online, referenced in operative paragraph 4, must fully comply with human rights law.

The representative of the United States said that, while his delegation joined consensus, it disassociates itself from preambular paragraph 13 to the extent that it promotes technology transfer or distribution of intellectual property rights that is not both voluntary and on mutually agreed terms.  Strong protection and enforcement of intellectual property provides incentives needed to drive the innovation that addresses the health, environmental and development challenges of today and tomorrow.  References to dissemination of technology and transfer of or access to technology, or to voluntary technology transfer on mutually agreed terms, as well as all references to access to information, are to information or knowledge that is made available with the authorization of the legitimate holder. 

He went on to note the importance of regulatory and legal environments that support innovation, adding that the language in preambular paragraph 13 on technology transfer does not serve as a precedent for future negotiated documents.  The right to privacy in operative paragraph 4 refers to right not to be subjected to unlawful interference with one’s privacy, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In operative paragraph 8, the United States does not consider the list of platforms, technologies or goals as comprehensive, nor does this list accurately describe the priorities of the international community as highlighted elsewhere in the resolution.

In other business, the Assembly took note of document A/75/661/Add.5, in which the Secretary-General communicated that the Central African Republic has made a payment necessary to reduce arrears owed to the Organization.

The Assembly will reconvene in plenary at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 26 August, to consider its agenda item on integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields, and take action on two draft resolutions.

For information media. Not an official record.