Amid Divisions over Jerusalem, Korean Nuclear Programme, General Assembly Hears Defence of Diplomacy, Dialogue to End Crisis, Put World on Sustainable Path
Secretary-General, Other Leaders Raise Alarm about Climate Change, Terrorism, Warning Safety of Millions Dependent on Robust Action, Funding
Convening for its seventy-second session amid a multilateral system overwhelmed by crises, the General Assembly heard world leaders defend diplomacy and dialogue while expressing a strong will to galvanize support to confront climate threats, resolve languishing conflicts and build a sturdy path towards sustainable development for all.
Along with a series of high-level events on some of those pressing matters, the Assembly convened in December a rare emergency meeting on the status of Jerusalem, during which it decided to ask nations not to establish diplomatic missions in the historic city of Jerusalem, as delegates had warned that the recent decision by the United States to do so risked igniting a religious war across the already turbulent Middle East and even beyond.
The Assembly declared “null and void” any actions intended to alter Jerusalem’s character, status or demographic composition, by the terms of the draft resolution “Status of Jerusalem”, adopted by a recorded vote of 128 in favour to 9 against (Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo, United States), with 35 abstentions. The Assembly also demanded that they comply with all relevant Security Council resolutions and work to reverse the “negative trends” imperilling a two‑State resolution of the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict.
Addressing the general debate for the first time since taking office, Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that conflict was spreading, inequality growing and the climate changing while people around the world were hurting and angry. “We are a world in pieces,” he said. “Trust within and among countries is being driven down by those who demonize and divide.”
Furthermore, global anxieties about nuclear weapons were at their highest in decades, he went on to say. Condemning missile tests carried out by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he urged that country to comply with Security Council resolutions and stressed “we must not sleepwalk our way into war.”
Raising a range of critical concerns, he said more must be done to address the threat of terrorism by examining the roots of radicalization, including high levels of youth unemployment. Political solutions were needed in South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and beyond. On climate change dangers, he said “science is unassailable” and it was time to act. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development served as a blueprint to solve challenges, including inequality in a world where eight men still held the same wealth as half of humanity.
Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák (Slovakia) said that in recent years, some 65 million people had been forced to flee their homes. In conflict, civilians rather than armed soldiers paid the heaviest price. And still, too much time and money was being spent reacting to conflicts and not enough on prevention.
The United Nations was not made for diplomats or dignitaries — it was made for people, he said. Indeed, the Organization would be tested by how it addressed the plight of millions. “We cannot turn this into an exercise of bureaucracy,” he said, adding that the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change could not be met without adequate financing. “We cannot sit and wait patiently for trillions of dollars to materialize.”
During six days of debate during which world leaders criticized both the United Nations and one another, some expressed concern over allegations levied against their countries. Many called for United Nations reform, stressed that climate change must be attributed to nations emitting dangerous levels of pollution and urged rich countries to help build a fairer world order. Meanwhile, in his first speech to the Assembly, the President of the United States struck a notably different tone compared to recent years.
President Donald J. Trump of the United States warned that if forced to defend itself or its allies against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, his country would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea”. He condemned that country’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, saying that those weapons now threatened the entire world. President Trump also said it was “far past time” to address the threat posed by Iran, which continued to fund terrorism, support the Syrian regime and finance Yemen’s civil war. “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities,” Mr. Trump said, characterizing the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme as “an embarrassment”. The United States would no longer enter deals from which it received nothing, he explained, pledging to always “put America first”.
Ri Yong Ho, Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said that his country had a right to defend itself as outlined in the United Nations Charter. “The possession of nuclear deterrence by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a righteous self-defensive measure” intended to establish a balance of power with the United States, he explained, emphasizing that the United States would now “think twice” before launching a military provocation.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran said it would be a pity if the Joint Plan of Action was destroyed by “rogue newcomers to the world of politics”. Iran would not be the first to violate the pact, he declared, adding that his country would nevertheless “respond decisively and resolutely to its violation”. By violating the agreement, the new United States Administration would only destroy its credibility and undermine international confidence.
Against that backdrop, some Heads of State defended diplomacy and multilateralism, with Foreign Minister Margot Wallström of Sweden saying the world was facing a critical and opportune time to come together. Unless countries grasped that chance, they would “face the consequences”. It was simple. “Going it alone” was not an option. “This is the moment for multilateralism, not unilateralism”. President Emmanuel Macron of France, while respectfully noting the decision of the United States to pull out from the Paris Agreement, emphasized that the accord was “not up for renegotiation”. Taking it apart would demolish the existing pact between States — and between generations, he added.
In similar vein, several Caribbean delegations described the death and destruction wrought by the 2017 hurricane season. Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda said that half of his two-island nation had been completely “decimated” by Hurricane Irma. Two category 5 hurricanes hitting the Caribbean in just 12 days could no longer be dismissed as “vagaries of the weather”, he said. Echoing that sentiment, Deputy Prime Minister Louis Straker of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that any attempt to disavow the Paris Agreement was an “act of hostility” and an insult to the intelligence of the peoples of island States.
President Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia stressed that inequality — whether spurred by the destruction of the environment, greed, inequality — was immoral. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria added that many of the globe’s woes stemmed from widening inequalities between rich and poor countries that were also “underlining root causes of competition for resources, and anger leading to spiralling instability”. Urging wealthy countries to carry their share of the burden, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey called on the European Union to make good on its pledge to help his country feed, shelter and care for three million Syria refugees.
On the question of Palestine, President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi of Egypt stressed that “it is time to permanently overcome the barrier of hatred”. While peace would eliminate one of the main pretexts used by terrorists in the Middle East, responsibility must be shared widely. “We in the Muslim world need to face our reality and work together to rectify misconstrued notions which have become an ideological pretext for terrorism,” he said.
The General Assembly also held several high-level events during that week. On 26 September and amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, ministers and representatives of 46 Member States, delegations, United Nations system and civil society took the floor to commemorate the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Many called for firm political will to advance towards the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. “The only world that is safe from the use of nuclear weapons is a world that is completely free of nuclear weapons,” said Secretary‑General Guterres.
On 27 September, the Assembly endorsed the “political declaration on the implementation of the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons”. Member States agreed to address factors that increased people’s vulnerability to trafficking, including poverty, unemployment, conflict and gender discrimination. “It is so important to hear the voice of survivors,” emphasized Grizelda Grootboom, a civil society representative from South Africa, as she described her emotional personal experience working in brothels and as a drug trafficker for her pimps. Secretary-General Guterres said tens of millions of people around the world were victims and that countless businesses in both the global North and South benefited from that misery.
As the main part of the session got under way, speakers continued to call for unity even as rifts between nations widened on several critical issues. Debate emerged during the Assembly’s second plenary meeting, with countries divided on whether to include a new agenda item on the concept of the “responsibility to protect”. Concerns about selectivity and double standards emerged as the Assembly considered the report of the Human Rights Council, Security Council reform and its own revitalization. While delegates welcomed historic indictments by the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies, the latter part of the session was dominated by the United States’ decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and by expanding political and humanitarian crises in the region.
Intense debate in the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) spanned a range of pressing issues, from divergent views over the newly adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons to alarmed calls for action to address the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s testing activities. That crisis should serve as a “wake-up call” for Member States, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, said, with delegates agreeing that it illustrated the importance of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and its verification regime. Overcoming the languishing impasse in the disarmament machinery was also discussed, with representatives stressing that political will was the key to advancing gains. Towards that end, the Committee approved 58 draft resolutions and decisions on a broad range of concerns, from addressing chemical weapon threats to reigning in the illicit arms trade, including new texts on the role of science and technology in disarmament efforts and on further practical measures to prevent an arms race in outer space.
Underscoring sluggishness in global economic growth, the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) focused on bolstering efforts to implement the ambitious 2030 Agenda. With development hampered by weak investment, low productivity, economic uncertainty and climate change, delegates noted that the international community had fallen behind in eradicating poverty, hunger and malnutrition. In tackling slow growth, they highlighted the need to reverse a decline in development financing, especially for least developed countries, tackle unsustainable debt, open up trade and reform the international financial system. Speakers also stressed the importance of South-South cooperation and innovative financing with outside partners, including the private sector. Pointing to the devastating effects of climate patterns, they urged financial institutions to make recovery financing accessible for middle-income countries. Addressing those and other vital concerns in meeting development goals, the Committee sent 41 resolutions to the General Assembly for adoption.
Unilateralism found many expressions in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), with States unafraid to stand alone throughout the substantive segment as they discussed social development, crime and drugs, women’s advancement, and the rights of children and indigenous peoples in the broader promotion of fundamental freedoms. Over eight weeks, the Committee produced 59 resolutions, most by consensus but several only after contentious votes on amendments to them, illustrating a general theme: while delegates might agree on larger, abstract goals, they were divided on the best path to achieve them.
Dozens of petitioners addressed the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization), which held 28 formal meetings to consider topics including decolonization, Middle East questions, peacekeeping operations, special political missions, atomic radiation and questions relating to information. The Committee also held numerous interactive dialogues as well as a joint meeting with the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) on outer space activities. The session culminated in the approval of 38 draft resolutions and two draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly.
The Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) approved 15 resolutions and 2 decisions for adoption by the Assembly, including a $5.397 billion programme budget for 2018-2019 — 5 per cent less than the final budget approved for the 2016-2017 biennium and $193 million below the $5.405 billion proposed 2018-2019 budget unveiled by the Secretary-General. In doing so, the Committee reached consensus on across-the-board reductions in such areas as contractual services, furniture and equipment, consultants and travel, as well as reduced funding for special political missions. Examining the Secretary-General’s management reform package, it agreed that the Organization should adopt a yearly budget cycle from 2020 with a view to simplifying and streamlining its work. The Committee also approved draft resolutions for funding the newly-established Office of Counter-Terrorism and the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate, plus texts on human resources, flexible workplace strategies at Headquarters, the Umoja enterprise resource management project and the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund, among other topics.
While fiery discussions on the rule of law and the International Law Commission’s use of a recorded vote during its consideration of immunity tested the Sixth Committee’s (Legal) tradition of consensus, delegates also reaffirmed their commitment to international law education, tackled a wide-range of topics as diverse as international trade and protection of atmosphere, and analysed the best approach to support the fight against impunity. Those vigorous debates resulted in the Committee recommending 17 resolutions and 6 decisions to the General Assembly, all of which were adopted without a vote.
The General Assembly opened its seventy‑second session — the first to begin under Secretary-General António Guterres’ tenure — on 12 September. In opening remarks that day, Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák (Slovakia) said the session would see several historic events, including the negotiation of a new intergovernmental compact on migration and the signing of the recently‑negotiated Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Member States would also work to maintain momentum for the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with support from the United Nations system. Welcoming the Secretary‑General’s reform efforts, some of which would be reflected in the Assembly’s own revitalization process, he declared: “We must follow our commitments from yesterday with actions now”, adding that the Assembly should contribute to maintaining a “fresh outlook” at the United Nations.
Despite those calls for unity of purpose, however, polarization on several key issues emerged on 15 September, during an organizational meeting convened to adopt the Assembly’s work programme and provisional agenda. Debate erupted over a proposed new agenda item — namely, the concept of the “responsibility to protect”, which would obligate States to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and could allow for United Nations action in situations where that obligation was not met. Favoured by some States, the item also drew strong condemnation, as delegates including those of Syria, Cuba and the Russian Federation warned that it could be easily manipulated to further countries’ own political goals. Other speakers, however, described the responsibility to protect as the “cornerstone” of the Secretary‑General’s new conflict prevention agenda. The Assembly ultimately voted to include the item on its agenda, with States voting by 113 in favour to 21 against, with 17 abstentions, to do so.
Calls for enhanced multilateralism dominated the Assembly’s annual high‑level debate, held from 19 to 25 September. On its closing day, however, President Lajčák acknowledged that not all remarks had been positive, with many officials having criticized both other States and the United Nations itself. Delegates also rebutted allegations, levied by others during the debate, that their Governments had violated human rights or sponsored terrorism. Myanmar’s delegate, recalling that some had accused his country of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, warned that such a term “must not be used lightly”. Venezuela’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, joined others in condemning United States President Donald Trump’s threats of war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, echoing former President Hugo Chávez’s famous 2006 declaration that the “stink of sulphur” had returned to the Assembly with President Trump’s arrival.
Among several historic bright spots over the course of the session was the Assembly’s consideration of the final report of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, established in 1993 to prosecute serious crimes committed during the Balkan wars. Briefing the Assembly for the last time as the Tribunal prepared to close its doors on 31 December, President Carmel Agius recalled that it had brought to justice 161 individuals over its 24 years of work. Many delegates hailed the Court as having “blazed a trail of remarkable firsts” while also making significant contributions to international jurisprudence. The Tribunal’s two remaining cases, involving the accused war criminals Ratko Mladić, Jadranko Prlić and five of the latter’s associates — including Slobodan Praljak, who would later commit suicide by poisoning — were slated to be finalized before the end of 2017.
The Assembly also considered the reports of the International Court of Justice (28 October) and the International Criminal Court (30 October), with the latter’s President, Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, declaring: “The Court is not perfect, but […] it is delivering”. Since 2016, convictions or sentences had been issued against six persons, including Jean Pierre Bemba, former Vice‑President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Court had also delivered its first verdict regarding the destruction of cultural property, convicting a former Al‑Qaida affiliate group member of directing attacks against religious and historic sites in Mali. In the subsequent debate, many speakers welcomed reversals by the Gambia and South Africa of earlier decisions to withdraw from the Court’s Rome Statute, while calling on Burundi to do the same.
In three separate meetings, the Assembly — convening concurrently with, but separate from, the Security Council — struggled to fill five seats on the International Court of Justice. On 9 November, four of the five judges — Ronny Abraham (France), Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf (Somalia), Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade (Brazil) and Nawaf Salam (Lebanon) — were elected, having received the required absolute majority of votes in both the Assembly and the Council. However, in several rounds of voting on 9 and 13 November, the two bodies failed to reach an agreement on the final vacancy. The deadlock between the two remaining candidates — Dalveer Bhandari of India and Christopher Greenwood of the United Kingdom — was broken on 20 November following the withdrawal of Mr. Greenwood’s candidature. Mr. Bhandari, along with the four other elected members, would begin a nine‑year‑term on the Court on 6 February 2018.
On 1 November, longstanding political divisions took centre stage as the Assembly considered its annual resolution calling on the United States to lift its decades‑old economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba. Historically adopted by a vote, the text — by whose terms the Assembly reaffirmed the sovereign equality of States and the importance of free trade between them — was once again favoured by most States, with only the United States and Israel voting against it. That vote marked a departure from 2016, when the United States had chosen to abstain for the first time amid improved diplomatic relations between Cuban President Raúl Castro and then‑United States President Barack Obama. “The American people […] have chosen a new President”, the representative of the United States said this year, referring to the reversal. In response, Cuba’s Foreign Minister said President Donald Trump lacked any authority to question Cuba, and described the blockade as brutal, illegal and obsolete.
Concerns about selectivity continued to emerge over the next few weeks as the Assembly considered the work of the Human Rights Council (2 November), reform of the Security Council (7‑8 November) and revitalization of the Assembly itself (13‑14 November). Following a briefing by Human Rights Council President Joaquín Alexander Maza Martelli (El Salvador), the representative of the European Union said the Geneva‑based body had addressed violations around the globe and given a voice to the most vulnerable. However, some delegates — including those of Syria, Iran and Israel — raised alarms over double standards in the Council’s work. Meanwhile, on 7 November, the Assembly heard expressions of frustration that a lack of political will on the part of an “elite few” continued to stymie efforts to transform the Security Council into a more modern, fair and representative body. As the Assembly turned to its own revitalization, representatives stressed that the organ must remain a forum for constructive dialogue and urged nations to resist drawing “red lines” or clinging to “static positions” in negotiations.
Member States considered issues related to nuclear energy on 10 November, as the Assembly considered the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s annual report. Echoing statements delivered at the Assembly’s 26 September high‑level summit on nuclear disarmament, many speakers said the peaceful use of nuclear energy could help achieve important development and environmental goals. Many expressed concerns over recent nuclear and ballistic missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, calling on Pyongyang to immediately abandon such activities. Representatives also cited the IAEA’s certification that Iran was complying with its obligations under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That country’s delegate stressed that the agreement — also known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal” — could neither be renegotiated nor unilaterally annulled at the behest of one of its signatories.
Taking up the question of Palestine and the situation in the Middle East on 29 and 30 November, the Assembly adopted six related resolutions, all by recorded votes. Among those was a text titled “Jerusalem”, by whose terms the Assembly stated that any actions by Israel to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration in the Holy City were illegal and therefore “null and void”. Convening on the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations resolution that had partitioned Palestine with the aim of creating two separate States, the Assembly heard expressions of concern that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land continued to thwart that goal. “The people of Palestine will not disappear, nor will they surrender to a dismal fate,” said the Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine, emphasizing that Israel’s illegal settlement expansion, human rights abuses and refusal to heed the international community’s calls were seriously jeopardizing the pursuit of peace.
Meeting on 6 December — the same day President Donald Trump announced the United States’ intention to become the first country to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — the Assembly adopted a resolution on cooperation between the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) by a recorded vote. By its terms, the Assembly welcomed the OIC’s work in combatting violent extremism and terrorism. Syria’s representative, however, said the OIC’s host nation, Saudi Arabia, was in fact the chief sponsor of most terrorism around the globe. Citing the United States decision on Jerusalem as a “historical turning point”, he also asked: “What is the OIC doing today on behalf of Jerusalem?”, adding that Saudi Arabia had pushed OIC members to accept a communiqué welcoming the United States aggression against Syria.
On 1 December, States diverged in their interpretations of a new resolution titled “Effects of terrorist acts directed against religious sites on the culture of peace”. By the terms of the text — which was drafted in the wake of a 24 November terrorist attack against a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and adopted without a vote — the Assembly condemned terrorism directed against religious sites as well as any “advocacy of religious hatred” that constituted an incitement to violence. While many speakers welcomed the resolution’s strong message, some raised concerns over its “fast‑tracked” drafting, which had lacked any significant negotiation. Meanwhile, others expressed alarm over its use of “unbalanced” language and its omission of references to human rights.
During a rare emergency meeting 21 December, the Assembly decided to ask nations not to establish diplomatic missions in the historic city of Jerusalem, as delegates warned that the recent decision by the United States to do so risked igniting a religious war across the already turbulent Middle East and even beyond. By a recorded vote of 128 in favour to 9 against (Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo, United States), with 35 abstentions, the Assembly adopted the resolution “Status of Jerusalem”, by which it declared “null and void” any actions intended to alter Jerusalem’s character, status or demographic composition.
Calling on all States to refrain from establishing embassies in the Holy City, the Assembly also demanded that they comply with all relevant Security Council resolutions and work to reverse the “negative trends” imperilling a two‑State solution to the conflict between Israel and the State of Palestine, both of which call Jerusalem/Al‑Quds Al‑Sharif their capital.
“America will put its embassy in Jerusalem,” said Nikki R. Haley (United States). In addition, her country’s citizens would remember the countries that had voted on the draft resolution and had disrespected the United States.
Riad Al‑Malki, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the State of Palestine, said the United States’ decision to recognize the city as Israel’s capital and to move its embassy there was an aggressive and dangerous move that could inflame tensions and lead to a religious war. The text’s adoption echoed the voice of the majority of the international community on the question of Jerusalem. The decision would have no impact on the Holy City’s status and compromised the role of the United States in the peace process.
Danny Danon (Israel) said “Jerusalem has been, and always will be, the capital of the State of Israel” and that his country knew the Holy City was sacred to billions worldwide and encouraged everyone to visit and pray there. However, one‑sided anti‑Israel resolutions had been pushing the Middle East peace process back for years and the newly adopted draft resolution only encouraged more violence and instability, he said, warning that the text sanctioned Palestinians to continue on a dangerous path.
Despite differences on the way forward, delegates of the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) expressed a common desire to achieve a nuclear‑weapon‑free world. During a session that heard 131 statements and approved 58 draft resolutions and decisions, 28 without a vote, many speakers stressed a need for a new approach to nuclear disarmament made all the more urgent by recent testing activities conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Izumi Nakamitsu, cautioned that crisis should serve as a “wake‑up call” to Member States, as the world was facing unprecedented danger. With some delegates saying the situation illustrated the importance of the Comprehensive Nuclear‑Test‑Ban Treaty and its verification regime, the Committee approved a related draft that had the Assembly urge the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and all annex 2 States, to promptly sign and ratify the Treaty.
But, on the heels of the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at a United Nations conference in July, divergent views emerged. Non‑nuclear‑weapon States held up the instrument as a lightning rod for hope and some delegates pointed to awarding the 201 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons as validation of an increasingly powerful movement. Some nuclear‑weapon States said new language referring to the treaty had affected their vote on several draft texts, emphasizing that the Conference on Disarmament was the sole negotiating platform for such international instruments.
Other delegates, including Canada’s representative, remained unconvinced that the new instrument would be effective, asserting that the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons remained the cornerstone for progress. Meanwhile, many delegates said fresh efforts to improve arsenals compromised the non‑proliferation regime’s credibility and presented a real disarmament setback, with the Permanent Observer of the Holy See saying nuclear Powers were racing to modernize weaponry, making clear that atomic bomb use remained a real option.
Assessing new and emerging threats, several delegates expressed concern about cyberspace and the potential misuse of information and communication technology to the detriment of international peace and security. Without the proper governance in place, even the most positive technological advances could be repurposed with dangerous consequences, the Committee heard.
Such advancements at a time of global instability could lead to a potentially “combustible situation”, warned Ms. Nakamitsu. As the United Nations grappled with such challenges, she urged the Committee to pick up the pace of its work, stressing that the pace of technological innovation had “outstripped the pace of international deliberations”. Cross‑border terrorist threats, punctuated by regional tensions, ignited new fears about weapons of mass destruction. In that context, issues pertaining to the Middle East featured prominently in discussions, with recent reports on chemical weapon use in Syria central to the discourse. Consensus on a draft resolution condemning the use of such weapons eluded the Committee for a second year as contested language on Syria triggered a spirited exchange among Member States.
Delegates also traded views throughout the session on a host of other critical issues, including nuclear‑weapon‑free zones, fissile material, humanitarian challenges posed by improvised explosive devices and the detrimental effects of unregulated arms transfers. On the latter issue, a number of speakers underscored the need for major weapons exporters to join the Arms Trade Treaty. Citing the “astronomical proportion” of global defence budgets, Nigeria’s representative condemned the enormous resources devoted to nuclear arsenals by nuclear‑weapon States while some delegates expressed concerns about the burgeoning $1.7 trillion military expenditures surpassing development spending. The illusion of security that nuclear weapons provided must be exposed, otherwise other countries might be tempted to develop them, Brazil’s delegate said, adding that it was unacceptable that arsenals continued to play a key role in military strategies.
The Committee Chairperson was Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom (Iraq). Serving as Vice‑Chairs were Alfredo Fernando Toro‑Carnevali (Venezuela), Terje Raadik (Estonia) and Georg Sparber (Liechtenstein). Martin Eric Sipho Ngundze (South Africa) was Rapporteur.
As the international community geared up to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) focused on major obstacles in its path, including sluggish economies, persistent poverty, climate change and meagre resources.
Briefing the Committee’s general debate, Columbia University Economics Professor Arvind Panagariya hailed the global agreement on development goals, but noted that modes of reaching them remained in dispute. The international community must focus on rapid economic growth by expanding manufacturing, exports, services, urbanization and wages. Similarly, Liu Zhenmin, Under‑Secretary‑General for Economic and Social Affairs, noted that economic progress was far below needed levels to meet 2030 targets. Weak investment and low productivity had hampered development, compounded by high levels of economic uncertainty, declines in average income and extreme weather patterns.
Emphasizing that about 1.6 billion people still lived in multidimensional poverty, speakers said the world was also behind in eradicating hunger and malnutrition. The number of chronically undernourished people had increased from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016.
Delegates repeatedly highlighted the need to increase development financing in tackling the global economic slowdown and natural hazards, especially in small, vulnerable countries. They also pointed to the imbalance between core (general) and non‑core (project‑specific) United Nations funding, which increased operational costs and fragmented the development system. Particularly challenged was the Group of Least Developed Countries, where total official development assistance (ODA) had declined from $41 billion in 2014 to $37.3 billion in 2015, speakers stressed. Also struggling was the Group of Landlocked Developing Countries, where investments were urgently needed in transport, energy and communications — vital in reducing the high costs of trade.
With development financing on the decline, attaining development goals meant scaling up on alliances and partnerships, especially with the private sector, delegates argued. Moving from philanthropic funding to innovative financing — putting markets to work for sustainable development — would be critical in development planning. Compounding meagre resources were unsustainable developing country debt levels, the inequitable trading system and unilateral sanctions, they noted. Moreover, globalization had failed to bring sweeping benefits, as several middle‑income countries were now suffering from the so‑called “megatrends” of labour market shifts, rapid technological advances and climate change.
Hazardous climate patterns plunged 26 million people into poverty each year, delegates stressed, with annual average loss in less developed countries more than 20 per cent of social expenditure. Efforts had been made to combat the phenomenon, they agreed, but those endeavours would fail unless the world changed production and consumption levels, promoted renewable energy and protected oceans. Middle‑income nations were particularly hard hit by natural hazards, as they were unable to access concessional financing for rebuilding, speakers said. It was “unthinkable” that States reduced to abject poverty within hours of a hurricane were barred from accessing needed funding, forcing them to borrow at market rates.
As in previous sessions, delegates also expressed concern about Israel occupation and natural resource exploitation in the occupied Palestinian Territories and the Syrian Golan, which continued to hamper social and economic development. In tackling 2030 Agenda roadblocks, the Committee approved 41 resolutions, including texts focused on liberalizing trade, strengthening multilateral finance, avoiding unsustainable debt and boosting commodity trade. Other drafts sought to bolster transport links, agricultural technology and climate efforts as well as open up funding for middle‑income nations, increase ODA and expand South‑South cooperation.
The Second Committee Bureau was chaired by Sven Jürgenson (Estonia), with Cristiana Mele (Italy), Menelaos Menelaou (Cyprus) and Kimberly Louis (Saint Lucia) serving as Vice‑Chairs, and Theresah Chipulu Luswili Chanda (Zambia) as Rapporteur.
Unilateralism found many expressions in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), with States unafraid to stand alone throughout the substantive segment as they discussed social development, crime and drugs, women’s advancement, and the rights of children and indigenous peoples in the broader promotion of fundamental freedoms. Over eight weeks, the Committee produced 59 resolutions, most by consensus, but several only after contentious votes on amendments to them, illustrating a general theme: while delegates might agree on larger, abstract goals, the were divided on the best path to achieve them.
Votes on those drafts, and States’ occasional dissociation on consensus resolutions, revealed issues that continued to garner agreement and others that sheared individual nations off their regional and political blocs. The consensus eventually reached on four texts — rights of the child, persons with disabilities, youth and the girl child — papered over divisions on the role of parents and guardians, particularly in sexuality education. All four faced amendments passed by recorded votes, forcing changes before their approval.
The willingness to stand alone was expressed in familiar refrains, with Sudan’s delegate suggesting three separate amendments to remove references to the International Criminal Court from texts on children’s rights, internally displaced persons and torture. All three proposals failed in recorded votes. States’ appetite to go it alone was also seen in calls for votes on texts usually approved by consensus, including one on drinking water and sanitation, which Kyrgyzstan rejected following the defeat in recorded votes of two amendments it had proposed.
The United States, meanwhile, bucked the trend on several occasions, requesting a vote on a draft on the World Summit for Social Development, which it opposed along with Israel, while 170 others voted in favour. Expressing regret over that request, China’s delegate said the United States was “too sensitive” and must learn from Beijing’s commitment to compromise.
The United States also stood out by disassociating from references to the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in a draft on the protection of migrants. On a draft aimed at strengthening the United Nations role in enhancing elections and promoting democratization, the United States helped to stymie three amendments put forward by the Russian Federation that would have altered language around national electoral bodies and observer missions. In other action, the United States and Ukraine voted against a text introduced by the Russian Federation on combating the glorification of Nazism, after Washington’s copious proposal to change sections deemed dangerous to freedoms of speech, thought, expression and association was narrowly rejected.
Delegates hued to more traditional positions on all four country‑specific drafts — on the situations in Myanmar, Iran, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with the latter passing by consensus and several questioning the merit of targeted drafts. Myanmar’s delegate called the resolution related to his country discriminatory and “procedurally unwarranted”, as the issue was under the purview of the Human Rights Council.
The draft nonetheless passed on 16 November by a vote of 135 in favour to 10 against (Belarus, Cambodia, China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Russian Federation, Syria, Vietnam and Zimbabwe) with 26 abstentions, following a 25 October update by the Special Rapporteur on the situation, who pressed authorities to allow the Council’s fact‑finding mission access to the region and to let the Rohingya population know they were welcome to return.
In other cases, the Committee found consensus where it previously had none. A text on human rights defenders — a hard‑fought showdown in 2015 — was approved by consensus with nary an explanation of vote save Estonia’s delegate, on behalf of the European Union, expressing concern about qualifying language. Approval of a draft on the Human Rights Council report — by an overwhelming recorded vote of 117 in favour to 2 against (Belarus and Israel) with 66 abstentions — was less dramatic in 2017 than a year earlier, when the text faced both substantive and procedural opposition.
The Committee also found consensus on other weighty issues such as drugs and crime, approving without a vote two separate omnibus drafts titled “International cooperation to address and counter the world drug problem” and “Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees”, respectively. Other areas of convergence included texts on albinism, the safety of journalists and a text designating 21 August as the International Day of Remembrance of and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism.
In all, the Committee heard from 10 treaty body representatives, 35 Special Rapporteurs, 6 Independent Experts and 6 Working Group Chairs, as well as the Special Representatives on Children and Armed Conflict, and on Violence against Children. It also held dialogues with the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the President of the Human Rights Council.
The Third Committee Bureau was chaired by Einar Gunnarsson (Iceland), with Nebil Idris (Eritrea), Alanoud Qassim M. A. Al‑Temimi (Qatar) and Dóra Kaszás (Hungary) serving as Vice-Chairs and Andrés Molina Linares (Guatemala) as Rapporteur‑designate.
Many petitioners and delegates called for upholding the rights of indigenous populations over those of colonizers, as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) held its annual debate on decolonization against the backdrop of preparations for a historic referendum in New Caledonia and concerns over environmental degradation, immigration and militarization in Guam.
In relation to the decades‑old dispute over Western Sahara, several petitioners called for a renewed spirit of compromise in negotiations on the self‑determination of that Non‑Self‑Governing Territory. Eric Jenson, former Head of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), recalled that the Secretary‑General had issued an unusually comprehensive and compelling report on that issue in April. Radically, its proposals included agreement on the form and nature of a self‑determination exercise, he said, pointing out that the Secretary‑General had appointed a new Personal Envoy to help restart the talks.
Moreover, delegates from several African countries called for greater regional cooperation for a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Western Sahara. Senegal’s representative noted that a settlement in Western Sahara could potentially lead to the resolution of other regional challenges, including terrorism, organized transboundary crime and irregular migration, among others.
Amid commemoration of the landmark Outer Space Treaty’s fiftieth anniversary, and in a break with traditional practice, the Committee took up the question of peaceful uses of outer space in a joint meeting and panel discussion with the First Committee. Officials briefing the joint session agreed that transparency on security in space as well as confidence‑building measures could help to reduce mishaps, misinterpretations and miscalculations in that realm.
Thomas Markram, Deputy High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, acknowledged that some aspects of the legal regime covering outers space remained largely undeveloped, including the lack of a common understanding on applying the right of self‑defence in accordance with international law while avoiding severe long‑lasting consequences. He observed that the Outer Space Treaty was not designed to resolve comprehensively all possible challenges to outer space security, adding that concerns about the weaponization of space had been left for future deliberations.
By the conclusion of its session on 10 November, the Committee recommended 38 draft resolutions and two draft decisions for adoption by the General Assembly, having tackled, in addition to those topics, its other regular agenda items: questions relating to information; United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories; peacekeeping operations; special political missions; mine action; and atomic radiation.
Alongside Rafael Darío Ramírez Carreño (Venezuela), Committee Chair, the Fourth Committee Bureau comprised Vice‑Chairs Ahmed Abdelrahman Ahmed Almahmoud (United Arab Emirates), Ceren Hande Őzgür (Turkey), Yasser Halfaoui (Morocco) and Angel Angelov (Bulgaria), Rapporteur.
With a new reform‑minded Secretary‑General in place, and under pressure to rein in spending, the Fifth Committee approved 15 draft resolutions and 2 draft decisions, including a $5.397 billion budget for the 2018‑2019 biennium — 5 per cent less than the final budget approved for 2016‑2017, and $193 million below the proposed 2018‑2019 budget which the Secretary‑General put before the Committee on 11 October.
The reductions were due, among other things, to across‑the‑board cutbacks in such areas as contractual services, furniture and equipment, consultants and travel. The Committee also agreed to limit spending on 34 special political missions to $508.49 million, compared with the Secretary‑General’s request for $636.6 million.
The proposed 2018‑2019 biennium budget could be the last of its kind, after the Committee — acting on the Secretary‑General’s management reform proposals — agreed that the Organization should, from 2020, shift to an annual budget period with a view to simplifying and streamlining its work. The change would be initially on a trial basis, pending a final decision that would be taken during the Assembly’s seventy‑seventh session.
“Clearly the status quo is not an option,” the Secretary‑General told the Committee on 4 December when he introduced two reports on shifting the management paradigm at the United Nations. He argued that, in order to take effective and timely action, managers must have the authority — under clear conditions — to make decisions closer to the point of delivery. He went on to ask Member States for a broader scope of commitment authority that would allow a swifter response to unforeseen development and human rights issues.
Tasked with overseeing the Secretariat’s financing and management, including pay and conditions for its nearly 40,000 staff, the Fifth Committee met 29 times between 5 October and 23 December. From the outset, delegates called for transparency and flexibility in tackling the new budget, while at the same time voicing their frustration over the perennial problem of delayed documentation.
The Committee agreed on financial and staff resources for the newly established Office of Counter‑Terrorism and the Office of the Victims’ Rights Advocate, asked the Secretary‑General to pursue the implementation of flexible workplace strategies at Headquarters, and approved $62.06 million for the ongoing implementation of the Umoja enterprise resource management project. It also reached consensus on staffing and financing requirements for the African Union‑United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINJUSTAH), as well as the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.
During its meetings, delegates emphasized that cost‑of‑living adjustments must be applied consistently throughout the United Nations system, after several Geneva‑based organizations and staff associations disputed an overall post adjustment decrease of 4.7 per cent for staff in that city. The International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) had recommended the decrease following a cost‑of‑living survey. The Committee also discussed strengthening measures to protect whistle‑blowers from retaliation.
As in years past, representatives considered the state of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund. While its assets totalled a record $62 billion at the end of October, delegates expressed concern over the quality of service it was giving to its more than 200,000 participants, as well as its failure in 2016 to meet its 3.5 per cent return‑on‑investment target.
The Committee agreed to defer consideration of the $2.31 billion overhaul of Headquarters known as the Capital Master Plan until its first resumed session in March. It did, however, debate other major renovation and construction projects. Those included an upgrade to the Bangkok headquarters of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a proposed $14.19 modernization of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) premises in Santiago, Chile, and a sweeping renovation of the historic Palais des Nations campus in Geneva.
Comprising the Committee’s Bureau were Michel Tommo Monthe (Cameroon) as Chair, with Abbas Yazdani (Iran), Julie O'Brien (Ireland) and Anda Grinberga (Latvia) serving as Vice-Chairs. Felipe Garcia Landa (Mexico) was Rapporteur.
Vigorous debates on legal subtleties punctuated the Sixth Committee’s (Legal) meetings during its seventy‑second session, as it discussed matters such as the scope and application of universal jurisdiction, the responsibility of international organizations, and the expulsion of aliens. In particular, the subject of rule of law provoked a heated discussion, with some speakers noting that definitions of the principle varied, while others warned against its politicization. During the course of that debate, delegates spotlighted country‑specific initiatives that put rule of law into practice and made its application more effective.
The representative of Colombia said that a new era was emerging in his country, which was working towards judicial reform with the passage of a law that permitted the reintegration of former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia‑People’s Arm (FARC‑EP) members into society. The representative of Senegal, meanwhile, noted that his country had created “houses of justice”, which were provided free of charge and made the judicial process available to all.
However, despite such progress, several representatives offered a note of caution, with Indonesia’s delegate recalling violations of international humanitarian law in the State of Palestine. The rule of law at the international level would always be a fiction if the international community did not minimize its politicization, she said. Zimbabwe’s representative also weighed in, stating that the “rule of law should not be an abstract concept in academic discourse”. The issue should not exist in a vacuum, independent of the realities on the ground. That idea was also echoed by Ronny Abraham, President of the International Court of Justice, as he addressed the Committee on the judicial practice of the Court. The trust that States placed in the International Court of Justice was vital to the future of international jurisdiction, he said, underscoring that States were sovereign entities and in full freedom to consent and not consent to the Court’s jurisdiction. Outlining several complex and contentious cases, he called on delegates to ensure that the trust of States in the Court was strengthened.
During the Committee’s annual consideration of the International Law Commission report, delegations investigated the delicate balance between codification and the progressive development of law, with speakers praising the Commission’s hard work while reminding that body of the limitations of its mandate. Almost a dozen legal matters were considered during the seven‑day review. Among those topics was “Protection of the atmosphere”, with speakers parsing legal nuances while acknowledging the urgency of the issue. Chile’s delegate emphasized that it was not enough to address the protection of the environment alone. However, the representative of the Czech Republic noted that the Commission had no competence to tackle underlying issues such as the interaction between the oceans and the atmosphere, and the impact of human activities on the climate.
The Marshall Islands’ delegate, speaking for the Pacific small island developing States, pointed out that member nations of her group were among those who had contributed the least to global warming but were now most at risk of being obliterated by the phenomenon before the century was over. She and other delegates also called for the inclusion of a new topic in the work of the Commission: the legal implications of rising sea levels.
In a significant achievement, the International Law Commission had adopted a complete set of draft articles, “Crimes against humanity”, during its sixty‑ninth session. Georg Nolte, Commission Chair, pointed out that, among the three core international crimes, only crimes against humanity lacked a treaty focused on building up national laws, national jurisdiction and inter‑State cooperation in the fight against impunity. Several delegates applauded the emphasis on prevention in the draft preamble and praised the draft texts for being concise.
However, during the Commission’s consideration of “Immunity of State officials from foreign criminal jurisdiction”, the proposed draft article 7 — which addresses crimes under international law in which immunity ratione materiae does not apply — had elicited strong divergent views, leading the Commission to depart from its tradition of consensus and to adopt the text by a recorded vote. China’s delegate called for caution and prudence, saying that the draft article had been hastily adopted without thorough discussion. Germany’s representative stressed that it was States, not the Commission, that created international law. The Commission’s mandates “must not be blurred”, she warned, while Greece’s delegate called for a balance between respect for the sovereign equality of States and the crucial need to combat impunity for the most serious crimes under international law.
As in past sessions, the Sixth Committee’s debate on the Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law highlighted its commitment to meeting the increased need for international law training and research materials. The Programme was stepping up to that task through regional courses and online resources. Its Audiovisual Library of International Law was hailed as “a practical and living tool”, reaching 1.5 million users from all 193 Member States, with lectures in Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian. Further, in order to reach users in countries with limited access to reliable high‑speed Internet, the Codification Division had begun to make audio files of the lectures available on the Library web platform.
The Regional Courses in International Law, funded through the United Nations regular budget, had been held in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Asia‑Pacific in 2016 and 2017. Expressing appreciation for the foundational knowledge in international law provided by those courses, Tonga’s representative pointed out that in his small island developing State, whose legal counsels were often inundated with domestic legal affairs, the Programme played a crucial role in legal education.
During the Committee’s annual deliberation on the report on relations with the host country, various delegations raised their concerns, ranging from the question of privileges and immunities and the issuance of entry visas to travel regulations and restrictions on certain Member States. During the debate, the Russian Federation’s delegate called attention to “an unprecedented violation” by the host country of the immunity of mission premises, spotlighting the 2016 seizing by United States authorities of a Long Island premise that had been part of the Russian Permanent Representation to the United Nations. Nonetheless, the representative of the United States said that property did not fall within its obligations under the Headquarters Agreement or the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
The Committee also got a glimpse into the fast‑moving currents of international commerce during its debate on the report of United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). The finalization and adoption of two legislative texts addressing electronic commerce and secured transactions marked a productive year for that international trade body. While the Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records and Explanatory Notes would bring about a number of benefits to commerce due to speed and security of transmission, the Guide to Enactment of the Secured Transactions Model Law would be of key assistance to legislators. Delegates exhorted the body to continue to keep pace with rapid technological advances and diversification of trade activities.
Chairing the Sixth Committee Bureau was Burhan Gafoor (Singapore), alongside Vice‑Chairs Duncan Laki Muhumuza (Uganda), Angel Horna (Peru), Carrie McDougall (Australia), and Rapporteur Peter Nagy (Slovakia).