World Leaders Stress Need to Tackle Urgent Emerging Challenges amid Surging Unilateralism, as General Assembly Begins Seventy-Third Session
Multilateralism Only Viable Response, Assembly President Says, as Secretary-General Hails Peace Efforts in Horn of Africa, Korean Peninsula
Amid the backdrop of rising unilateralism and large-scale migration, world leaders attending the General Assembly united under the theme of making the United Nations relevant to all people, stressing that only through a multilateral rules-based order can the international community meet emerging challenges.
In his opening address to the general debate of the Assembly’s seventy-third session, Secretary-General António Guterres warned that rising polarization and populism have left the world suffering from a bad case of “trust deficit disorder”. While living standards for millions have improved, that cannot be taken for granted, he said, declaring: “Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”
He went on to call upon world leaders to renew their commitment to a rules-based order, with the United Nations at its centre. “In the face of massive existential threats to people and planet — but, equally, at a time of compelling opportunities for shared prosperity — there is no way forward but collective, common-sense action for the common good,” he stressed. “This is how we rebuild trust.” Despite chaos and confusion in the world, there are winds of hope, he said, citing Eritrea’s peace initiatives with neighbouring States, the signing of a peace agreement between the rival leaders of South Sudan and summit meetings involving the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the United States and the Republic of Korea.
General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) said multilateralism stands alone as the only viable response to the problems facing the international community. “No one can be indifferent to human suffering,” she said. “Wars, conflicts, economic crises and environmental degradation affect us all equally.” She called upon Member States to combat violence against women, reverse policies that are killing the planet and to enshrine the General Assembly as the “chief peacebuilding organization in the world”. The threats of climate change, biodiversity erosion, human trafficking, environmental pollution, large-scale displacement of both migrants and refugees, terrorism and ethnic conflicts are now at the top of the agenda, she emphasized.
Throughout the general debate, world leaders shared their respective visions of the international community’s most pressing challenges, ranging from climate change, through nuclear proliferation and protracted conflict to large-scale migration, economic inequality and the elimination of extreme poverty through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
President Donald J. Trump of the United States, making the case for State sovereignty, said nations can work better together when they respect their neighbours and defend their people’s interests. “America’s policy of principled realism means we will not be held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies and so-called experts who have been proven wrong over the years, time and time again,” he said. Accusing Iran’s leaders of sowing chaos, death and destruction, disrespecting the borders and sovereignty of neighbouring States and plundering national resources, he declared: “We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons.” He reiterated his decision to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and to reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran.
However, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran countered those accusations, saying Washington, D.C., seems determined to render all international institutions ineffectual. Underlining Iran’s compliance thus far with all its commitments, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he criticized the United States for resorting to a flimsy excuse to justify its withdrawal from the accord and for pressuring other countries to violate it. “Unlawful unilateral sanctions in themselves constitute a form of ‘economic terrorism’,” he said, expressing objections to bullying on the part of the United States. No State or nation can be brought to the negotiation table by force, he emphasized, adding that dialogue can resume with the ending of “threats and unjust sanctions that negate the principle of ethics and international law”.
There were also announcements of diplomatic breakthroughs and political progress. Ri Yong Ho, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, highlighted efforts being made towards a new peace on the Korean Peninsula. Chairman Kim Jong Un conducted energetic diplomatic activities with the goal of transforming the Peninsula into a land of peace, free from nuclear weapons, he said, noting progress both in North-South relations and between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the United States. “The Korean Peninsula, the hottest spot in the globe, will become the cradle of peace and prosperity,” he added.
For their part, several African leaders highlighted efforts towards greater democracy and sustainable development, and called for expanded multilateral cooperation as well as reform of the Security Council. President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone said the peaceful transfer of power in his country — from an incumbent political party to the opposition — demonstrated its commitment to democratic governance. Calling for comprehensive Security Council reform, he pointed out that Africa is the only region without permanent representation and which is underrepresented in the non-permanent category.
Ministers from Horn of Africa countries pointed to reconciliation across the region, including the end of the two-decade long dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Somalia. “A region which has been one of the most conflict-ridden in Africa, [the] Horn of Africa is indeed becoming [the] hope of Africa,” said Workineh Gebeyehu Negewo, Ethiopia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, calling upon the Security Council to consider seriously lifting the sanctions imposed on Eritrea. Likewise, Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, recalled that the Presidents of his own country and Eritrea recently agreed to open a new chapter between “these two brother countries”.
With the stage set for the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, speakers called for a redoubling of efforts to help migrants. President Michel Temer of Brazil said migrants are being threatened by lingering crises and have had to make a risky decision to leave their homelands. “There was a duty to protect them through the Global Compact for Migration,” he said. Then-President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico said his country has worked in the past two years to establish the Compact’s guiding principles: respect for the human rights of all migrants, as well as shared responsibility and full respect for the sovereignty of States. “The adoption of this instrument in Marrakesh will provide Member States with a fundamental document for the international management of migration,” he added.
However, some Member States challenged those views, with Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s Foreign Minister, saying that his Government will not sign the Compact because it promotes a multicultural society over a homogeneous one. “From Hungary’s perspective, migration is a destabilizing force,” he said, adding that migration is not beneficial for everyone, especially countries hosting large numbers of migrants from different cultures. “Migration is not a fundamental human right,” he noted, emphasizing that violating national borders should not be considered a right.
The Assembly also held a number of topical high-level meetings throughout the session. On 24 September — the day before opening its general debate — it held the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit in tribute to the celebrated qualities of the late President of South Africa and his service to humanity. Unanimously adopting a political declaration (document A/73/L.1), world leaders recognized the period from 2019 to 2028 as the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace. Heads of State and Government as well as other representatives of Member States reaffirmed their commitment to uphold the sovereign equality of all States, to ensure respect for their territorial integrity and political independence, and uphold the duty to refrain from the threat or use of force.
On 26 September, the Assembly President convened a high-level meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Throughout the day, Heads of State and Government as well as other senior officials from more than 50 countries, observer delegations States and civil society spotlighted the many ways in which nuclear weapons endanger humanity — from the modernization of existing arsenals by major Powers to the risk of deadly nuclear technology falling into terrorist hands.
The Assembly also endorsed a political declaration titled “United to End Tuberculosis: An Urgent Global Response to a Global Epidemic” at a high-level meeting on the issue. Member States reaffirmed their commitment to end the global tuberculosis epidemic by 2030, committing themselves to accelerate national and collective actions, investments and innovations in fighting the preventable disease. Heads of State and Government recognized that tuberculosis disproportionately affects developing regions and countries. They pledged to provide leadership, acknowledging that multi-drug-resistant strains can reverse gains made in combating the disease, which remains among the top 10 causes of death worldwide.
Holding a high-level meeting the next day – under the theme “Scaling up multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral responses for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” – the Assembly endorsed a declaration by which world leaders vowed to scale up efforts to prevent and control non-communicable diseases, committing to provide greater policy coherence through a whole-of-Government approach. Importantly, health systems should be strengthened — and reoriented — towards universal health coverage and the improvement of health outcomes, while greater access to affordable, safe, effective and quality medicines and diagnostics should be promoted.
On 10 October the Assembly adopted two draft resolutions containing the declarations on tuberculosis and non-communicable diseases. On 4 December, it held another high-level meeting on gaps and impediments faced by middle-income countries in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Throughout the day-long meeting, speakers challenged models of development shaped by wealthy States. Assembly President Espinosa emphasized that middle-income countries will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda unless the obstacles they face are duly addressed. Prime Minster Gaston Alphonso Browne of Antigua and Barbuda echoed that sentiment: “It is in the best interest of humanity that we work collectively in building a transformational model of cooperation for sustainable global development.”
The Assembly commemorated — on 18 December — the anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. During a series of high-level plenary meetings, the Assembly honoured the recipients of the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights for their outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said upholding all people’s human rights is the only possible path to peace. Attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms of the Universal Declaration are not motivated by that document’s failure, but rather stem from its success, she said, urging Member States to work towards peace and justice for all.
During the main part of the session, concerns over selectivity and double standards emerged once again as the Assembly took up the report of the Human Rights Council and considered increased representation in the Security Council. At its twentieth plenary meeting, the Assembly decided to grant additional rights and privileges of participation to the State of Palestine when it assumes its position as Chair of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China for 2019. Furthermore, the Assembly considered for the first time a draft resolution condemning the activities of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Despite gaining plurality support through a recorded vote, it failed to meet the two thirds required for adoption.
As the General Assembly commenced its seventy third session on 18 September, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), its fourth woman President in the history of the United Nations, dedicated her presidency to “all the women of the world”.
Urging the Organization to heed the call of the millions of disenfranchised, displaced and unemployed, she declared: “People must feel like what is discussed in these halls will impact their daily lives,” emphasizing that her presidency will focus on promoting gender equality, implementing the new Global Compact on Migration, and providing decent-work opportunities for women, young people and persons with disabilities.
Secretary-General António Guterres, welcoming Ms. Espinosa, urged delegates arriving for the high-level debate to be ready to take bold and cooperative steps in forging solutions in today’s age of fragmentation and polarization, stressing that the success of the United Nations will depend greatly upon how well the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is implemented.
On 21 September, the Assembly paid tribute to the late Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who died on 18 August, with Member States, colleagues and family members remembering him as a child of Africa and the only United Nations chief to rise through the ranks of the Secretariat. Ms. Espinosa said Mr. Annan will be remembered as a great leader who worked for peace, security and human rights. He pushed for boys and girls to have equal access to education and fought HIV/AIDS and malaria, she recalled. “He was family,” said Secretary-General Guterres, while former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described Mr. Annan as a humble man with an illuminating vision.
Madagascar’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the African States, said Mr. Annan always demonstrated a passion for serving humanity. Sri Lanka’s representative, on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group, recalled Mr. Annan’s contributions to the Millennium Development Goals which lifted millions out of poverty. Kojo Annan said that his father always lived by the creed “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
Later that day, the Assembly adopted its agenda for the seventy-third session, deciding to include the item “Situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine”, and for the second year, the item on “The responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. It took that action by a recorded vote of 93 in favour to 16 against, with 17 abstentions, deciding to continue its discussions on the responsibility to protect, although several delegations aired reservations.
Syria’s delegate, for example, noted that the Assembly has not established rules for preventing abuse of the responsibility to protect, pointing out that it has been used as a pretext to destabilize some countries, such as Libya and Yemen.
By a recorded vote of 68 in favour to 13 against, with 48 abstentions, the Assembly also decided to consider the situation in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. Nicaragua’s delegate stressed that the issue must be resolved in the Security Council. The Russian Federation’s representative said the item’s inclusion on the Assembly’s programme reflects an arbitrary interpretation of events. Ukraine’s delegate said that the occupation of his country persists and discussing it in the Assembly can only have a positive impact in the quest for peace.
Unanimously adopting a political declaration during the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit (24 September to 2 October), nearly 100 Heads of State and Government, Cabinet Ministers and other representatives of Member States and civil society committed to redoubling efforts to build a peaceful world, as they paid homage to the late President of South Africa. Recognizing the period from 2019 to 2028 as the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace, leaders pledged to promote inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.
Ms. Espinosa, while recognizing the many challenges on the path to peace, said that Mr. Mandela believed strongly that “it always seems impossible until it is done”. Secretary-General Guterres remembered the late President as “one of humanity’s great leaders”, embodying the highest values of the United Nations. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chair of the African Union Commission, said that, if Mr. Mandela had spoken to the Assembly today, he would have urged the international community to remain hopeful. President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa emphasized that the United Nations can only succeed to the degree that global leaders provide leadership that transcends narrow national interests.
Sustainable development and climate change dominated discussions during the Assembly’s annual high-level general debate, held from 25 September to 1 October, which saw the participation of 121 Heads of State and Government, as well as 9 Vice-Presidents and Deputy Prime Ministers.
Recognizing the irreplaceability of the United Nations, Ms. Espinosa said that all interventions throughout the six-day debate provide a snapshot of the state of the world today and of the role that befalls the Organization in its aims towards multilateralism. “We need to make a difference and the time to do that is now,” she stressed on the closing day of the debate. With denuclearization efforts also at the forefront of discussions, Member States called for increased engagement to reduce tensions in Asia and the Middle East, with Nicaragua’s delegate supporting nuclear negotiations with Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement which, he said, “demonstrates that dialogue and diplomacy are the best means to solve such problems”.
On 10 October, the Assembly adopted two resolutions containing political declarations on the need for an urgent global response to tuberculosis and on accelerating efforts to address non-communicable diseases. By the terms of the draft resolution “Political declaration of the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the fight against tuberculosis”, the Assembly adopted the Declaration “United to End Tuberculosis: An Urgent Global Response to a Global Epidemic”, by which world leaders pledged to end the global tuberculosis epidemic by 2030 and acknowledged that the disease disproportionately affects developing countries. It also adopted the resolution “Political declaration of the third high-level meeting of the General Assembly on prevention and control of non-communicable diseases” and a related political declaration.
The Assembly decided, on 16 October, to grant additional rights and privileges to the State of Palestine when it assumes its position as Chair of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China for 2019. By a recorded vote of 146 in favour to 3 against (Australia, Israel, United States), with 15 abstentions, the Assembly decided to grant the State of Palestine the right to make statements, introduce proposals and amendments and raise procedural motions, among others. It also requested that relevant United Nations entities and agencies to do the same for the duration of the State of Palestine’s chairmanship of the Group of 77 and China.
The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine said his delegation will “spare no effort to prove worthy of this trust”. Israel’s delegate said the resolution “only serves the interests of one delegation”, adding that continued attempts to change rules of procedure only weaken the United Nations. The representative of the United States said his delegation does not recognize the existence of a Palestinian State and therefore strongly opposes the decision to make the State of Palestine the Chair of the Group of 77 and China.
On 17 October, the Assembly heard from the head of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, who presented the activities, challenges and achievements of that entity over the past year. Theodor Meron, President of the Residual Mechanism, described the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as “true pioneers, blazing a trail to ensure accountability”. Following the closure of the former in December 2017, the Residual Mechanism weathered unexpected budgetary and staffing constraints, he recalled, adding that, despite such challenges, its Prosecutor has continued efforts to locate and arrest indicted fugitives who remain at large. Member States expressed concern over the Residual Mechanism’s budgetary and staffing difficulties. “The pursuit of justice is not over,” said the representative of the United States, noting that eight Rwandans remain at large. The Russian Federation’s representative, however, said that he has a less “sunny” view of the Residual Mechanism’s work.
The Assembly also discussed, on 18 October, the impact of rapid technological change on millions of people who remain at risk of being “left behind”, with Ms. Espinosa noting that the world is witnessing a period of “substantive transformation”. Speakers urged greater cooperation to harness technological advances so that all humanity can achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Luis Videgaray Caso, Mexico’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said Member States should aim to harness technological advances without limiting or halting innovation. Additionally, on the subject of sustainable development, the Assembly stressed that additional financing and debt relief for Africa are essential in order for all countries to realize the 2030 Agenda. In further action, on 26 October, the Assembly adopted a resolution emphasizing the need for further coordinated action to ensure that space science and technology and their applications serve the goals of sustainable development.
One day before, on 25 October, speakers underlined the essential role of the International Court of Justice, with Abdulqawi A. Yusuf, its President, pointing out that its docket remains “extremely full”. Several delegates called upon all States to recognize the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction and abide by its judgments, with some cautioning that failure to do so threatens the Court’s ability to pursue its mandate. Iran’s representative noted that the Court unanimously attested to the illegality of United States sanctions against his country.
The Assembly also heard from Chile Eboe-Osuji, President of the International Criminal Court, who said on 29 October that justice “must not suffer the fate of the neglected orphan”. With 2018 marking the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute, States parties are compelled to examine what the Statute means for humankind, he stressed. Spain’s delegate expressed concern that some Member States still refuse to collaborate with the Court, even when it acts at the Security Council’s request. Speakers also highlighted the Court’s budgetary constraints.
In a two-day debate, on 31 October and 1 November, speakers overwhelmingly called upon the United States to end its economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba, as the Assembly adopted its annual resolution on that matter. By a recorded vote of 189 in favour to 2 against (Israel, United States), with no abstentions, the Assembly urged Washington, D.C., to heed calls for an end to its restrictive policies.
Bruno Eduardo Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the human damage caused by the United States-led blockade against his country qualifies as an act of genocide. Other speakers voiced concern over recent policy shifts in Washington, D.C., that are undoing the progress made in 2015 and 2016 to normalize bilateral ties with Cuba. Prior to the text’s adoption, the representative of the United States introduced eight amendments, which the Assembly rejected by separate individual recorded votes. Uruguay’s representative, who abstained on the amendments but voted in favour of the resolution as a whole, said it is not appropriate to incorporate amendments into a text that has enjoyed almost unanimous support for a quarter of a century.
On 20 November, the Assembly heard calls for the Security Council to adapt to new political realities by broadening the number of its permanent members beyond the current five (China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, United States) and abolishing their use of veto power to overrule the adoption of draft resolutions. Sierra Leone’s representative, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted that most issues discussed in the Council relate to the continent, adding that Africa demands no less than two permanent and five non-permanent seats. Algeria’s delegate declared: “We cannot afford to remain indifferent,” pointing out that Africa has no representation in the Council’s core decision-making unit. Guyana’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), highlighted the Council’s exclusion of other regions, including Latin America and the Caribbean, from the permanent membership.
Some of the Council’s five permanent members joined the debate, with the representative of the United States expressing support for a “modest expansion” of the Council membership while emphasizing his delegation’s opposition to any change to the right of veto. The Russian Federation’s representative also defended the veto, saying it spares the Organization involvement in dubious enterprises.
Taking up its annual debate — from 29 November to 30 November — on the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East, the Assembly adopted six resolutions, including one calling for a final peace settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine welcomed the Assembly’s support as a sign of global consensus on how to resolve the Palestinian question. Israel’s delegate, however, said it is a “shame” that the United Nations passes biased resolutions at a time of so many global crises. Syria’s representative said the Assembly’s position is in line with the Security Council’s stance, which rejects Israel’s unilateral decision to annex Palestinian Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan.
On 6 December, the Assembly failed to adopt the draft resolution “Activities of Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza”, which would have had the Assembly demand that Hamas cease all violent activity. While the text gained plurality support in a recorded vote of 87 in favour to 57 against, with 33 abstentions, it failed to meet the two-thirds requirement. The representative of the United States, having tabled the draft, said that Hamas has turned the Gaza Strip into a police state while using United Nations resources to build rockets. Kuwait’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, said the text “distracts from the deep-seeded causes of the conflict”. Following the Assembly’s failure to adopt it, Israel’s representative declared: “Your silence in the face of evil reveals your true colours.”
Taking action on 17 December, the Assembly adopted a resolution urging the Russian Federation to withdraw its military forces from Crimea and end its temporary occupation of Ukraine’s territory, while rejecting an amendment that would have called upon both sides to investigate the Russian Federation’s November seizure of three Ukrainian vessels and crew. By a recorded vote of 66 in favour to 19 against, with 72 abstentions, the Assembly called upon the Russian Federation to release the vessels and crew members.
Ukraine’s representative, introducing the text, said that its goal is to urge the Russian Federation to withdraw from Crimea, adding that the latter’s aggressive policy towards his country and other Black Sea States entails long-term negative consequences. The Russian Federation’s representative said Ukrainian armed forces are waging war on their own citizens and that the United States is providing Ukraine with the weapons to do so in an attempt to pit two brotherly peoples against each other. Crimea has always been, and will always be, a part of the Russian Federation, he reaffirmed. The Assembly rejected the draft amendment, by a recorded vote of 64 against to 25 in favour, with 60 abstentions. The text would have had the Assembly urge both States to exercise restraint and called upon both to conduct a full independent investigation into the 25 November incident.
On 18 December, the Assembly commemorated the anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, awarding several trailblazers the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights. Secretary-General Guterres said the work of human rights defenders is often dangerous but increasingly critical to the maintenance of international peace and the achievement of sustainable development. Assembly President Espinosa called the Universal Declaration one of the Organization’s most important contributions to humankind. Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that upholding the human rights of all peoples is the only possible path to peace.
Lithuania’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Eastern European Group, said the Universal Declaration spells out the rights and duties “we owe to each other by virtue of our humanity”. Many speakers voiced admiration for human rights defenders who dedicate and sometimes sacrifice their lives fighting for economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. The almost 300 deaths of human rights defenders recorded in 2018 could have been avoided if Member States had committed to protecting them 20 years ago, said Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
The Assembly went on to endorse, on 19 December, the recently adopted Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first-ever international framework to address issues concerning the world’s 258 million people on the move. By a recorded vote of 152 votes in favour to 5 against (Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland, United States), with 12 abstentions, the Assembly endorsed the Global Compact, adopted by world leaders in Marrakesh, Morocco, on 10 December. The Assembly’s endorsement will make it possible to support source, transit, and destination countries; empower migrants and host communities; and ensure that the return and resettlement of migrants is carried out in safe and decent conditions.
Assembly President Espinosa said the day marked an opportunity to hammer home the fact that the instrument does not undermine but rather strengthens the sovereignty of States. The representative of the Philippines, among the overwhelming majority of those supporting the endorsement, said the notion that migration is bad has been defeated with facts. However, the representative of the United States said his Government cannot support the Global Compact’s adoption nor the resolution endorsing it. Hungary’s representative said the General Assembly was about to commit a serious mistake by endorsing “this unbalanced, biased and pro-migration document”.
On 21 December, the Assembly rejected — by a recorded 46 votes against to 43 in favour, with 78 abstentions — a draft resolution by which it would have called upon the Russian Federation and the United States to strengthen compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Introducing the draft, the Russian Federation’s delegate warned that the future of the agreement is at stake, stressing: “This is the start of a full-fledged arms race.” The United States has continuously presented unfounded accusations that Moscow is in violation of the Treaty, he added.
The representative of the United States said it is disingenuous of the Russian Federation to advance a text concerning the Treaty that it is violating. Emphasizing that Washington has engaged Moscow repeatedly in attempts to bring it back into verifiable compliance, he said it pretends not to know which missile the United States is talking about. China’s representative, underlining his country’s opposition to any unilateral act of withdrawal from the INF, said his delegation therefore voted in favour of the text. New Zealand’s representative explained that his delegation voted against the draft, not because it disagrees with the INF’s importance, but because the text sidesteps issues that are critical to the Treaty’s future.
This year’s deliberations in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) reflected varying political stances on disarmament issues, including the possibility of a new nuclear arms race, reported use of chemical weapons, misuse of new technologies and deadlocks in multilateral negotiations. “Disarmament and international security issues have remained at the forefront of public consciousness” since the Committee’s last session, driven primarily by concerns over weapons of mass destruction, said the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, in her opening remarks. At the global level, she warned, “nuclear risks will remain unacceptably high for as long as these weapons continue to exist”. Despite a common desire to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world, delegates expressed diverging views, which resulted in an increased number of votes on the draft resolutions and decisions compared with previous sessions, challenging the Committee’s consensus-based approach. During the session, 135 delegations made statements in the general debate segment and 354 interventions were made in the thematic part. The Committee adopted 68 draft resolutions and decisions, 42 of which were adopted by recorded vote.
With several nations lagging behind in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, speakers in the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) this year blamed the volatile economic environment, focusing on setbacks like persistent poverty, food insecurity, climate change, debt distress, trade barriers and dwindling resources.
Opening the general debate on 8 October, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Liu Zhenmin underscored slow, uneven progress in reaching development goals, despite projected annual global economic growth of 3 per cent for the next few years. Identifying continuing trade tensions as a major culprit, he said uncertainty in global markets may impact consumer confidence and investments, with protectionist measures posing setbacks to growth and multilateralism.
Throughout the session, delegates expressed concern over heightened financial volatility, with Malaysia’s delegate calling on States to tighten cooperation in restoring market confidence and promoting economic growth. Emphasizing that the goal of “leaving no one behind” is impossible with millions living in poverty, speakers stressed that development and growth are disproportionately distributed among populations.
Among the hardest hit are least developed States, noted Egypt’s delegate, speaking for the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, with 33.7 per cent of their populations living on less than $1.90 per day in 2013, making poverty eradication unlikely by 2030. Complicating their efforts to reach development targets, he said these nations experienced only 4.9 per cent growth in recent years, far from the 7 per cent sustainable development target.
Speaking for the Group of Least Developed Countries, Malawi’s delegate said that almost a quarter of his bloc suffer food insecurity, with vulnerable groups in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen edging dangerously close to famine. In averting this plight, he stressed the need for urgent investments in agriculture, especially in Africa, where tractors and tillers will greatly boost crop yields.
Noting that food security is also threatened by climate change, delegates emphasized that droughts, floods and increasingly severe storms lead to decreased farming output and rising hunger worldwide. Underlining the importance of building resilience to shocks through climate-sensitive agriculture, they called for water management schemes and drought- as well as flood-resistant seeds.
Combating climate change will also speed up efforts to reach the goals of universal electricity access and reduced air pollution, delegates argued, as cutting greenhouse gas emissions means switching to less expensive, renewable energy sources. More than 1 billion people around the world live without electricity, noted Togo’s representative, exposing them to unsafe cooking methods and indoor pollution.
Compounding poverty and food insecurity are unequal access to the international trading system and development funding as well as unsustainable debt, delegates said. Suffering particular trade difficulties are landlocked developing countries, where substantial investments are needed to expand and upgrade transport infrastructure. Enduring high trading costs and environmentally challenged by their landlocked status, these countries accounted for just 0.88 per cent of global merchandise exports in 2016, down from 0.96 per cent in 2015.
Also hampered are middle-income States, suffering slashes to concessional finance from international institutions as per capita income grows and other financial constraints, speakers stressed. Belize’s delegate, speaking for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), said official development assistance (ODA) to his group dropped from 0.72 per cent in 2000 to 0.52 per cent in 2016, and two thirds of members had debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratios above the 60 per cent sustainability threshold.
With financial resources in decline, attaining development goals means scaling up global partnerships to harness investment, transfer technology, generate employment and promote training, delegates said. Observing that some United Nations entities hesitate to form partnerships, the Republic of Korea’s delegate urged them to overcome inter-agency competition, the lack of common tools and confidentiality barriers.
Another invaluable source of financing is international migration, delegates emphasized, noting that migrant numbers skyrocketed by almost 50 per cent between 2000 and 2017. Emphasizing migrants’ inputs to development in both origin and destination countries, John Wilmoth, a Director in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said remittances to low- and middle-income countries rose to $466 billion in 2017.
As in prior years, speakers also stressed that Israeli occupation and natural resource exploitation continued to hamper social and economic development in the occupied Palestinian territory and occupied Syrian Golan.
In overcoming 2030 Agenda roadblocks, the Committee approved 39 resolutions, including texts focused on liberalizing trade, tackling unsustainable debt, combating illicit financial flows and stabilizing the global economic environment. Other drafts sought to tackle climate change, boost energy access, bolster transport links, modernize agriculture and harness global partnerships.
Chairing the Second Committee Bureau was Jorge Skinner-Klée Arenales (Guatemala), with Hessa Muneer Alateibi (United Arab Emirates), Cédric Braquetti (Monaco) and Mr. Mehdi Remaoun (Algeria) serving as Vice-Chairs and Anneli Lepp (Estonia) as Rapporteur.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) recommended 57 draft resolutions — most without a vote — to the General Assembly during an eight-week session characterized by calls to uphold the Universal Declaration on Human Rights on the eve of its seventieth anniversary. While the Declaration’s broad objectives were never called into question, the best way forward to respect it was the object of spirited debates and contentious votes as the Committee tackled a vast array of issues, from rights of children to gender equality, social development and ageing.
Against that backdrop, the newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, briefed the Committee for the first time. She stressed that the human rights system is not a Cassandra, correctly predicting crises yet unable to prevent them. Rather, when backed by political will, it is a force for prevention as well as conflict mitigation and resolution. The Committee also heard from Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin; President of the Human Rights Council, Vojislav Šuc; High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi; and over 60 Special Procedure mandate holders and other United Nations experts.
The Committee passed — by a recorded vote of 119 in favour to 7 against (Australia, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States), with 49 abstentions — a draft that would have the Assembly adopt the United Nations declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. The declaration’s references to collective rights provoked debate, as several delegates pointed out that international humanitarian law bestows rights on individuals, not groups. Others, speaking in favour of the draft, stressed that peasants are vulnerable and wholly dependent on the land. They produce 70 per cent of the world’s food, yet are more likely to see their rights violated.
With the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration approaching, the Committee approved a draft resolution on the rights of refugees, re-emphasizing that the protection of refugees is primarily the responsibility of States, as is the prevention and reduction of statelessness. Despite the sponsors describing it as purely humanitarian and non-political, the United States delegate defied conventions by requesting a vote — and then casting the sole vote against the draft, citing inconsistencies with its domestic immigration policy. It passed nonetheless by a recorded vote of 176 in favour to 1 against (United States), with 3 abstentions (Eritrea, Liberia, Libya).
Country-specific resolutions generated heated debate as the Committee considered drafts on the human rights situations in Burundi, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Myanmar, and the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine)”. Rejecting such drafts as selective, politicized and unconstructive, some delegates argued that the Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review is the appropriate tool for addressing those issues. Others, while acknowledging the mere passage of the drafts will not be sufficient to end violations, stressed the need to show resolve to stand by victims and foster accountability and justice.
A draft calling for a moratorium on use of the death penalty was intensely debated before being approved as amended by a recorded vote of 123 in favour to 36 against, with 30 abstentions. By its terms, the Assembly would call on all States to respect international standards on the rights of those facing the death penalty. A contentious amendment — approved by a recorded vote of 96 in favour to 73 against, with 14 abstentions — reaffirmed States’ sovereign right to develop their own legal systems. Explaining their rationale, several delegates criticized the original resolution’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to the death penalty, urging respect for the diversity of views.
This year’s Third Committee Bureau comprised Chair Mahmoud Saikal (Afghanistan), Vice-Chairs Lahya Itedhimbwa Shikongo (Namibia), Martin Kováčik (Slovakia) and Edgar Andrés Molina Linares (Guatemala), and Rapporteur Katharina Konzett-Stoffl (Austria).
Delegates and petitioners alike welcomed round-table discussions on Western Sahara scheduled for December, emphasizing the importance of African Union support for that initiative as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) held its annual general debate on decolonization questions.
“Self-determination is in our DNA,” said Kenya’s delegate, noting that all available options in that regard are valid if they align with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned. Cameroon’s representative expressed support for the ongoing efforts of the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy in Western Sahara, saying his appointment has lent new impetus to the forging of a political resolution of the dispute.
In that context, many petitioners accused Morocco of committing human rights violations in Western Sahara, while others praised the Kingdom’s proposed autonomy initiative for the Territory. A representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguía el-Hamra and Río de Oro (POLISARIO Front) emphasized that Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara is a well-established fact, calling upon the United Nations to assume its responsibility without further delay. In contrast, another petitioner said POLISARIO Front has no authority to negotiate on behalf of the Sahrawi people, arguing that negotiations should instead involve Algeria, the party genuinely responsible for all violations taking place on its territory.
As the Committee considered the work of UNRWA against the backdrop of the greatest financial predicament in the Agency’s history, its Commissioner-General reported that $30 million in funding was cut in January following a decision by the United States, which resulted in a shortfall that threatens general education for 525,000 students, essential primary health care for 3 million patients and food assistance for 1.7 million refugees.
Israel’s representative predicted that UNRWA’s budgetary needs will grow, describing its business model as “irredeemably flawed”. Pointing out that no other refugee population in the world has a similar dedicated agency, he emphasized that the vast majority of its beneficiaries do not meet the criteria for refugee status under international law.
However, the observer for the State of Palestine stressed that Palestine refugees are not the exception to the rule applied to other protracted refugee situations around the world. “We reject rhetoric aimed at redefining who constitutes a Palestine refugee in an attempt to strip our refugees of their status and rights,” she said, underlining that those rights do not diminish over time.
In addition to those agenda items, the Committee also considered its other regular topics: questions relating to information; University for Peace; peaceful uses of outer space; peacekeeping operations; special political missions; and atomic radiation. By the session’s conclusion on 16 November, it recommended 36 draft resolutions and 4 draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.
Alongside Dee-Maxwell Saah Kemayah, Sr. (Liberia), Committee Chair, the Fourth Committee Bureau comprised Vice-Chairs Faisal Nasser M. Alhakbani (Saudi Arabia); Dániel Goldea (Hungary); Michael O’Toole (Ireland); and Luis Mauricio Arancibia Fernández (Bolivia), Rapporteur.
Managing the first year of the current 2018-2019 budget cycle under a reform-minded Secretary-General, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved 16 texts aimed at better administering the vast human resources and fiscal obligations of the United Nations.
As it does every three years, the Committee considered revising the methodology for calculating the scale of assessed payments for the regular budget and for peacekeeping operations. The formula set for 2019-2021 turned China into the second-largest contributor to the regular budget after the United States, which announced that it will cap its payments to one quarter of the total budget despite the lack of agreement on a 25 per cent ceiling.
How tens of thousands of staff around the world are hired, trained and paid was a subject of debate during the session, held from 9 October until 22 December. The Committee submitted a draft resolution asking the Assembly to approve the Secretary-General’s proposal for a dual structure for human resources management, yet urged it to defer its consideration of his reports on the staff mobility programme and system of desirable ranges, among other human resources management topics, until its seventy-fourth session.
As in years past, delegates considered the state of the $50 billion United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund, calling for greater efforts to rectify the remaining delays in paying benefits to retirees and participants while deciding to replace the current dual role of Chief Executive Officer and Secretary to the Pension Fund Board with two distinct positions by January 2020.
Several of the Committee’s 22 formal meetings focused on the Organization’s 36 special political missions. Delegates indicated their wish to see earlier consideration of mission budgets as the Organization moves to annual budgeting in 2020 and recommended that the Assembly approve $651.24 million for their maintenance in 2018-2019.
The Committee also asked the Assembly for infusions of cash needed to keep special courts in Sierra Leone and Cambodia running; ensure renovations are on target to keep historic United Nations structures in Geneva and Addis Ababa open and operating safely; and to keep Umoja, the Organization’s vast enterprise resourcing planning project, on track with scheduled rollouts throughout the system.
Among its other requests, the Committee suggested that the Assembly revise the United Nations programme budget appropriation for 2018-2019 upwards by $109.8 million and approve funding for the flexible workplace strategy under way at New York Headquarters and for the United Nations resident coordinator system, which is essential for carrying out the Organization’s development-related activities and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals.
Comprising the Committee’s Bureau were Gillian Bird (Australia) as Chair, with Fabio Esteban Pedraza-Torres (Colombia), Andre Lipand (Estonia) and Haseeb Gohar (Pakistan) serving as Vice-Chairs. Hicham Oussihamou (Morocco) was the Rapporteur.
Sixth Committee (Legal) delegates engaged in vigorous debates on a wide range of topics, with many — emphasizing how treaties are the very basis of an international rules-based order — calling for the international treaty framework to be strengthen and promoted. Also examined was the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law and the invaluable legal resources it offers around the world, thanks to funding from the United Nations regular budget. As well, the Sixth Committee considered the annual report of the International Law Commission, with representatives bringing attention to the importance of environmental concerns such as the protection of the atmosphere and the emerging legal questions around sea-level rise.
The Committee’s annual debate on the International Law Commission report began on an auspicious note with delegates acknowledging the seventieth anniversary of the Commission this year. Events marking the occasion were held in both Geneva and New York, thereby enhancing engagement between delegates and the Commission. The anniversary, said Malawi’s representative, should be a beacon for the Commission’s maturity in choosing topics that will contribute to global solutions for critical issues such as the environment. Indeed, in this landmark year, environmental concerns were in the foreground of many of the discussions on the report.
The Commission’s work on “Protection of the atmosphere” resulted in the adoption of a draft preamble and a set of 12 draft guidelines. Finland’s representative, also speaking for Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, welcomed the emphasis in the draft guidelines on prudence and caution before undertaking any activities aimed at intentional large-scale modification of the atmosphere. With environmental law constantly evolving, the Commission should draw on the past two years of the Paris Agreement on climate change, she said. Japan’s representative echoed that stance, spotlighting the reference in the Paris Agreement to the “common concern of humankind” and urging the Commission to reconsider the wording of its preambular paragraph, which states that atmospheric degradation “is a pressing concern of the international community”.
Delegates also discussed the Commission’s first report on “Protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts” which proposed three draft principles. They drew attention to the complexity of the topic, with Portugal’s representative noting that even though occupation is supposed to be temporary, it can result in irreversible damage. The delegate of Slovakia pointed out that the legal regime protecting the environment and natural resources from unjustified damage had not been comprehensively addressed. Further examination should focus on identifying areas where there is a need to fill lacunae on the matter, he stressed.
Speaker after speaker underscored the importance of including the international legal implications of sea-level rise in the Commission’s future programme of work. The representative of the Marshall Islands, on behalf of the Pacific Island Forum Group, pointed out that sea-level rise effects maritime zones, from which States generate significant revenues. The consequences of statelessness due to climate change are also relevant, she said. New Zealand’s delegate called it “an issue close to home for New Zealand and our Pacific Island neighbours, some of whom are experiencing sea-level rise that is nine times the global average”. The Permanent Observer of the Holy See added his voice to that call, noting that the humanitarian repercussions of rising sea levels are particularly pressing.
During the seven-day meeting, the Commission’s working methods also came under scrutiny. “How striking it is to note that, when it comes to gender parity in its composition, the International Law Commission seems to be stuck in 1948,” Brazil’s delegate observed, pointing out that of the 229 members in the Commission’s 70 years, only 7 are women — a total of only 3 per cent. The representative of Spain, spotlighting what he described as the lack of ambition that characterized the Commission’s work, said that body must reflect on the real possibility of not achieving anything in its field.
During the session, the Committee took up a new agenda item on strengthening and promoting the international treaty framework. The representative of Canada underscored that treaties are the foundation of a rules-based order. Their registration and publication not only promote transparency in international relations, but also establish a central source of international agreements that could be used for practical purposes as well as for academic research. She also noted the importance of using electronic communications regarding the registration of treaties.
However, Sudan’s delegate, while observing that electronic means seemed to be the best way to register treaties, pointed out that developing countries often encounter challenges in accessing such technologies. In that vein, the representative of the United States called for caution, noting that proposals regarding technologies might limit the accessibility of information and treaty texts. Brazil’s delegate, also speaking for Argentina, Austria, Italy and Singapore, highlighted how the Treaty Section of the Office of Legal Affairs registers some 1,300 treaties per year, as well as double that amount of treaty actions. Despite that fact, treaty registration is geographically imbalanced, he noted, calling for a review of the regulations that govern the treaty framework.
The Committee’s discussion on the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law illuminated the increasing complexity of international law and its concomitant need for legal education. Fulfilling its mandate to provide high-quality legal training, the Programme organized four training programmes in international law this year, including three Regional Courses in international law for Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean. Given the limit on the number of lawyers able to attend these courses, the Audiovisual Library of International Law continues to offer free online training. Because of the lack of high-speed Internet in certain countries, a podcast project was completed this year, offering over 500 lectures in audio format that can be easily accessed even with a weak Internet connection.
Noting that the Courses and Library resources have been made possible by regular-budget funding by the United Nations, the Secretary to the Programme’s Advisory Board said that support was hard-won in recent years. With more and more people applying for the Courses and the volume of online Library visitors increasing, growing need for international legal training is evident. To that end, several delegations requested that more resources be made available in Spanish, with Mexico’s delegate — while requesting that relevant documents should be made available in all six official languages of the United Nations — underlining that Spanish is the mother tongue of some 480 million people around the world. Additionally, Paraguay’s representative spotlighted the multiplier effect of the Programme’s resources, predicting that it will become more apparent if the Audiovisual Library materials are made available in Spanish.
Many delegates also shared their experiences of how the Programme of Assistance provided invaluable resources for their States, with Tonga’s representative describing how it helped to build the capacity of his country’s legal counsels and legal policy advisers. As a small island developing State, limited capacities “are not mere rhetoric but our reality”, he stressed, noting that the Programme’s support enabled Tonga to actively engage in the international arena.
Chairing the Sixth Committee Bureau was Michel Xavier Biang (Gabon), alongside Vice-Chairs Maria Angela Abrera Ponce (Philippines), Barbara Kremžar (Slovenia), Patrick Luna (Brazil) and Rapporteur Nadia Alexandra Kalb (Austria).